- Aaron Sorkin is best known for his award-winning screenwriting: A Few Good Men, The West Wing, Moneyball, The Newsroom. But his first love is the theater.
- Singer, instrumentalist, and folk historian Rhiannon Giddens is on a musical mission: to remind us of what we all share, regardless of who we are or where we’re from.
Aaron Sorkin is a celebrated screenwriter and playwright. His accolades include an Academy Award, two Golden Globes, and five Emmy Awards.
Sorkin was born in New York in 1961 and raised in Scarsdale, NY. He studied musical theater at Syracuse University. His first play, Removing All Doubts (1984), was staged at Syracuse the year after he graduated. His breakthrough work, A Few Good Men, premiered on Broadway in 1989. Sorkin was hired to adapt the play into the hit 1992 film, which received four Academy Award nominations. Sorkin moved into television writing with Sports Night (1998–2000) and The West Wing (1999–2006), which ran for seven seasons on NBC and won four Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series.
Sorkin won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network (2010) and was nominated for Moneyball (2011) and Molly’s Game (2017). His 2018 stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird broke Broadway box office records for a non-musical play and received nine Tony nominations.
Rhiannon Giddens is a celebrated singer, banjo player, and violinist, and the founding member of the African American country band Carolina Chocolate Drops. Her accolades include a Grammy Award, six Grammy nominations, a MacArthur “Genius Grant”, and the Steve Martin Prize for banjo and bluegrass.
Giddens was raised in North Carolina by a bluegrass-playing white father and a black mother. She studied opera singing at Oberlin College in Ohio, but retained her interest in Gaelic and American folk music. In 2005, she founded the old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops to explore the African American roots of folk and country music. Their third record, Genuine Negro Jig (2011), won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk album. The group stopped playing together in 2014.
Gidden released her Grammy-nominated solo debut Tomorrow Is My Turn in 2015 and continues to perform and record in a range of traditional musical styles, including jazz, Celtic, and bluegrass.
- Stage & Screen
Welcome to Articulate, the show that brings you insights into the human condition from some fine creative thinkers. I’m Jim Cotter and on this episode, The Headliners. Aaron Sorkin is best known for his award-winning screenwriting, A Few Good Men, The West Wing, Moneyball, The Newsroom, but his first love is theater.
Aaron Sorkin: I’m an accidental writer of movies and television shows. It’s been a very happy accident because I love doing them, but all I ever wanted to be was a playwright.
Singer, instrumentalist, and folk historian Rhiannon Giddens is on a musical mission to remind us of what we all share regardless of who we are or where we’re from.
Rhiannon Giddens: Whether you’re here or 3,000 miles away, or on the other side of the globe, you’re gonna experience the same things as anybody else. I feel like love and heartbreak is love and heartbreak, is love and heartbreak.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Today, Aaron Sorkin’s stage version of Harper Lee’s beloved story, To Kill a Mockingbird, is officially the most successful Broadway play ever. But when he agreed to write it, Sorkin worried that the audience’s existing attachments to the story meant he was doomed to fail.
Aaron Sorkin: In spite of those fears I said yes because I’d just do anything to be in a theater. I love doing plays and if getting beaten up and told I’ve ruined people’s childhoods was the price, I was willing to pay it.
The success of the show is just another achievement on the resume of one of the most recognizable writers around, whether in film, television, or on the stage. Sorkin’s hallmark is fast-paced, witty dialogue, often breathlessly delivered by characters in close physical proximity.
(Clip from West Wing)
Donna: Thank you.
Donna: I got you on standby on a direct flight to Boca where you can rent a car and you can–
Josh: Cancel it.
Josh: I need a layover in Atlanta.
Donna: Of course you do.
Josh: And I need to get there about an hour before an eight o’clock flight would take off.
Donna: That would be around seven?
Josh: I haven’t done the math. I’m also gonna need some information on the DeKalb County DA, whose name is Farragut. Do me a favor, start with a recent photograph. And call my mother and tell her I’m gonna be late.
Donna: You call your mother.
Sorkin: I am most comfortable in a small space, in four walls. They say that when you buy a new dog, when you bring home a puppy, that you should get a crate that’s just big enough for the puppy to be able to turn around, but no bigger because they like the security of those four walls. So do I. I like being in four walls and having two people who disagree about something, and when I can pin down what it is they’re disagreeing about and what their positions are, then I feel like I’m ready to write a scene.
As a child growing up in suburban New York, it was always clear that ethically driven cleverness had currency. As a result, legal matters, especially courtrooms, are often a feature of his work.
Sorkin: I come from a family of lawyers. I’m the youngest. Everyone in my family is smarter than I am. The same is true for my circle of friends. I’m sort of the mascot. Growing up at my family’s dinner table, anyone who used one word when they could’ve used 10 just wasn’t trying hard enough, but there were terrific arguments. Not fights, I mean intelligent—
AJC: Debates and discussions.
Sorkin: Yeah. And with everyone playing devil’s advocate and me just listening, and I loved the sound of, “But have you thought of it this way?”
AJC: Which is the great question, what if? It’s the great creative question.
Sorkin: That’s right. So, I wanted to imitate the sound. As a writer, I wanted to imitate the sound of those conversations.
AJC: That said though, what you do in a courtroom is that you make it easy for those who are not lawyers to understand, and you also give us an understanding of the fact that the jury’s an emotional group of people, and they will make decisions somewhat related to what they hear, but mostly related to what they feel.
Sorkin: That’s right. Listen, ultimately our system of justice ultimately is in the hands of humans, ultimately our democracy is in the hands of humans, and I write about that from time to time as well.
Sorkin was called to closely examine just how much the justice system is handled or mishandled by humans in what he has called his most daunting project to date: an adaptation of the great American novel and Academy Award winning movie, To Kill a Mockingbird. Few stories occupy such a prominent place in American hearts and on their bookshelves as the tale of the Finch family. The novel follows the young Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill, as they learn about compassion from a reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, and their noble lawyer father, Atticus, as he defends Tom Robinson, an African-American field worker, from bogus charges in 1930s Alabama.
(Excerpt from To Kill a Mockingbird)
He did not do the things our schoolmates’ fathers did. He never went hunting, he did not play poker, or fish, or drink, or smoke. He sat in a living room and read. With these attributes, however, he would not remain as inconspicuous as we wished him to. That year the school buzz was talk of him defending Tom Robinson, none of which was complimentary. After my bout with Cecil Jacobs when I committed myself to a policy of cowardice, word got around that Scout Finch wouldn’t fight anymore. Her daddy wouldn’t let her. This was not entirely correct. I wouldn’t fight publicly for Atticus, but the family was private ground. I would fight anyone from a third cousin upwards, tooth and nail.
In 2016, when producer Scott Rudin asked him to turn To Kill a Mockingbird into a play, Sorkin got off to a rocky start.
Sorkin: My first draft was terrible because I tried adapting the book, which is to say I kind of took all the important scenes, all the scenes you need to tell the story, and I just stood them up and had people talk to each other. And I showed it to Scott and whereas usually he gives me dozens, sometimes hundreds of notes over several days’ work in his office, he gave me one note and it didn’t take a half hour. It was this: that Atticus can’t be Atticus from the beginning of the play to the end of the play. He’s gotta change, he’s gotta be put through something and change. In other words, he has to be the protagonist. I thought, well, of course, yeah, he’s absolutely right.
AJC: Like writing 101, right?
Sorkin: Yeah. And I thought, “Gee, how did Harper Lee get away with having Atticus be Atticus from the beginning to the end, and then how did Horton Foote get away with having Atticus be Atticus from the beginning of the end to the movie? And the answer is that in neither the book nor the movie is Atticus the protagonist. Scout—
AJC: Scout is.
Sorkin: Is the protagonist. She’s the one who’s put through something and changes. Her flaw is that she’s young and she loses some of her innocence as a result. I didn’t want to lose that. I wanted Scout, and Jem, and Dill to continue to be protagonists. But I wanted Atticus to be the central protagonist in the play, and that set me on a course of writing not an adaptation, but a new play.
AJC: The flaw he has though is the perceptions that it’s a virtue. He believes in the good in all.
Sorkin: That’s right. I didn’t add a new characteristic to Atticus. I took something that we had been taught when we were young when we read the book, which is that his belief that there’s goodness is everyone and all you have to do is crawl around inside another person’s skin and you’ll get it. We all accepted that as virtuous and I questioned that. And, in fact, whereas in the book and then in the film, Atticus is the guy who has all the answers, he’s a pillar of wisdom and you go to him for the answers, in the play I wanted him to wrestle with the questions.
AJC: The other thing that you’ve done is to bring the African-American characters out of the shadow. They were scenery in the book. Is that fair?
Sorkin: That is fair. There are two significant African-American characters in the book, Calpurnia the maid and Tom Robinson the defendant, the accused, and in this story about racial strife in the Jim Crow South, neither of the African-American characters have anything to say about what’s going on, and Calpurnia is most concerned with whether Scout’s gonna wear overalls or a dress to school, and she bakes cornbread. Tom Robinson gets to plead for his life and that’s it. Using African-American characters only as scenery, only as atmosphere, is the kind of thing that would’ve gone unnoticed by a lot of people in 1960. In 2019, it’s unacceptable. Also, you’re missing an opportunity. Give these characters agency and you’re heating up the pot in a very interesting way.
Around eight months after discarding his disappointing first effort, Sorkin delivered his second draft. Once again, Rudin’s response was succinct.
Sorkin: A week after I turned in the draft, I opened the Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure section to see a two-page ad announcing that To Kill a Mockingbird, a new play, would be opening December 2018 on Broadway, and that was a year and a half before our opening. He took out that two-page ad and said to me basically—
AJC: You got it.
A year on, the magnitude of Sorkin’s accomplishment is reflected in the record-breaking popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway. Audiences and critics alike have fully embraced the show for its unique approach to this well-loved story.
Sorkin: They’re not coming out of the play comparing it to the book, saying, “Well, I liked the part in the book where they did this, I don’t know why he cut that, I don’t know why he added—”
AJC: Which is a stroke of wonder.
Sorkin: I can’t believe it. I thought for sure that that’s what we were in for. But that hasn’t been happening. They may come into the theater with certain expectations, but about a minute or two in, I think they’ve forgotten about the book, I think they’ve forgotten about the movie, and they’re experiencing something brand new. And when they leave the theater, they look and sound the way I look and sound when I’ve had a thrilling night in the theater.
Next up for Aaron Sorkin is another film. He’ll write and direct The Trial Of The Chicago 7, the story of the riots of the 1968 Democratic Convention and the conspiracy trials that followed. But Sorkin says he’s never really gotten over his childhood dream, and is eager to return to the theater.
Sorkin: I’m an accidental writer of movies and television shows. It’s been a very happy accident because I love doing them, but all I ever wanted to be was a playwright and that’s all I ever kind of studied to be. This is only my third play in 25 years. I should up my average a little bit. So, I’d like to write a new play as soon as I can.
AJC: Completely not from anything? I mean, because you—
Sorkin: No, I’m going to adapt “Catcher in the Rye” this time.
There’s a worldly southerner who ditched opera to make music that is influenced by a wide range of folk traditions from around the globe. Rhiannon Giddens is an accomplished singer, banjo player, and violinist who’s won everything from Grammys to the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo & Bluegrass, and the so-called MacArthur Genius Fellowship. Born in North Carolina to a guitar-playing white father and an African-American mother, a risky marriage in the 1970s, Rhiannon Giddens sang songs in her crib, she joined youth choirs, and later she trained at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. But that, it turned out, was just a detour.
Rhiannon Giddens: I kinda felt like, “God, there’s a million sopranos who can sing as well or better than I can, and who can do these things, and that’s all they wanna do all day long. I kinda wanna do other things.” So where am I gonna make an impact at something that I’m bringing something unique to?
After college, Giddens became more interested in the diverse roots of Appalachian music. At a festival in the early 2000s, she met an 86-year-old fiddler who would reroute her life. Joe Thompson’s rediscovered repertoire shaped the sound of the old-time string band Giddens helped form in 2005: The Carolina Chocolate Drops.
(Performance of “Trouble in Your Mind”)
Don’t get trouble in your mind
Don’t get trouble in your mind
Don’t get trouble in your mind
Don’t get trouble in your mind
Giddens: So, I spent however many years in a chair playing banjo in a string band, and that experience really counterweighted the being in a costume and singing and sort of being, “It’s all about the voice and it’s all about me.” I just realized that I really liked that better, you know? I liked the service, I liked playing for school shows and educating, I liked playing for dances. I used to play for square dances, contra dances, I used to call contra dances, you know? And that feeling of being in service to someone else, I mean, Joe’s whole life before the war was a function musician. He and his brother and then later his cousin, they played for the dances in the area, and then when that disappeared, the TV took over, then he found a second life as a performer. But it was still in the educational kind of capacity. He’s like, this is what I used to play for my community. And for me, that was just what I needed to feel like I’m doing something important here.
(Performance of “Country Girl”)
I was raised in the country, that’s a natural fact
Food on the table from the garden out back
Everyone working to make the land their own
Red clay cracking where the silver queen grows
Running with your cousins from yard to yard
The living was easy but the playing was hard
Didn’t have much, nothing comes for free
All you needed was your family
In 2010, the Carolina Chocolate Drops won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Success brought their message to a national audience, reminding people that Appalachia has always been a place where cultures cross and blend, and where music was never monolithic.
Giddens: ‘Cause I saw the damage that that false narrative of us versus them, you do that music, we do this music. We never really interacted. You lived here, I lived here. And that’s all not true. It’s like country music is country music ’cause it’s music of people from the country. Up to 20% of people in Appalachia were black before The Great Migration. We had black string banjo, we had white string banjo, occasionally mixed bands but not very often, and everybody played a common southern repertoire. Everybody played “Leather Britches”, everybody played these songs. They weren’t colorized.
(Performance of “Brown Baby”)
As you grow up
I want you to drink from the plenty cup
I want you to stand up tall and proud
And I want you to speak up clear and loud
You little brown baby
When Giddens started playing folk music nearly two decades ago, she was often the only African-American in the room. Today she understands how an institutional philosophy of divide and conquer was designed to keep poor whites and poor blacks from uniting.
Giddens: So, the system was set up like this from the very, very beginning. You got plantation owners writing each other, going, this is how you keep your blacks and your poor whites at each other’s throats. People did this on purpose. And the idea of notion of white as a thing is for this reason, and this is the problem. This is the problem that has not been talked about is that when this system is in full effect, the very people who think they’re gonna benefit from it don’t, because there’s still the economic layers that people don’t wanna admit. So, you have poor whites in Appalachia, you have poor whites in the South, they have more in common with the black folk down the street, but they’ve been told that if they buy into this American dream, they too can step out.
AJC: There’s room at the top.
Giddens: And the people at the top are like, “That’s what you think.” And it’s never gonna happen.
(Performance of “Wayfaring Stranger”)
I am a poor wayfaring stranger
Traveling through this world alone
There is no sickness, toil, nor danger
In that fair land to which I go
I’m going home to see my mother
I’m going home no more to roam
I’m just going over Jordan
I’m just going over home
Giddens is still a musical explorer, now working with a larger map. Her latest project is a collaboration with the Italian composer and multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. They take a sound journey through African-American, South American, European, and Arabic territory. Their critically acclaimed album is called, There Is No Other.
AJC: Conventional wisdom will have it that there are plenty of others and that we all need to get along. Is this a representation of a change in mind for you?
Giddens: It’s just a confirmation of what I’ve always felt. There’s different ways of looking at it. It’s not to say that we aren’t diverse. It’s not to say that we don’t have different ways of expressing things from culture to culture, but when you really get into the underlying sort of sentiment, the underlying experiences, they are all the same, you know? Whether you’re here, or 3,000 miles away, or on the other side of the globe, you’re gonna experience the same things as anybody else. Now the way that you express that in your music’s gonna be different, but then when you look at the story of the human race, the story of the movement of culture, there actually is a lot of commonalities even in the sounds, you know? Things that seem very diverse, when you play them together you’re like, oh, actually, the core is the same. And so it’s not an attempt to erase diversity because that is an indelible part of our world. But in the way that race is an artificial construct and genetically we’re exactly the same, we just present differently, I feel like love and heartbreak is love and heartbreak, is love and heartbreak.
This thinking is exemplified in the Middle Eastern influences she and Turrisi bring to the Italian folk song, “Pizzica di San Vito”, lest we forget how geographically and culturally close those regions are. Rhiannon Giddens could’ve been a classical singer or a pop star, which might’ve been easier then excavating music and reviving what she digs up, but singing and strumming means something more to Giddens than mere entertainment.
Giddens: I mean, all I can say is that I have enough people after each show saying, “Don’t stop talking about the history.” They say this to me specifically ’cause I’m always kinda worried, you know, am I talking too much? I have tried to pick my battles, but I have enough people saying, “This is changing the way that I’m looking at this. What you’re doing even just by existing has inspired me to do X, Y, and Z.” And I don’t know what percentage that is of my overall, you know. If it’s a fraction, that’s fine because what is the alternative? I can only hope that I can add to the conversation in a positive way, and that I’m doing it because I wanna be able to sleep at night.
(Performance of “I’m On My Way”)
I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way
Lord, if you love me, keep me I pray
A little bird is stretching out
On the shimmering, shaking blue
I don’t know where I’m going but I know what to do
I don’t know where I’m going but I know what to do
I don’t know where I’m going but I know what to do