The Failures of Unfailing Optimism: The Broadway Debut of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ - The Millions

“I was guilty as soon as I was accused,” says Tom Robinson to Atticus Finch.

“I get called an optimist a lot. What I don’t get called is stupid,” Atticus responds, trying to convince Tom to sign the “not guilty” plea that sits before him on a wooden table. He assures Tom that the trial “will happen in an American court of law.” Tom “should have faith in that institution.”

It’s early in the first act of Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Gbenga Akinnagbe as Tom is squaring off against Jeff Daniels as Atticus. Akinnagbe, masterfully bottling up Tom’s bottomless anger and sadness, offers a sort of half-laugh at the privilege inherent in blindly trusting an American court in 1934 (or any other year).

“I know these people,” Daniels continues. “Do we have ignorant citizens who are stuck in the old ways? Yes. Does that extend as far as sending an obviously innocent man to his death?”

A long pause ensues before Tom responds, “You gonna answer that question?” The audience laughs knowingly.

By the end of the conversation, of course, Tom Robinson agrees to plead “not guilty” to the rape he did not commit. “And just like that,” says Scout, in her role as narrator, “everyone’s fate was sealed.”

This interaction, which does not exist in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, nor the 1962 film version, is the first of several invented scenes intended to flesh out the perspectives of the story’s previously one-dimensional African-American characters. In each of them, Atticus Finch is not the wisest person on the stage…