Jacqueline Williams of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD National Tour presented by Broadway in Chicago
It’s no exaggeration to say that Jacqueline Williams is a staple in the Chicago theater community. She is returning to her hometown as Calpurnia in the current national tour of Aaron Sorkin’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, coming to Broadway in Chicago starting May 17, 209, 2022. Williams has been reflecting on her return to live theater, what makes this stage adaptation so impactful and timely, and some of his favorite Chicago theater memories.
How does it feel to return to live theater? I saw you last summer in OHIO STATE MURDERS at the Goodman Theater, but I imagine it’s a different experience to be back in front of a live audience.
Oh yeah, with people sitting in the seats rather than playing in an empty theater. We have all been in the same boat. It’s interesting that different venues, different cities have different protocols in terms of audiences and what’s required of them, whether masking is mandatory or if optional, strongly suggested. We have no control over the rules of the sites. We ourselves, as a company, have been very, very strict with our COVID practices and testing. But it’s been great after two and a half years to get back to the work we love and the form we love and working with each other. It was awesome.
How did you experience your first national tour?
I worked all over the country and the other tours I did were smaller tours. This is the first full-fledged national tour. It can be harsh. But I’m doing a play that I love, and we’re very blessed and very lucky to have a vibrant company of artists who are not only great actors but also great people to be with. Just good human beings. So we’re really blessed in that way.
It was really great. I will not deceive you; it is a rigorous schedule. And God bless the crew; the crew is dynamite and the way they make this happen by moving from town to town and getting everything ready in the new space in a matter of hours is truly amazing. It is magic. It’s a lot of work, it’s rigorous, but it’s really great. I am pleased to do so.
What was your experience with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD before joining the tour? Have you read the original Harper Lee novel or seen any previous adaptations?
I read the book for the first time when I was alone in sixth grade. I’ve read the book throughout my life, I think, three times. It’s always been one of my favorite books, and I’m a big fan of the movie and it’s always been one of my favorite movies. Boy, the movie, I’ve lost count, but I know I’ve seen it at least eight times. And then, see, we did a workshop [the tour production] for a week in October in New York, and while I was there I saw the current Broadway production that was in place at the time.
How does it feel to face such an emblematic character of American literature?
It’s great because the thing with that is that even though people have read the book, even though they’ve seen the movie, they haven’t seen this full-fledged Calpurnia. Aaron Sorkin fleshed out this character and just did a great job. He’s such a brilliant writer. So you really get a sense of where Calpurnia fits into this family, you really get a much fuller sense of her relationship with Scout and Jem, and with Atticus and how much like brother and sister they are, to how confidant they are, how far they go from head to toe. Because Calpurnia, in many ways for Atticus and his family, is the voice of the black community. And there are things that Calpurnia and Atticus discuss and disagree on, and they can do so respectfully and freely because of their closeness. Even as liberal as Atticus is, he has no way of knowing certain things from the Black perspective of 1934 because he doesn’t see it, doesn’t see it from that perspective.
So that’s what people have to come and see and experience that they won’t get entirely from the book and certainly not from the movie. And Richard Thomas is an absolutely fantastic Atticus.
What are some of your favorite Chicago theater memories?
There are so many for different reasons. I don’t even think that’s fair. Of course, a very special one for me many years ago because a lot of my blood and sweat went into putting this sucker together was FROM THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA in 1988. It was extra, extra special. And, of course, I’ve done so many shows at the Goodman and Steppenwolf and Court [Theatre]. There are so many for so many different reasons.
THE BROTHER/SIST PLAYS at Steppenwolf was special for many reasons to me. I did so many things at the Goodman: THE STORY, BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY that Chuck Smith directed; both were at the old Goodman. Years ago I played the title role of Electra at the Court Theater and it was directed by Mikhail Mokeyev of the Moscow Art Theatre. Another that Marcus Gardley wrote was THE HOUSE THAT DOESN’T STAY. It was also a really special show at Victory Gardens.
There have been so many, and you know, I love working with, collaborating with artists from Chicago. There is nothing like it in the country. They are talented, they are dedicated, they work hard. They are there. In the acting world, it’s supposed to be like that all the time, but that caliber, that work ethic, that consistency is still there in the Chicago community, and I love it so much.
What excites you the most about bringing the tour to Chicago?
It’s a very, very good production, and it’s really an event. It is truly a live theater event. And I’m thrilled that my Chicago community, my buddies are coming to experience it. There is a lot of joy. There are lots of laughs. There’s a lot of nostalgia, as well as the hurt and pain that we’re still working through today. We still need this story, and so, I’m thrilled to be a part of it and share this post and very excited to do so in my hometown. Because when you revisit it, and certainly when you experience this event live, you will remember, in case some people have chosen to selectively forget or think otherwise, not only do we still have work to do, but the little progress we’ve really made since 1934. How little progress we’ve made since 1967 when I think the movie came out.
Theater not only entertains, it enlightens. It can trigger a change. It can be a catalyst for change, discussion, movement, progress. And theater can also heal. For all these reasons, I am thrilled to bring this piece home.
And we have the one and only Mary Badham, the original Scout from the movie, with us as well. It’s just awesome. She plays Mrs. DuBose in this live theater event.
See Jacqueline Williams as Calpurnia in the Chicago-Broadway engagement of the TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD National Tour May 17-29, 2022 at the James M. Nederlander Theater. Visit BroadwayInChicago.com for tickets.
Interview responses edited for length and clarity
Photo courtesy of Broadway in Chicago
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