“This is not going to be your father’s To Kill a Mockingbird.”
So promises Nigel Shawn Williams, who is directing the Harper Lee classic this season at the Stratford Festival. Williams is a Stratford and Shaw Festival acting veteran and a four-time Dora Award winner for acting and direction, but this is his Stratford directing debut.
Williams says he was hesitant when artistic director Antoni Cimolino suggested the title to him, but once he sat down to reread Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation, he became resolved.
“I started realizing that we live in a time that, unfortunately, it’s necessary to keep telling this story,” says Williams. “I would love to live in a world in which we don’t have to use To Kill a Mockingbird as a cautionary tale of trying to uncover racism and systemic racism, but we still live in this time … The rawness and the ugliness of the (American) South in 1935 is something that we have to keep looking at to see how far we’ve not come.”
Williams says his identity as a Black artist absolutely informs his approach: “I’m looking at this story … from another gaze than most directors that have directed this from a white gaze.”
“It’s about a little girl’s relationship with her father, but that’s not what the story is. It’s about how this community is dealing with this Black man being wrongly accused and a white lawyer who was going to represent him.”
Such questions about what Mockingbird is really about and what its characters are really like have caused significant controversy in recent years. Many were shocked by Lee’s sequel, Go Set a Watchman, which was published in 2015 (65 years after the original), because it represents the aging Atticus as having racist views.
On one hand, Williams says the later novel has not been “helpful for context” in staging his production because it happens after the story they’re telling, but he points out that the Atticus of Mockingbird (played in this production by Jonathan Goad) is not a saint.
“He’s a single father who’s bringing up two kids as best as he can and the maternal figure in that house is (the maid) Calpurnia. This man, I don’t think that he has wisdom readily available … he doesn’t ever really answer any of (Scout’s) questions … Like sure, he speaks to her like an adult, but he doesn’t really answer the question.”
Another often-overlooked point, he says, is that Atticus didn’t choose to defend Tom Robinson, the Black man accused of murder; the case is given to him. This is interesting to Williams because it makes it more possible to “debate the white saviour kind of thing.”
To some these may sound like fighting words. At the same time as Williams has been rehearsing his production, a high-profile legal battle was waged between film and theatre producer Scott Rudin and the Harper Lee estate about an upcoming Broadway staging of Mockingbird. (Lee died in 2016.)
In March, the estate filed a lawsuit against Rudin because it found that the adaptation proposed by famed TV and screen scribe Aaron Sorkin departed from the spirit of the novel and altered many of its characters, including Atticus. In interviews about his adaptation Sorkin said the character “becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play” but starts out more naive and less morally sound. Rudin countersued and the parties eventually settled earlier this month; the production is back on track to open at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre in December, starring Jeff Daniels.
Williams’ take on Atticus doesn’t sound too far off what got Sorkin and Rudin into trouble, but he does not seem particularly concerned, saying he’s “aware” of that controversy but that “it had to make no nevermind to me.”
He’s already gone a few rounds with the Lee estate. He initially proposed a new adaptation of the novel updating the story, but the estate declined it: “They’re understandably very protectionist now that (Lee has) passed, but I didn’t find them incredibly blocking. They asked many questions about why and I had to write … an artistic treatise about (my proposed adaptation). But at the same time, I’m actually very glad they didn’t let me do what I proposed.”
“Because I think that it’s necessary to actually uncover the original story, and also I think that it’s a harder message and it’s a more illuminating message of seeing that in 1935 this s–t is happening and it was still happening in the ’50s. Oh, it was still happening in the ’60s. It’s still happening now. So the arc of racism is hundreds of years old and it encompasses more generations, more generations than we think.”
The adult Jean Louise, played by Irene Poole, narrates the novel and the play; Williams sets this outer frame in 1968, just after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“If she’s going to be sharing the story, looking back, I just have to look at it from her gaze and (ask) why does she need to tell the story again?” Given all that she witnessed and experienced, Williams believes “this woman is going to live with trauma … Irene Poole and I are using it as a reinvestigation of her past to understand where we can go from there.”
He is also working to bring out the humanity of the Black characters “and not the icon of who they are.” He sees Calpurnia, played by Sophia Walker, as “the matriarch of that house … I’m just treating her as a woman with strength and independence, but she’s also a woman who has a family as well.”
The production is the first of Stratford’s Schulich Youth Plays series to be staged in the flagship Festival Theatre. The company is clearly not pulling punches about the difficult issues at its centre, but Williams, himself a father, trusts that young people can handle this story. “I think we have to start engaging kids in conversations about racism and, in a lot of ways, the story is about who’s going to change our future. It has to be the generations.”
He doesn’t have a lot of time for arguments about whether Lee, as a white woman, had the right to talk about racism in 1930s Alabama. The book — and the play — are about her “experience and that’s the story that we’re doing. Would I love for the Stratford Festival to do a story by a Black writer that confronts racism from the Black perspective? Absolutely, but I’ll tackle this one first.”
To Kill a Mockingbird plays at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen St., Stratford, through Nov. 4. See stratfordfestival.ca or call 1-800-567-1600.
Karen Fricker is a Toronto Star theatre critic. She usually alternates the Wednesday Matinée column with Carly Maga.