Interviews From Another Zero:

Yaegel T. Welch is Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, playing at the San Diego Civic Theatre from November 29 to December 4.

"If I can put my words and thoughts into art, I feel heard. People connect, people, listen, and understand me better".
Actor Yaegel T. Welch

by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

To Kill a Mockingbird will have its premiere San Diego engagement at the San Diego Civic Theatre from November 29 to December 4. Academy Award® winner Aaron Sorkin’s new play is directed by Tony Award® winner Bartlett Sher and based on Harper Lee’s classic novel. ´Mockingbird was originally a part of Broadway San Diego’s 2019-2020 Season. While the touring company was performing in Seattle, I had the opportunity to engage in a wonderful and insightful conversation with Yaegel T. Welch who is reprising his Broadway role of Tom Robinson now on the tour. 

Welch, a Cali boy, went to John W. North High School in Riverside California and remembers his high school theatre teacher Michelle Grotness, fondly. She taught me so much about theatre and ingenuity. When I was in the program there, it was not necessarily the most major program but she did it all on her own. She could take paper towels and make a whole set for us, do the lighting, direct the show, cast it, and make sure that the music was together for the musicals and the sound. It was pretty much a one-person show that she was curating in terms of production and really showing all of us the ropes on how we can do theatre, different styles, and what you can do on stage. I was the only Black kid in that theatre program at the time because Black kids really didn't do theatre. It wasn't something that culturally was a part of our lives at least, during the 90s I should say. I was introduced to a world that I probably would have never seen or known about because of what this woman taught me. It wasn't even doing theatre that I learned... I always feel like I can be impassioned and sometimes misunderstood but, if I can put my words and thoughts into art, I feel heard. People connect, people, listen, and understand me better. I also feel a spiritual catharsis after a performance where I feel like I've given something to people that made them better. That, all started in a high school theatre program... 

The theatre addiction as he calls it, continued when he went off to college, then did more college to continue to another college. He has three degrees! Studied at Morehouse CollegeBrandeis University, AND the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Academy for Classical Acting (ACA), in conjunction with George Washington University. 

For the people who are not familiar with and/or did not learn about Harper Lee's 1960 book, To Kill a Mockingbird what does this play entail? and let us talk about your character and the changes the production has had from Broadway to the touring version... 
(please note there might be some spoilers for people that are unfamiliar with the book/play and trigger warning about physical abuse).

Richard Thomas (“Atticus Finch”) and Yaegel T. Welch (“Tom Robinson”). Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Essentially it is about how racism impacts communities both Black and white, it basically trails the Finch family and their journey trying to save a Black man's life who has been charged with raping a white girl. He clearly did not do it, but because of the system of Jim Crow that's been set up in the 1930s in America, he's on trial and basically, they are going to lynch him. Mr. Finch, our main protagonist, is trying to save his life, but there is no way. We see how this event transforms the lives of this lawyer and his three young children who are also in the story, two of which are his son and daughter. My character is Tom Robinson, I am the guy on trial. I think ultimately my character is a guy who has a really good heart! He goes to help somebody out a lot and this young white girl develops a crush on him. Her racist father sees that she is trying to come on to him and proceeds to beat and rape her but accuses him of doing it. 

Ultimately, it is a lesson about how ugly society was at that time because even somebody who is trying to do a good thing, and just helps somebody out as they're walking home, gets entangled in something and becomes a victim of a system that is used to oppress a certain culture of people a.e, Black people. This is a complex synopsis but I hope everybody gets it.

I have seen interviews and pieces here and there, where they say the production on Broadway before the pandemic underwent some changes for the tour and touches upon social injustice, that continues to this day! when we are in this new millennium, century, or whatever, and things still KEEP HAPPENING so, in this sense -without spoilers- can you share what differences or what can audiences experience in this tour?

I also did the show on Broadway and audiences sort of reacted in a very nostalgic way prior to the pandemic it was like "oh this a story that we know and love, that we grew up with" but we treated it like an event that was in the past. Cut to 2020, and we witness George Floyd, we hear about Breonna Taylor, we see these Black people who are being killed at the hands of the law and there is no justice being served for them and in someway we are trying to convict them for their past flaws or their past behavior and saying it is ok that they died because look at who they were and it is like oh NO, we just saw you sit on somebody's neck and let them die as they were saying "I can't breathe, I can't breathe" and you are saying it is their fault and you had nothing to do with it, we call BS on that. You do not sit on somebody's neck for 9 minutes. 

So, after the pandemic, we got back to Broadway, and remounted the show last October; what we saw were audiences that were so in a call-and-response mode, there were like "this is so wrong!", there were boos and hisses, people were impassioned because this is no longer a story that is encapsulated as part of our past, this is still happening! So, it made the story current in a way that we hope it should not be, but it is, and it is sad that it is. 

This gives credence to the fact that we need to tell this story because people need to learn that this was happening this long ago, this book was written in the 1960s, and this is the story about the 1930s, we are now in 2022, and guess what? WE SEE IT HAPPENING, there is so much truth in it! 

Another one of the big changes that happened, on Broadway, when Tom Robinson dies, Aaron Sorkin (playwright) cut it down to him getting shot five times in the back, originally... now this is a one-armed man who they say, was shot five times in the back climbing a fence, tell me, how a one-armed man is going to climb a fence? it is not likely! you need two arms! In the book originally, Harper Lee the author says he was shot seventeen times in the back and Aaron Sorkin put it back in. Originally he said it was too dramatic, seventeen times but actually, no it is not. That is what they did! It was not an accidental killing, they shot him seventeen times! Because they murdered him and to tell the rawness of that is to really tell the truth of the time that they were just murdering Black men then, it wasn't anything and they did not have to justify it. They can make up a story that a one-armed man was climbing a fence. Though the story is fictional, there are true accounts of these things happening to Black men at the time and it brings truth to that. Alternately I think what it does is create a larger sense of empathy. To be white in America and witness George Floyd, you do not have to be Black to empathize with the fact that that is wrong. How can we start to empathize with others' pain though it does not affect us? and what we can see in a moment, it does affect our community and our psychology in the long run. How can we empathize with the struggle and pain of others? an injustice to one person is an injustice to us all. Especially for kids, this story really addresses how kids have to deal with seeing and witnessing these things. What does that say and teach them? How do we reprogram those injustices from being normal? We are putting the injustice in the audience's face and asking what do you think? That is why this story unites.

Yaegel T. Welch (“Tom Robinson”) and The Company of To Kill a Mockingbird. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

In an interview with Broadway World piggybacking on what we are talking about now, Welch shared some beautiful words saying that he is part of something really transformative for society. He has been with the production for three years acting along with Ed Harris and Jeff Daniels, sharing as well that he will have worked in this production for about 4 years total and it is the longest he has been part of one project.

As Yaegel points out the Broadway audiences' reaction to the piece, I ask him how has the reaction been specifically with the audiences on tour across the US...

Surprisingly, it is different. Sometimes we go to cities that see a lot of theatre, get a lot of big plays and shows, and have a thriving theatrical regional theatre/theatrical community that is there, their reaction tends to be still and to listen, and there are other communities we go to where THIS is the big event! This is the Super Bowl for the weekend, it is packed! 

On Broadway I think the Shubert Theatre was 1,400 seats, sometimes we are playing places that are 3,000 seats and it is a big communal event and the place is packed every night. When you think about it, you are like "wow, we were here for two weeks and we brought in 3,000 people every single night!". It is really great that people are coming out to see the play and that it is being received so well. Communities are different, sometimes communities know this type of injustice because they are in parts of the country where it is a little more visible and they really relate. Also, audiences are different from night to night, a Sunday night audience will be different from a Friday night audience. It is a great challenge and also a great privilege to get to play in all these different venues, America has some beautiful theatres. 

Your theatre training is pretty hefty...what advice would you give to young aspiring kids that want to pursue a career in theatre? what would your words of wisdom be? 

I would say try it out, take a class, get into an improvisation class and I think ultimately if you decide that you do want to do it, figure out why you want to act and what stories you would like to tell. Some days it is fun and easy and you are just excited. On other days it is a job, but I think that when you have a purpose behind it, you keep going. Purpose sort of fuels you to stick with it when it gets hard. When the meals aren´t coming in as meaty, full of protein and steaks, salmons, and shrimp. You need something to fuel you to keep going because like anything, it is going to get hard. Watch lots of plays, read lots of plays, and go to lots of movies. Find your favorite actors, your favorite playwrights, and your favorite style of movies. 

Try to write yourself, play around on YouTube, and see if you can create stories, and really understand camera angles, light, and sound, learn everything you can about the business. Volunteer, sit in the rehearsal process, the more you put it out there, I am sort of a spiritualist and I believe that the universe gives all of that back to you, you just have to put it out there, people have to know that that, is what you want.

Be bold and be willing to not be so good at first because that is how you get better.

Do you teach? if you do, it shows, if you do not, you should... laughs... 

Anything that you would like to add?

Come out, see, and support our show we have some great performances, there is the legendary Richard Thomas who everybody knows is John-boy from the Waltons, he's been on Ozark recently but he has done so much it'd be impossible to list his resume and he is a fantastic, wonderful actor to work with. Then there's Mary Badham who is the original Scout in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird and now she is playing Mrs. Henry Dubose. Melanie Moore a fantastic young actress who won So You Think You Can Dance I think in 2012, she plays Scout, and Jacqueline Williams a legendary Chicago actress who plays Calpurnia, there is just a lot of talent in this play and people should really come witness it. If you come, we hope you leave more in tune with empathy and transformed into a better individual and person.

Digital Lottery

There is a Broadway Direct Digital Lottery for $35 TICKETS for every performance this week

Entries for each performance will be available from 10am-3pm the day prior to the performance. Entrants will be notified if they are selected via email.

Enter directly through the Broadway San Diego App on the Apple Store or Google Play

You can also enter the Lottery directly through the Broadway Direct website HERE.

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