Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been made into an Academy Award-winning film, a Tony Award-winning play written by Aaron Sorkin, and now the inaugural Broadway performance to grace Madison Square Garden.
Over 18,000 New York City public school students attended the free event, marking the most-attended single performance of a play ever. Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray took the stage to declare February 27th as To Kill a Mockingbird Day, and urged the students in attendance to reflect on the message of the story in today’s world.
“This play is actually about each and every one of you,” Mayor de Blasio emphasized. “Today you’re going to be moved not by something that is telling you to watch and observe. It is telling you to act, to think about what you can do….The only way to change the world is if you decide it is your world to change. You are becoming the voices of conscience more and more in our society.”
Legendary filmmaker and fellow NYC public school alum Spike Lee also discussed the importance of arts education for students throughout the five boroughs.
“I want the audience, the young people, to please listen to the words. For many of you, this might be your first Broadway play,” Lee mused, explaining that his mother’s love of Broadway plays is what inspired him to become a filmmaker. “There’s going to be somebody here today who says ‘I want to be a playwright, I want to act, I want to spend the rest of my life being an artist.’ Follow your dreams.”
School choirs sang a moving rendition of “Rise Up” by Andra Day as the To Kill a Mockingbird cast assembled on the 360-degree platform. The fully interactive stage beautifully housed props for various scenes– the courtroom, the Finchs’ home, the jail cell– so actors could move freely throughout, mimicking the flow of memory as the story of injustice is told in retrospect.
The iconic tale is set in the summer of 1934 as young Scout (Nina Grollman) comes of age during a racially-charged trial. Her attorney father, Atticus Finch (Ed Harris), is defending a wrongfully accused African-American man, Tom Robinson (Kyle Scatliffe), in a case that illuminates their Alabama town’s prejudice and racist roots.
Harris’ turn as the stoic yet caring literary figure Atticus Finch is remarkably understated in a stunning feat of balance. The audience sees Atticus’ struggle in Harris’ clenched jaw and piercing eyes as each sentence is carefully delivered and thought on in a truly lived-in way. The character’s inner conflict between being a role model for his children while losing faith in both his neighbors and the justice system is a weight that is not easily carried. Harris’ modern performance is still beautifully honest to the adapted literature and brings a new Atticus to life.
Playwright Aaron Sorkin’s script charms with a much-needed levity to certain elements, focusing on the relationships between Scout, her brother Jem (Nick Robinson), and neighbor Dill (Taylor Trensch) as the trio narrate the heavy material with wide-eyed childhood innocence.
Robinson is perfectly cast as Jem, at once being a charismatic leader of his peers while expressing his own passion for what’s right. Jem reflects Atticus in a more rash way; his actions are more out of emotion than reason, and yet Robinson holds an earnest charisma that is only enhanced by Scout’s admiration.
Trensch’s Dill has a spot-on tone with an adolescent inflection, and a scene where Dill cries in the courtroom after Tom Robinson takes the stand is an emotional pause for audiences. Supporting actors LisaGay Hamilton as housekeeper Calpurnia and Russell Harvard as both supposed town drunk Link Deas and the elusive Boo Radley, perfectly inhabit their roles as compassionate voices. Eliza Scanlen’s role as Tom Robinson’s accuser, Mayella Ewell, shines in her tormented intensity, and Scatliffe’s portrayal of Robinson himself is terrifically regal in its honesty and humility.
The students in the audience were captivated by the play, speaking to Sorkin’s masterful adaptation. A climactic moment between Atticus and Bob Ewell (a haunting Neal Huff) drew loud cheers and applause that felt at home in Knick’s territory at the Garden.
Madison Square Garden housed a magical moment of hope yesterday, and that hope carries on into the lives of the students it touched and the rest of the audience in attendance. To Kill a Mockingbird marveled in its past while framing our present, and its resonance with students thanks to Madison Square Garden and the New York City Department of Education only enhanced its message.