Jacqueline Williams has been playing Calpurnia on “To Kill a Mockingbird” since the national tour set off in March 2022, and the Evanston native still sees the story as important as ever. A regular on local stages, Williams has appeared in productions at the Steppenwolf, Goodman, Court, Victory Gardens and Northlight theaters, among others. When it tours Chicago this August, audiences will have the chance to see Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel about racism, injustice, and coming of age in 1930s Alabama.
Directed by Bartlett Sher, “To Kill a Mockingbird” holds the record for the highest-grossing American play in Broadway history, which ran from 2018 to 2020 and briefly returned to shutdown after COVID-19 in 2021-22. In addition to its US tour, the production transferred to London’s West End in 2022 and played for over a year.
Many of Williams’ friends last year’s Chicago run still with the tour company, including Richard Thomas small-town lawyer Atticus Finch and Mary Badham, who played Scout Finch in the 1962 movie, as Mrs. Dubose, the Finches’ hostile neighbor.
“I am an almost lifelong fan of the book and the movie,” Williams told the Tribune in a recent interview. “Throughout all these decades, I never imagined there would be a live theatrical treatment for this.”
When “To Kill a Mockingbird” premiered on Broadway, Calpurnia was played by Tony nominee LaTanya Richardson Jackson, a “wonderful woman” who “I went with for a long time”. When he got the opportunity to go on his first national tour, Williams was happy to take on the role.
Calpurnia, a black woman, works as a cook and maid for Finches and is a mother figure to Scout (Maeve Moynihan) and Jem (Justin Mark). “Those who know the book and those who know the movie remember Calpurnia from them,” Williams said. The Black man (Yaegel T. Welch), who was falsely accused of sexually harassing a white woman, “But Aaron Sorkin’s wonderful adaptation greatly elaborated on the Calpurnia and Tom roles”.
“He’s smart, witty, funny, honest,” Williams said of his character in the play. Her relationship with Atticus is the central relationship of the live theater piece, and it’s really beautiful.”
“There’s a trust between them, so they’re free to disagree with each other, they go head to toe,” he continued. “There are so many things that Calpurnia taught Atticus – from the perspective of Blacks in Maycomb, Alabama in 1934 – that he probably wouldn’t know.”
More than 60 years after the novel’s publication, Williams feels a responsibility to continue telling this story. “Unfortunately, it’s still extremely relevant, probably even more relevant than it was in ’34, when the story takes place, or in the 60s when Ms. Harper Lee wrote it,” he said. “We’ve made very little progress and we still have a lot of work to do, so we still need this story.”
“And now, with the digital age, everything is recorded, everything is captured. For many years Williams preferred to be unaware of some of the injustices and what was going on,” Williams continued. “But now, every time you turn on your phone, tablet or computer, or turn on the TV – almost every day – we get a story, a video of another act of racism or another act of injustice.
Williams believes getting together to experience a game like “To Kill a Mockingbird” can be a meaningful way forward. “If we can start from trying to have a shared respect and understanding for one another, that can take us a long way toward positive change and empathy.”
“Over the years, I’ve seen firsthand the power of live theater – how live theater can be not only entertaining but also enlightening,” he said. “It can also be a healing, and it’s incredible – all of this combined in one short night of theater is really powerful.”
Williams looks forward to bringing “To Kill a Mockingbird” back to Chicago, where he started as a student at the Goodman School of Drama (now DePaul University School of Drama). “I’m proud to call Chicago my home base,” she said. “The quality of work here has always been truly unmatched.”
“Another thing I love about our Chicago arts community, and especially our theater community, is that we support and nurture each other so much,” she continued. “I think it’s a beautiful gift we have here, and I’ve never seen it this good anywhere else.”
Williams’ wish from the audience who came to watch “To Kill a Mockingbird” is that this experience triggers a meaningful dialogue. “I hope when they leave, if they don’t talk to others, at least to themselves – to themselves and to God – ‘What have I done to make everything better in my life? What can I do to make things better starting today?'”
Despite the sobering issue, Williams noted that there were also many joyous moments in the game. “When people come in, they are surprised that there is so much laughter in it. There is so much joy, so much curiosity.” “There is sadness, but there is also hope – so it’s a really nice, full evening at the theatre.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” at CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St. from August 8-13; tickets 35-114$ broadwayinchicago.com
Emily McClanathan is an independent critic.