I was 15 the summer of 1963. It was time of hope and optimism. The promise of Civil Rights had permeated our generation, and we embraced it. We learned all the anthems: Blowin’ In the Wind, We Shall Overcome, WE Shall Not be Moved, argued with our parents about attending the march on Washington, and flocked to the movie theatre to see To Kill A Mockingbird which exposed the underbelly of southern segregation and Jim Crow. And oh how we loved Atticus, the gentle and wise soul whose integrity could not be diminished even as he was spat upon.
Last weekend I went to see the play of To Kill A Mockingbird which had had a triumphant run on Broadway with Jeff Daniels as Atticus. Written by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing and News Room fame, it was a reordered telling of the story, and for the most part I thought it was excellent. Richard Thomas (aka John-boy) played Atticus, and though he was no Gregory Peck, he held his own. And the actor who played Tom Robinson, the accused rapist of a white girl, communicated so subtly and powerfully the impossibility of being a black man in a white man’s world that I was moved to tears.
So why, I wondered, did I have this dissatisfaction as I left the theater? It seemed to be more than my dislike of the portrayal of Scout, the young girl who tells the story. The adult actress, wearing overalls and a barrette in her hair, tried to act more childlike with gestures such as stomping her feet and flailing her arms which I found distracting.
As I tossed at night letting my thoughts percolate, I realized that I missed the character of Boo Radley. Boo was the reclusive and compromised neighbor who saves Jem and Scout by killing Bob Ewell, and is himself saved from punishment by the sheriff. He was the mockingbird who it would have been a sin to kill. In the movie there was a palpable shift in Scout when she realizes that Boo is a person, and not the monster she imagined: Boo becomes a human being, someone to admire and respect, and not to discard because he is different. In this recent version, Scout’s discovery is so diluted that it loses its power and weakens the play.
But that was not it entirely either. When the movie came out sixty years ago, we were so swept by our hope and optimism. We believed the battle had been won. Yes, we were foolish and innocent, but even so, have we made sufficient progress? Are the Tom Robinsons and the Boo Radleys of the world better off? As I write this in 2023, I fear we are going backward, not forward, There seems to be more hatred, less tolerance. And I think Alan Sorkin was telling us just that. The story is still relevant all these years later; our dreams are unrealized. And that makes me sad.
Joan Weaving embarked on a successful business career as the first woman Product Manager for Nabisco, Inc., and a Corporate Vice President for Equitable, before starting her own consulting company in 1988, specializing in leadership development and executive coaching for major corporations. Joan has been an active OLLI participant and has played a key role in the conceptualization and execution of the annual Board of Advisor’s retreat. Joan leads our Exploring Leadership Opportunities class in the fall term.
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