It’s a story of racial injustice that is seared into the US psyche and required reading for millions of American students.
Now, Harper Lee’s seminal novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a Broadway smash hit, after a modern facelift from playwright Aaron Sorkin that has made the literary classic newly relevant in Trump’s America.
Mockingbird is a sacred text in the United States — a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and the inspiration for an Oscar-winning movie.
So why make an international bestseller into a play, and how do you make it fresh?
The answer seems to be to hire Sorkin — the creative mind behind hit television show “The West Wing” and an Oscar winner himself for writing the screenplay for “The Social Network” about the creation of Facebook.
Sorkin has kept the action in the Jim Crow era of racial segregation, but adapted it for a 2018 audience, in an America still confronted by its “original sin” of slavery and with liberals thirsty for hope under Donald Trump’s administration.
In an essay for New York magazine, Sorkin called the task “a suicide mission.”
If the rave reviews since Thursday night’s Broadway premiere are to be believed, Sorkin — who had not written for the stage in more than a decade — has a fresh hit on his hands.
The 1,400-seat Shubert Theatre is already sold out for months into a run expected to end in September 2019, and the buzz surrounding Mockingbird is electric.
The play — directed by the award-winning Bartlett Sher — stars Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, the widowed small-town lawyer who defends a black man wrongly accused of rape in 1930s Alabama.
“Cases like this happen every day in this country — people are wrongfully accused, particularly if they are of color,” says actor Gbenga Akinnagbe, who is making his Broadway debut as Tom Robinson, the laborer falsely accused of rape by the white daughter of a racist father.
“If my portrayal of Tom can get people to… empathize more with human beings who have been cast aside, I think I would have done something important,” Akinnagbe told AFP.