LISTEN: Actor Yaegel Welch talks with GPB's Kristi York Wooten about playing the role of Tom Robinson in Aaron Sorkin's Broadway touring adaptation of Harper Lee's novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird" — and where the approach of these two white writers on a story about the wider American saga of race sits today.

Yaegel Welch portrays  Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Yaegel Welch portrays Tom Robinson in playwright Aaron Sorkin's stage presentation of Harper Lee's classic novel "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Writer and producer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) debuted his version of To Kill A Mockingbird on Broadway in 2018 to rave reviews. The current touring production of his adaptation of Harper Lee's 1960 novel about Southern life in the 1930s arrives for a run at Atlanta's Fox Theatre May 7 through May 12, starring Richard Thomas as lawyer Atticus Finch and Yaegel Welch as Tom Robinson, the Black man defended by Finch after he is wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a white girl. 

GPB's Kristi York Wooten spoke with Welch, a Morehouse College graduate whose acting credits include The Blacklist, Blue Bloods and New Amsterdam, about the influence of Atlanta on his life, the lessons he learned both from Lee's novel and Sorkin's revisitation, working with co-star Thomas and what the role of Tom Robinson taught him.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


On the influence of Atlanta

Kristi York Wooten: I'm glad to talk with you about the Broadway traveling production of To Kill a Mockingbird coming to the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. And I know that you've been performing as the character Tom Robinson with the production a while, so I have some questions and we'll just get started…

But first, tell me about your experiences as a student at Morehouse and being in Atlanta, because you're not from Georgia originally, right?

Yaegel Welch: Not from Georgia originally, but I'm from the Los Angeles County area in California. And I came to Morehouse at 17 and, yeah, I had the time of my life. I mean, I feel like I matriculated. I became, more than I thought I would have been, ever. And so I'm eternally grateful to what the institution provided me, in terms of both growth and academics — and just giving me a sense of grounding in who I am. And, you know, helping build my own self-esteem.

Kristi York Wooten: Did coming to Atlanta from Los Angeles dispel any preconceptions you may have or add to some things you may have thought [about the city or about the South, where Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird is set in 1930s Alabama]?

Yaegel Welch: Atlanta was the first time I was around such a large populace of Black people. You know, in California, the Black community exists in small pockets. So even when I went to school, there wasn't very many of us. We did exist but there wasn't a lot. And so that was my first time just being around a community of people where all of a sudden my race didn't matter, particularly because I was at an HBCU (historically Black college/university). And being at an HBCU, you know, we did have people who weren't of color there, but the culture was definitely African-American in its essence.

So it was the first time in my life where my skin color didn't necessarily feel like, something that was the first thing people saw. In addition to being around a community that has such a rich history with civil rights and race relations, it was my first time sort of being in the South, you know, for an extended period of time and getting to understand the diaspora of people of color in America, because you now have Black people from New York who I had never been around, and then those from Texas and those from Florida and those in California, those from Seattle and San Diego. … My time in Atlanta was largely spent on campus. So, if you go to, I'm just going to say Harvard, where, you know, the diversity amongst ethnicities and cultures really is just different. But it was weird being in a place where everybody was American, but just from different parts, but also were all Black. And that had never happened before for me.

And, in addition to dealing with humidity for the first time: that was also something that had never happened. I had never been around humidity, and I remember that hitting me. And also the amount of successful people of color in Atlanta. I had never seen so many in one place. And the Black doctor, the Black lawyer, the Black college professor — they were in abundance. And that does something to you in terms of showing you what your possibilities are as a person when you're not used to seeing that — unless it's on television.


On Lee, Sorkin and lessons about race

Kristi York Wooten: Right. So that's a great preamble to how I wanted to get into the conversation about To Kill a Mockingbird [and the South]. This is the Aaron Sorkin-ized version of the play, you know, which started on Broadway [in December 2018] and then made some adjustments during COVID. And then the touring production came about. And I think you've been with the touring production for a couple of years now, right?

Yaegel Welch: I've been with the touring production since it started, and I performed on Broadway for two cycles — so since about 2019.

Kristi York Wooten: So having been involved with a project for that long, first I want to know: What really are the Aaron Sorkin elements? And second of all, I think I read somewhere you read To Kill a Mockingbird as early as maybe junior high. So I wanted to get your thoughts on having known the text and then seeing Aaron Sorkin's treatment of it, but also to have the reality of playing a Black man in a play in a book written by a white woman and then later adapted by a white man. [That seems like an interesting] challenge for an actor.

And then I want to ask you in a minute, too, about how maybe performances or your approach changes or of the audience reactions, depending on where you are in the country, differs. So the first part of that is maybe the Harper Lee and Sorkin, how you fit into that.

Yaegel Welch: With Aaron Sorkin, you get a lot of his fast-paced dialog. And if you honestly just ride his dialog word for word, it does most of the work. And so we're very fortunate to have him as our playwright. Harper Lee, because it's a different medium, there's no way a player could do a direct retelling of the book — and, you know, in 2.5 hours. And so what you do is you take slices of life from the book, and you sort of weave it around one plot point. And what Aaron has done is: The Tom Robinson narrative in the book is about two chapters. Aaron centers his whole play around the trial and death of Tom Robinson, and how that affects the Southern white family and how it causes them to grow and be better people.

Now, what Harper Lee’s book represented for me was something that was revolutionary in the 1960s, the fact that a white woman would dare to say it. A white woman from the South would dare to reveal the secrets of what was happening and how she grew up, and all of its complexities and some of it's not very pretty. And her daring to be bold enough, I think, inspired a lot of people to want to be social justice warriors, to want to be people who are lawyers, to want to be people who want to do something about the ills of society, particularly when it comes to social injustice that had infected, you know, I guess, our racial stratification system here in America.

And I don't think that there's a problem because Harper Lee is telling the story … Just like if I can tell you my story about how I grew up as a Black man, you know, coming to Atlanta, that's the perspective I can present it from, because that's what I have. And I think Harper Lee's just telling her side of the story. But also, it has been such a tool and such a weapon for, like, social injustice — or social justice fighters and civil rights fighters. This book has inspired so many people to do the work, but I think it's what's necessary.

Sometimes some communities need to see people who look like them, because the story has particularly inspired a lot of people who aren’t of color to want to get involved in the fight because they saw themselves in Harper Lee. They saw themselves as being somebody who wants to do something about the problem and not just, exist in the benefits of it. So I don't — and I would say the same for Aaron. It's just further perpetuating the narrative that we need to do this work because this story shows this: that, that Lee wrote this about her growing up in Alabama in 1934. The book came out in the early 1960s. Aaron Sorkin's adaptation was in 2018, and the same events are still happening. And so I think. It's a necessary tool. Because race relations in America is not just about Black people, it's about Black and white people, particularly in this story, because it's about all of us.

But, you know, we want to say America's, you know, tragic flaw, our No. 1 sin that America tends to be ashamed of is slavery, [or], you know, the Native American genocide. There are certain things, you know, that ring true, that we all know about, and that are challenging for us to deal with and to have people who aren’t of color not only coming to see the show, but you know, writing books and creating work. I think that that's just as important because it's not just our story of Black people.

I think white people are involved in it, too. In fact, the civil rights movement wouldn't have happened without — the Black Lives Movement wouldn't have happened without the large support of the white community. And so I don't find it a problem at all because I stand on what the person — I stand on what Harper Lee and Aaron Sorkin, the message they're trying to promote, more so than sort of minimizing its value because they don't look like me. I think they're trying to say a very positive thing. I think they're inspiring so many people to get involved in work that I can stand behind as a Black man.

Morehouse College graduate Yaegel Welch (right) performs in the Broadway touring production of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' with actor Richard Thomas. The cast performs in seven shows from May 7 to 12, 2024 at Atlanta's Fox Theatre.

Morehouse College graduate Yaegel Welch (right) performs in the Broadway touring production of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' with actor Richard Thomas. The cast performs in seven shows from May 7 to 12, 2024 at Atlanta's Fox Theatre.

Credit: Julieta Cervantes

On working with Richard Thomas

Kristi York Wooten: Especially how Harper Lee's work … I mean, you wouldn't say that it was a tool in the American civil rights movement, but in some ways, it was a precursor to the tools. … As somebody from the South, I have to ask about working with Richard Thomas [who plays Atticus Finch in the production]. Gosh, we had to watch [him as “John Boy,” a young writer growing up in rural Virginia in the 1930s and 1940s] on the TV show The Waltons every week when I was growing up. And, you know, he portrayed that slice of Southern life for a huge part of his career. Obviously, he's done a lot of amazing things since then. But did you ever watch him as a kid or get exposed to The Waltons or any of that when you were younger?

Yaegel Welch: I'm very candid with Richard. I think I just missed The Waltons by a generation [laughs]. I was more growing up on Little House on the Prairie [in syndication]. And so I knew who Richard Thomas was by face, right? But I didn't grow up in the part of or in the time in America where you were seeing him every day, and he was on one of the only programs on TV at night. And so, no, I did not know who I, ironically, was fanboying out over, because I had just seen Richard in [the Georgia-filmed Netflix TV series] Ozark and I was like, “Oh my God,” he was so good in it.

You know, but he's one of those faces that's just been on TV and movies my entire life. You know, he had a peak popularity and honestly, you know, he's a little older than me. [laughs]. But my family, my parents, everybody, my aunt and uncles and even older cousin, who have all come through the show, they're all so excited to meet Richard, because they did [grow up with The Waltons]. When you go around the country and you see how beloved this man is? You know, I mean, I yeah, well, he walks on stage and its immediate applause.

What I really like about working with him is I'm getting to work with somebody who not only mastered his craft, but also he's mastered how to be in to the rehearsal room. He's mastered how to communicate with people in the workplace in a way that he truly is an example of how to be professional, polished and still kind and so talented and generous on stage. Dependable. You know, I'm so proud to know him. And, at this point that I can call him a friend. I hope that our paths cross again when this is over and we, you know, have another, you know, dance in the rain.


On playing Tom Robinson

Kristi York Wooten: Your relationship with different cast members probably has shaped you in some way as an actor, especially being with a project for so long. How has portraying the character of Tom changed you?

Yaegel Welch: Oh, God. How has Tom changed me? Tom is a prime example of somebody who would rather die in truth than live a lie — and the importance of that. Because I think Tom’s chance to stay alive would have been to take a plea deal and go to jail, nine times out of ten. He still likely would have been killed because they have to send that message: You can’t touch a white girl. Even though he didn't do it, you know, they have to send a message to the community to perpetuate this narrative that that's what's happening. And so oftentimes, you know, you would have been hung regardless. They would have come and got you from the jailhouse and found a way to make an example of you. But that is his best chance to stay alive. And nobody would have judged him had he done that and made that choice. But he chooses to go to trial. Mind you, this has never happened. This is in 1930, and he chooses to go to trial, and make sure he tells his truth. This is what happens. And he takes a chance on the truth. And I find that really inspiring.

I find it really inspiring to take a chance on a kid, you know, his wife, his family, his community all in that courtroom, having everything put out there about what really happened. And we don't necessarily get to see it, on the stage. But we know that Maycomb and that town will never be the same place. Too much has been exposed and said, because we actually used the justice system and got, you know, the word out. And this is what I would like to think in my imagination, that would have happened from his actions. And so he has put me in an understanding of what it means to be not only dignified but committed to your truth and using your truth as a tool to transform others.

Kristi York Wooten: Perfect. Well, listen, Yaegel, thank you so much for the time today and we're looking forward to the play coming to the Fox Theatre. So, I will see you on stage there and I hope you enjoy your time in Atlanta when you get here. I'm sure it's changed a lot.

Yaegel Welch: Atlanta is my second home. I'm in Atlanta probably twice a year. So, I'm looking forward to coming to Atlanta. It feels more like a homecoming than it does like I'm visiting the place. I was so excited to learn that when we did the second leg of the tour that I was going to get to go spend some time in Atlanta. And believe it or not, I even have a family reunion in Atlanta when I get down there. It's like perfect timing. Yeah. I'm looking forward to the soul food. I am looking forward to stopping down by Five Points and Little Five Points and seeing all my friends.

To Kill a Mockingbird is at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta May 7 through May 12. Click here for tickets and more information.