In a script-worthy twist, Oscar-winning writer Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” will receive its West Coast premiere at Azusa Pacific University, a private Christian college in Azusa.
The news follows a rollercoaster week in which small theater companies around the country received cease-and-desist letters regarding planned productions of an earlier version of Lee’s classic book. The play made its Broadway debut in December.
Like other theater departments, Azusa Pacific University had committed to performing playwright Christopher Sergel’s version, which was written not long after Lee’s book was published in 1960, as part of its 2020 season.
However, Jill Brennan-Lincoln, chairwoman of the theater arts department at Azusa Pacific, said she received a letter from attorneys for producer Scott Rudin that cited a contractual stipulation preventing theater companies from performing Sergel’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” while Rudin’s production of the Sorkin version remained on Broadway. The letter’s existence was first reported by the New York Times.
Soon thereafter, as negative press threatened to tarnish the Broadway production’s success, Rudin offered a compromise. Already committed companies will be able to license “To Kill a Mockingbird” free of charge — but must use Sorkin’s script.
In his review of Sorkin’s Broadway production, Times theater critic Charles McNulty praised what he called a “top-flight” production that “for all the distortions and limitations ... finds ways through Atticus’ character to speak directly to our troubled times about the inseparability of race and justice in America.”
For Azusa Pacific’s Brennan-Lincoln, Rudin’s proposal was a win-win. Not only will the department salvage its schedule, but the newness of Sorkin’s work means it won’t yet have landed on any of Los Angeles’ more prominent stages.
“We’re pretty excited,” she said. Despite the behind-the-scenes drama, she called Rudin’s act “a generous gesture.” Brennan-Lincoln added that premiering Sorkin’s adaptation is “is a really big deal for us because we’ve been the little engine that could — this little private school that seven years ago committed to a BFA program in acting for stage and screen.”
Brennan-Lincoln said that the new contract stipulates that the department must stage the play within a year — but that it will make whatever shifts she needs to ensure a quality production. “It’s slotted for next February,” she said, “but if we need to do it this fall, we will.”