“This is not your mom’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”
Actor Melanie Moore, who plays the precocious tomboy Scout Finch in the touring production of Harper Lee’s classic story, shared this sentiment on a recent call while the cast was performing in Cleveland.
“It’s not the movie. It’s not the book. It’s a completely different thing.”
She’s speaking about Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which has garnered national attention with Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher at the helm as director and Emmy Award winner Richard Thomas in the role of Scout’s father Atticus. Set in Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression, “To Kill a Mockingbird” doubles as a coming-of-age tale through the lens of 8-year-old Scout and a heart-wrenching parable for the consequences of racism and prejudice during a trial where Atticus defends a Black man accused of raping a young white woman.
The production, which comes to the Kennedy Center from June 21 to July 10, has been touring for two months after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. Moore says the audience’s response to the story in each city has shifted slightly, and she’s interested to see how the reactions will continue to change as the tour ventures further south.
“It’s cool to watch the way our show affects people in different ways across the country,” she says. “As we’re getting closer to the Mason-Dixon Line, it’s hitting a little bit differently because it is a show set in Alabama. If you’re from the South, you not only grew up hearing these stories but seeing things that were quite similar to some of the things we’re talking about in our show. It’s going to be interesting to keep moving further and further south, where there are a whole bunch of parallels to these stories. But throughout all of America right now, we unfortunately have a lot of parallels to what happened during this story in 1934.”
Moore is the first actor to portray Scout in Sorkin’s play who is actually from the South. She grew up a tomboy in Georgia and her entire family is from Tennessee, so she says she inherently understands the character — and nailing the accent was easy for her.
“I know her. I feel like she lives within my bones.”
She also brings a fresh take to the role as someone with a background almost exclusively in musicals and dance narratives. Her credits include winning a season of “So You Think You Can Dance” and performing in Broadway musicals like “Hello, Dolly!” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“[As] a physical person and a physical actor, I’ve had a lot of fun with [Bartlett Sher] developing a different way of moving when I play my younger and youngest version of Scout, versus a little bit older, versus the adult version of Scout. The way she walks is different. The experiences she’s had — they do change people. There’s an openness about kids when they’re really young and they haven’t been afraid of much. These kids are sheltered and they’re a little wild in some ways, which is really fun to play. It gives me a place to really grow from.”
She’s thankful for the physical vocabulary she’s built with Sher, as it plays to her strengths as an artist and complements Scout’s free spirit.
“Scout is ready to get into a fight with anybody while at the same time ready to run across the stage and skip and do hopscotch. She’s a really, really fun character to play.”
And while Scout is a central figure in this production, she’s not the focal point.
“Aaron Sorkin is such an amazing writer,” Moore says. “He takes this [story] and flips it on its head to make the court case of Tom Robinson, which is a very short chapter in the book, the main thing that happens in our show. It’s the thing we keep returning to. It sets the stage for all of the transformation to happen.”
Moore thinks the show is hitting a nerve with audiences because of how relevant it is to our current political climate. She’s hopeful it might spark social activism for some, and further ignite it for others.
“No matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, you can walk away from this and want to sit down at the table and investigate where you lie and where you sit among these characters. Who are you in this community? Are you somebody who is watching these events occur? Are you somebody who is actively fighting against these events? I hope it makes [audiences] want to get involved in their communities and be part of actual, real change so that when this play is revived in 25 or 30 years, we can bring our kids to see it and say, ‘Wow, this is something that is no longer happening.’ We have the power. It’s our turn to get involved.”
The actor is also certain audiences will pick up on the cast’s closeness, which she credits in large part to her onstage parent.
“Our Atticus is Richard Thomas, and he’s so warm and kind on and off stage. I think his warmth and the love our cast has for one another really does permeate the entire company and the entire audience.”
She also says Jacqueline Williams, who plays the housekeeper and Scout’s mother figure Calpurnia, is a joy to watch opposite Thomas. And she makes sure to note that Mary Badham, the actress who originally played Scout in the 1962 film, is playing cantankerous neighbor Mrs. Dubose.
“[When we] walked into the room for our first table read and Mary Badham was there, I was just like, ‘Okay well, here it is. She was nominated for an Oscar for this.’ When you talk about [playing Scout] being a daunting task, it is. But Mary has been nothing but supportive. She is just having a blast.”
Whether it’s Badham’s supporting role, the closeness of the actors or the relevance of the subject matter that draws you in, Moore is confident everyone will leave the theater with much on their minds.
“I hope [the audience] feels inspired to get to know people in their community and make change, and make sure this becomes a memory play instead of something that could be ripped from the headlines today with just a few small changes.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” runs from June 21 to July 10 in the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. Tickets start at $49. Visit kennedy-center.org for more information and follow Moore on Instagram at @melaniekmoore.