After a copyright battle and a pandemic, it looked like The Grand Theatre’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” would never come.
“If anybody who’s bought tickets before to ‘Mockingbird’ is waiting until the last minute, I do not blame them whatsoever,” said Mark Fossen, the play’s director, who now also is portraying American literature’s best-known white savior, Alabama attorney Atticus Finch.
And with protests in the streets of America for the last month — as people demand racial justice and an end to systemic racism — the timing for playwright Aaron Sorkin’s interpretation of Harper Lee’s novel may never be better.
Running through the play in rehearsal “has been what we expect theater to be, which is transformative. It’s allowed a lot of questioning,” said Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, the Salt Lake City actress and jazz singer who plays Calpurnia, the Finch family’s Black housekeeper.
“What’s happening in America, with the protests, has heightened our discussions about race, and about our interpretations of who Atticus is,” Darby-Duffin said.
The production will have its premiere on Thursday, July 2, at The Grand Theatre, 1575 S. State St., Salt Lake City, on the Salt Lake Community College campus.
As for Calpurnia — who acts as Atticus’ foil in Sorkin’s version, as the attorney represents Tom, a Black man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman — Darby-Duffin said her outlook on the character has changed in the last few months.
“She’s angrier, for sure,” Darby-Duffin said. “If I’m being honest, I think Sorkin could have given her a lot more to say. He could have fleshed her out a lot more. … She does have some things to say, but I think it’s still a little bit stifled.”
Darby-Duffin said she relates to the character’s dilemma, of wanting to say more than a white-dominated society will let her. “I, too, have been like Calpurnia, and not said anything, not rocked any boats, and done what I needed to do to get through and get by,” she said.
Fossen said his scenes with Darby-Duffin, portraying Atticus and Calpurnia, “are really difficult, because they’re [Dee-Dee] and [Mark] talking as well. … They’re just harder conversations.”
“There are still a great many people, especially white people, who see Atticus Finch as the defining anti-racist crusader, as the model of how a white person should view race,” Fossen said, pointing to both Lee’s novel and Gregory Peck’s portrayal in the 1962 movie version. This new version “really takes that to task,” Fossen said.
Fossen said people are familiar with seeing Atticus as a man who trusts the justice system, and saying things like “there’s good people on both sides.”
“This version of the play calls all that into question,” he said.
Since the protests began, Fossen said, there is “a greater awareness of what white people need to do to tear this down, besides just feeling, ‘I’m not racist.’ This play talks about why that is not an acceptable solution, but that you have to fight.”
Fossen and Seth Miller, The Grand’s artistic and executive director, have been wanting to mount a production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the last four years. They put it off at first when Hale Centre Theatre staged an older version of the play, written by Christopher Sergel, in 2017. Miller scheduled “Mockingbird,” the Sergel version, for the 2018-19 season, with the show to debut on March 21, 2019.
Just as rehearsals had begun for the 2019 show, Miller received a cease-and-desist letter from a Broadway production company run by mogul Scott Rudin, threatening legal action if The Grand didn’t cancel the show.
Rudin was producing Sorkin’s new version of “Mockingbird” on Broadway, which premiered in December 2018. Rudin was in a legal dispute with Lee’s estate and with Dramatic Publishing, the company that held the licensing rights to the long-existing Sergel version. The Grand and regional theaters in Buffalo; Dayton, Ohio; and other cities were told to stop their productions at once.
When word got out about the letters — on the front page of Broadway’s hometown paper, The New York Times — Rudin’s company relented. The company offered those regional companies the rights to produce Sorkin’s version before any other stage outside of Broadway could get it. (The national touring production won’t arrive in Salt Lake City, at the Eccles Theater, until August 2021.)
The chance to direct something by Sorkin, the creator of “The West Wing” and an Oscar winner for “The Social Network,” was thrilling and daunting, Fossen said.
“I read the script and got those goosebumps on my arm at the end. I know if I get those, it’s going to be a good play that I can direct,” Fossen said.
Sorkin’s script “is much more filmic” than Sergel’s, Fossen said. “We’re jumping from courtroom to porch, in the middle of a sentence.” That’s easier to do in an expensive Broadway production, but “we have to completely reenvision it for ourselves, with no indication of how to do that. The script is very sparse in terms of its stage directions.”
The Sergel version is also outdated, particularly in how it deals with the racial tensions in Depression-era Alabama. “I was trying to strong-arm that thing into anti-racist ideas, trying to see what I could do to move it without altering the text,” Fossen said. “A lot of my problems with that [Sergel] script were actually dealt with by Sorkin. Calpurnia doesn’t have enough, but she has a lot more. Tom has a lot more. Atticus is questioned a lot more.”
The Grand scheduled the new “To Kill a Mockingbird” to debut this March. Then the coronavirus pandemic started making the news.
“I remember when COVID was first starting up, and we were like, ‘That’s not going to affect us, is it?’ And then it did,” Fossen said.
Miller rescheduled the production to July, but the virus is still with us. “When we moved it to July, we thought, ‘July’s plenty of time. We’ll be fine,’” Miller said. “And here we are, and are we fine?”
One major change that came with the rescheduled production: Fossen took over the role of Atticus, after the actor previously cast dropped out because Actors’ Equity, the theatrical union, has not allowed its members to sign contracts because of the pandemic.
“I want to make it clear that I did not arrange a legal challenge and bioengineer COVID-19 in order to get the chance to learn this part in two weeks,” Fossen joked.
The theater is working to make the experience as safe as possible. Ticket buyers will have a three-seat buffer between family groups in rows, and only every third row is being sold. That will reduce the audience capacity in the cavernous Grand from 1,100 to about 200, Miller said.
Patrons will be “strongly encouraged” to wear face masks. The cast has been wearing masks throughout rehearsal, and will wear them during performances.
“In my mind, theater is never going to look the same, no matter when we get back to it,” said Darby-Duffin, who gave her last jazz concert at the Gallivan Center on March 11 — the same night Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert was diagnosed with COVID-19, prompting the cancellation of the Jazz’s game against Oklahoma City and, later, the bulk of the NBA season.
Fossen said the actors have had to adapt their performance styles. “You’re getting rid of the most expressive half of the most expressive part of your body,” he said, though he believes audiences will get used to it quickly. He added, “anybody who thinks you can’t do theater with masks has just not taken theater history.”
Another form of history, Darby-Duffin said, is playing out on America’s streets. “I think this is the beginning of a revolution,” she said, and people must ask themselves, “Which bus are you going to get on? … Whatever changes we have to make will be radical, and I know some people will be left behind.”
Darby-Duffin has seen stories of police violence against African Americans before, and seen the anger rise and fall. This time, with the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police, something different has happened, she said.
“The smugness of that murder could not be ignored,” Darby-Duffin said. “That officer’s face. You couldn’t ignore that. You can find refutable facts in all the other cases. You could not refute the smugness on that person’s face when they were murdering that man.”
The actors, she said, “want people to see themselves in the reflection of these characters. Not to walk away and say, ‘Oh, that was a nice time, a nice night out.’ I hope they can see themselves reflected in the dialogue, that it’s a call to action for them to do more.”
Darby-Duffin’s hope is that people can understand the characters in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and know them better. And, she said, quoting the poet Maya Angelou, “when you know better, you do better.”
‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ again
The Grand Theatre’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel.
Where • The Grand Theatre, 1575 S. State St., on the Salt Lake Community College campus.
When • Premieres Thursday, July 2. A preview is scheduled for Wednesday, July 1. The show runs Wednesdays through Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m. (with 2 p.m. Saturday matinees) through July 18.
Tickets • $23, at grandtheatrecompany.com.
COVID-19 guidelines • Family groups will be seated with a three-seat buffer between them, and every third row will be used. Audience members are encouraged to wear face masks; the cast will be wearing them during the performance.