April 4, 2019
Tears welled up in the eyes of the actress from “To Kill a Mockingbird” after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) glided into the party.
“I very firmly believe that the arts are going to bind Americans together,” Pelosi declared to the actors, journalists and congressional staffers gathered Monday night at the Oval Room restaurant in honor of the Broadway cast.
“For a moment, for a while, they’re unified in a common experience,” she said, adding, for good measure, a paraphrase of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: “The greatest force for good is the imagination.
The “Mockingbird” cast was in Washington at Pelosi’s invitation to perform scenes for middle and high school students Tuesday at the Library of Congress. And what provoked emotion from Celia Keenan-Bolger — who portrays the young protagonist, Scout Finch — was the affirmation by a person in power of the value of what artists do, at a time when the voice of government has gone silent on such matters.
“There was a real shared gratitude in the room,” Keenan-Bolger said later. “She and all of the civil servants we’ve come into contact with have made a point of saying, ‘It’s still our country.’ ”
For in the chaotic age of Trump, it is the speaker of the House taking the spotlight in the ongoing saga of how our leaders integrate culture into their public missions. In the absence of a White House that welcomes the nation’s preeminent composers, painters, scholars and singers to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — and let’s face it, many of them would probably say no thanks — Pelosi seems more and more inclined to cast herself as the ceremonial head of state for the arts.
It was Pelosi, for instance, who occupied the Opera House box when the Kennedy Center Honors were doled out in December, seated next to Cher and the other Honors recipients. President Trump was a no-show for the second year in a row, as he declined to perform what had become a signature annual presidential acknowledgment of the nation’s top artistic achievers. And while Vice President Pence has been shown to be a musical theater fan, attending “Hamilton” (famously) on Broadway and “The Music Man” at the Kennedy Center, the House speaker is a fixture at a range of arts events, particularly in her Bay Area home. There, according to her office, she regularly attends openings at the San Francisco Ballet and symphony, plays at the Curran Theatre, and galas at the San Francisco Opera and the Festival Napa Valley’s Arts for All. In Washington, the Ford’s Theatre gala and the Grammys on the Hill events routinely show up on her calendar.
“She’s present here a lot, and that’s something that many people don’t understand,” said Deborah F. Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center. Although Rutter is quick to point out that U.S. Supreme Court justices of all ideological stripes and officials of both parties come to the arts center, Pelosi’s passion runs deep, to the point where she maintains personal ties to many arts leaders. “Nancy actually knows these people. She and [husband] Paul come to the center in a really interesting variety of activities,” Rutter added. “This is not casual to them.”
This week’s visit by “To Kill a Mockingbird” — which in August 2020 launches a national touring production at the Kennedy Center — ratcheted up Pelosi’s efforts to use her perch as a catalyst for artistic exchange. Aaron Sorkin, who adapted the book for Broadway, and director Bartlett Sher traveled to Washington on Monday with eight principal members of the cast: Jeff Daniels, Keenan-Bolger, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Will Pullen, Gideon Glick, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Dakin Matthews and Neal Huff. At the behest of the Educational Theatre Association, a 90-year-old national organization that promotes theater curriculum and programs in schools, the Broadway production made this unusual outreach. It was Pelosi’s office that secured the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress for Tuesday’s performance, and ETA invited students from schools in the District, Maryland and Virginia, many of which have student troupes in the International Thespian Society.
Professional actors are often called on to interact with kids at special performances for school-age audiences. But missions beyond Broadway, of the nature arranged this week, are rare. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” though, offers a particularly ripe opportunity for imparting the value of theater to young people. As Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress, noted in remarks before the performance, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning book “was voted the Number One favorite novel of all time” in a poll last year.
The novel, the story of a country lawyer, Daniels’s Atticus Finch, called on to defend an impoverished black man, Akinnagbe’s Tom Robinson, falsely accused of the rape of a white woman, is narrated by Scout, looking back on her childhood. Sorkin expanded the idea to make it a shared narration among all three children in the novel: Scout, her older brother, Jem (played by Pullen), and their friend Dill (played by Glick).
“The ultimate story of the play is the moral education of kids,” Sher, the director, said in an interview. “Every culture has its shared story, and because the novel is read by every eighth-grader across the country, this is one of ours.”
Sher encourages the notion of sharing this story, even across a nation this politically divided. As he and others noted, Kellyanne Conway, a heat-seeking point person in the Trump administration, attended a performance of “To Kill a Mockingbird” with her son at the Shubert Theatre in New York last weekend. Sher is glad she did.
“In a healthy functioning democracy, it’s the job of politicians to seek out opinions from every side,” he said. “All theater artists can do is pose the questions. It’s up to audiences to answer the questions.”
Pelosi’s office served as a gathering place for the actors. On Monday afternoon, it was their turn to be enlightened. Diane Dewhirst, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, set the cast off on a tour of the Capitol. “I think we have the most beautiful building in America,” Dewhirst told the actors as they sat in Pelosi’s chambers. “Every time I walk up to it, I lose my breath a little bit.”
The main event was Tuesday morning, and as students filled the Coolidge Auditorium, the actors assembled in the green room. While Daniels caught up on some shut-eye — the cast would have to be onstage in New York that night — Richardson Jackson talked about the challenges of playing Calpurnia, Atticus’s longtime housekeeper. Sorkin’s script retains the raw racial language of Lee’s 1930s-set novel, the kind that today falls offensively on the ears of black and white theatergoers alike; the scenes chosen for the 45-minute selection for the students did not include those with the most incendiary words.
“This is such a professional company that the integrity of the material has been handled from the first day in a way that has been beyond reproach,” Richardson Jackson said. “The truth is, that’s how people spoke. We’re relating the truth of what they had to go through.”
The actors were touched that Pelosi mingled with them at the Oval Room party — where Akinnagbe, in a burst of exuberance, planted a kiss on her cheek — and then again in the Coolidge green room.
In response to a question about government’s role in promoting the arts, Pelosi talked about wanting to change the acronym STEM — which promotes science, technology, engineering and math education — to “STEAM.” The “A,” of course, for the arts. And then, in welcoming remarks to the students and their teachers, Pelosi elaborated on the power of the arts to make audiences “laugh together, to cry together, to forget our differences, to bond together in the spirit of creativity.”
You don’t hear this sort of discourse much in Washington these days. And for a play to have inspired it caused a warming trend in the auditorium.
The sensation intensified when high schooler Brannon Evans of Omaha was introduced as the recipient of a $10,000 college scholarship from the show for an essay she wrote about her school’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She even got to perform in one of the scenes the cast played on the auditorium’s bare stage.
It was Pelosi, though, who set the larger scene in her observations about the play: “We learn about something so important: Decency. In our country, there is now a craving for decency. And this play is about that.”