Detroit native wins a Tony Award for role in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'


by Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Detroit native Celia Keenan-Bolger called Jean Louise Finch AKA Scout, the narrator of Harper Lee’s seminal novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the “greatest literary heroine of all time.”

“That I’m standing here, accepting this award for playing Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird is incredibly moving to me,” Keenan-Bolger said during an emotional acceptance speech.

The actress won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play on June 9 at the 73rd Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Musical Hall in New York City for her portrayal of Scout in the Broadway adaptation of Mockingbird, which co-starred Chelsea resident Jeff Daniels (also nominated for a Tony for his performance as crusading lawyer Atticus Finch) and was adapted by Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and creator/author of A Few Good Men.

This is Keenan-Bolger’s first Tony. The actress, who is an alumnus of the Detroit School of Arts and the University of Michigan, was previously nominated for a Tony for her roles in The Glass Menagerie, Peter and the Starcatcher, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. In addition to the Tony, she also won the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Mockingbird, as well as being nominated for the Drama League Award.

“I have loved the theatre since I was five years old growing up in Detroit,” Keenan-Bolger said in her speech. “I grew up in a neighborhood where my grandparents had a cross burned on their front lawn because they were being welcoming to black families who were integrating the neighborhood. They raised my mother and her siblings alongside those families, and when my mother met my father, instead of moving to the suburbs, they raised me, my brother, and my sister in that same neighborhood.”

Therefore, the themes of Mockingbird really hit home for Keenan-Bolger. Originally published in 1960, Mockingbird – which won the Pulitzer Prize and has been required reading in high school English classes across the nation – occurs over three years in 1930s Alabama. Scout and her older brother Jem Finch watch their father represent Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman named Mayella Ewell.

Atticus, who embodies many noble qualities and believes all men – including black men – are created equal, knows he’s fighting a losing battle. Nonetheless, he believes in standing up for what’s right. Even though the evidence is in Robinson’s favor – in fact, the man is completely innocent – he is still found guilty due to the townspeople’s racist nature.

As most people know, To Kill a Mockingbird was adapted into a movie of the same name in 1962, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus, Mary Badham as Scout, and Robert Duvall as Boo. The movie won three of its eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor for Peck. In 2003, the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the greatest movie hero of the 20th century.

Sorkin’s play differs from previous stage adaptations of Mockingbird. One notable change is that the children are played by adults, something Sorkin and the other producers didn’t plan on doing. The adult actors were playing the children at a read-through, which changed their minds. 

“Celia was at the table, [and] with only a couple of hours’ work, was doing a magic trick with the slightest adjustment of her posture, with the slightest adjustment of her voice. She effortlessly went back and forth,” said Sorkin. “She [gave] a really stunning performance in this play.”

In 2018, Lee’s estate filed a lawsuit, stating that Sorkin’s adaptation deviated way too far from the original novel, extrapolating 21st century sensibilities into this period drama at several points.

“When [people] come see the play, I really do hope that they’ll see that it was written and directed and performed by people who have enormous respect for the source material,” said Sorkin. “But we didn’t want to do a museum piece. This isn’t a class field trip. It’s not an exercise in nostalgia or an homage.”

As a result, lawsuits and counter-lawsuits were filed. Eventually, all parties ended up settling out of court.

Despite all that, the adaptation of Mockingbird opened at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre on Dec. 13, 2018 to nearly universal critical acclaim and has since become the highest-grossing American play in Broadway history, generating more than $40 million in ticket sales.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.