Articulate

S5 E18 | FULL EPISODE

The Headliners

Aaron Sorkin’s Second Act - 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. Rhiannon Giddens' Living History - 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.

AIRED: February 07, 2020 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

(uplifting music)

- 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.

- 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.

- [Jim] 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.

- 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.

- [Jim] That's all ahead on "Articulate".

(lighthearted music)

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.

- 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.

- [Jim] 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.

- Thank you. - Listen.

- I got you on standby on a direct flight to Boca

where you can rent a car

and you can-- - Cancel it.

- Why? - I need a layover in Atlanta.

- Of course you do.

- And I need to get there about

an hour before an eight o'clock flight would take off.

- That would be around seven?

- 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.

- Josh. - Yeah?

- You call your mother. - Right.

- 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.

- [Jim] 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.

- 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-- - Debates and discussions.

- 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?"

- Which is the great question, what if?

It's the great creative question.

- That's right.

So I wanted to imitate the sound.

As a writer, I wanted to imitate

the sound of those conversations.

- 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.

- 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.

- [Jim] 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.

- 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.

- [Jim] In 2016, when producer Scott Rudin

asked him to turn "To Kill a Mockingbird" into a play,

Sorkin got off to a rocky start.

- 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. - Like writing 101, right?

- 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-- - Scout is.

- 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.

- The flaw he has though is

the perceptions that it's a virtue.

He believes in the good in all.

- 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.

- 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?

- 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.

- [Jim] Around eight months after

discarding his disappointing first effort,

Sorkin delivered his second draft.

Once again, Rudin's response was succinct.

- 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--

- You got it. - Yeah.

- [Jim] 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.

- 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--"

- Which is a stroke of wonder.

- 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.

- [Jim] Next up for Aaron Sorkin is another film.

He'd 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.

- 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.

- Completely not from anything?

I mean, because you--

- Not going to adapt "Catcher in the Rye" this time.

(Jim laughs)

(gentle music)

(spirited folk music)

- [Jim] 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.

(film reel clicking)

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.

- 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?

- [Jim] 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.

♪ 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 ♪

(lively folk music)

- 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.

♪ 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 ♪

- [Jim] 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.

- '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.

(introspective folk music)

♪ Brown baby

♪ 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

- [Jim] 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.

- 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.

- There's room at the top.

- And the people at the top are like,

"That's what you think."

And it's never gonna happen.

(slow folk music)

♪ 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".

(upbeat folk music)

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?

- 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.

- [Jim] This thinking is exemplified

in the Middle Eastern influences

she and Turrisi bring to the Italian folk song,

"Rizzica di San Vito", lest we forget

how geographically and culturally close those regions are.

(spirited folk music)

(singing in a foreign language)

(singing in a foreign language)

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.

- 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.

♪ 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 ♪

(serene music)

- On the next "Articulate", John Darnielle has excelled

as a front man, songwriter, and author,

by overcoming an innately self-destructive personality.

As a grownup, Elizabeth Acevedo realized

that the books she had needed as a child

still didn't exist, so she wrote them herself.

And the scale of Meg Saligman's murals

is difficult to grasp close up,

but the stories they tell are all in the details.

I'm Jim Cotter.

Join us for the next "Articulate"

Hey friends, are you an Articulate teacher

thinking about bringing something new into your classroom?

articulateshow.org now offers

a wealth of resources for teachers

that we hope you'll consider using

to prompt or extend classroom conversations.

Think of each five to eight minute clip

as a guest appearance by a great creative thinker.

There's Daniel Handler of Lemony Snicket fame

talking about being real for children's sake.

- I actually find it really offensive

when people talk about children

like they're some entirely different creatures,

which if it were any other category

everyone would agree was monstrous.

- Plus so much more.

- [Announcer] "Articulate" with Jim Cotter

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(lively music)

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