A Timeless Tale of Terror and Empathy
Richard Thomas (“Atticus Finch”) and Yaegel T. Welch (“Tom Robinson”). | CREDIT: Julieta Cervantes
“To Kill a Mockingbird” Returns to Belk Theater from August 1 to 6
Court is back in session from August 1 to 6 when To Kill a Mockingbird, adapted for the stage by Academy Award® winner Aaron Sorkin, returns to Charlotte.
This adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, called “the most successful American play in Broadway history” by the New York Times, played to sold-out houses in Belk Theatre a little over a year ago. Tickets are on sale now.
While a few of the cast members have changed, veteran actor Richard Thomas (The Waltons, Ozark, 12 Angry Men) continues to play lawyer Atticus Finch. [Read our 2022 interview with Thomas here.]
Yaegel T. Welch (The Blacklist, Madame Secretary, The Play That Goes Wrong) also returns as Tom Robinson, a Black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman in the fictional Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression.
While the trial of Tom Robinson plays out over only a few chapters of the larger book, Sorkin’s adaptation makes it the centerpiece of his play. He highlights the racial injustices that took place in the 1930s … and continue to exist in the 2020s. This novel, written by a white woman who grew up in the South and published in 1960, continues to challenge readers. It is simultaneously listed as a great American novel by some or a book that should be banned by others.
“There are certain people trying to ban this story from being told, right?” said Welch. “There seems to be this collective pushback [to that] because people are coming out to see the show. They’re coming out to get this narrative. Maybe this story is fictional, but the narrative actually did happen, right? To real-life people. And it’s still happening, in some cases, to real-life people.”
Yaegel T. Welch (“Tom Robinson”) and The Company of To Kill a Mockingbird. | CREDIT: Julieta Cervantes
The Biscuit had the opportunity to speak with Welch about his experience performing To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway and the current national tour, what the story means to him and how he approached the critical role of Tom Robinson.
Why do you think To Kill a Mockingbird still resonates today?
To Kill a Mockingbird does a very, very good job of giving voice to how racism affects the class that’s empowered. Most stories about racism really tend to center around the disenfranchised group that’s being oppressed. But this one sort of tells a story about how racism affects the oppressive class and how it affects that community and how it causes them to grow and change.
What’s an important takeaway you’ve found in To Kill a Mockingbird?
[T]hat empathy heals if we can learn to empathize with other people’s pain. Even if the injustice isn’t ours or what they’re experiencing isn’t ours – or even our fault – I think we’ll be better if we can learn to help.
Richard Thomas (“Atticus Finch”) and The Company of To Kill a Mockingbird. | CREDIT: Julieta Cervantes
How have you approached playing Tom Robinson?
This man has a family. This man couldn’t have possibly done this crime. He is a 25-year-old who’s never been in a courtroom, who’s never been in any sort of circumstance like this.
He is terrified for his life. He has a strong desire to stay alive because he has a wife and three kids who are going to grow up in the Jim Crow South on a sharecropping plantation without their father. All the harm that could bring to their lives is important for him to eradicate.
Now, we can all relate to the humanity of a man who’s being unfairly treated in an unjust court system. And, we all can know that that is wrong. We still have these [stories] like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner. We have so many names that you can call on right now in the not-so-distant past.
My portrayal of Tom Robinson is getting people to connect to the humanity of this man. I try my best to bring to the forefront all of his earnest, basic human attributes – fear, love of family, integrity, desire to do what’s right and desire to help. That’s all this man was doing, but he was still killed in the system.
You have played this role now for an incredible length of time. How has it evolved from when you began this run to right now? Or has it?
When I started playing Tom Robinson I really latched onto the basic human instinct of his terror, being afraid. As I’ve grown into the part, I really fight for survival and try to find moments of his bravery. Because no matter how you spin it, it’s very brave for him to go on trial.
Now, I look at Tom more as a hero. The fear still exists. Just because you’re going to perform a heroic act doesn’t mean you’re not afraid. They’re not mutually exclusive. I think they go together.
Maeve Moynihan (“Scout Finch”) and Jacqueline Williams (“Calpurnia”). | CREDIT: Julieta Cervantes
Why is it important to you that there is humor in this story?
It’s important to set up that humanity. There are always laughs in any aspect of life. If people are in prison, I’m sure they’re laughing. That’s just the nature of humanity. It’s how we survive. It’s very human to laugh. That’s just a part of the human experience – still finding laughter and joy in the eye of the storm.
As you said To Kill A Mockingbird is a banned book in many communities. How do you feel about that?
I don’t think that books should be banned. I think that people should have the freedom – even if I disagree with the ideas in a book – to read and make that decision. I don’t think it serves the community to hide ugly parts of ourselves. That’s how we actually learn and grow and group ourselves in true human empathy. It’s not by hiding all the bad parts.
[To Kill a Mockingbird] is a fictional tale, but it’s also so real because [stories like this] actually did happen. It’s relevant. We learn from it and we say, “This should never again happen.”
Richard Thomas (“Atticus Finch”), Yaegel T. Welch (“Tom Robinson”) and The Company of To Kill a Mockingbird. CREDIT: Julieta Cervantes
Spend Time in Maycomb, Alabama
To Kill A Mockingbird is playing at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center’s Belk Theater for one week only – August 1 to 6. Tickets start at $25. Secure your tickets here.
This story was sponsored by Blumenthal Performing Arts. A portion of funds generated through it will fuel the HUG Micro-Grant Program.
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