Actors talk about the continued importance of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

Yeager Welch as Tom Robinson. (Photo by Juliette Selwartz)

On stage in central Iowa this week, a play about racial injustice based on the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller.

The Des Moines Civic Center was the first theater west of the Mississippi to host the Broadway tour of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Actor Yaegel Welch says Harper Lee’s novel has been a must-read for generations of students and remains extremely relevant even more than 60 years after it was first published.

“The book seemed to be a symbol of consciousness at some point in time, but now we can look back at it and see where the story might have some flaws,” Welch said, “but it’s still a history lesson because in the One point, it’s the standard, and I think we need to look at what the standard used to be so we can now see how far we’ve come.”

Welch, who plays Tom Robinson, a black man who is falsely accused of raping a white woman in Depression-era Alabama, says Lee is not afraid to deal with strong themes of discrimination, prejudice and classism. “This book, its most important lesson in empathy, I think it’s important to look back on the power of that time,” Welch said. “I think that’s what it has to do. If we can continue this empathic thinking, I think we can continue to grow as a society and as individuals, just to be better and more caring for each other.”

This stage version of the robin was written by Aaron Sorkin, who is probably best known for writing TV “The West Wing.” Welch also played Robinson on Broadway and said the role made him reflect on the specter of racism in the Deep South at the time of writing the book, and the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

“It sheds light on the injustice in our legal system today and the unjust killing of citizens, in this case, black citizens,” Welch said. “I think Aaron Sorkin’s focus on that thing made it so popular, things keep happening, just to highlight it, and say, ‘Oh wow, it’s still happening,’ so it’s not a condensed story. This It’s up to date.” Welch said his recent visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis made him think about why people risk their lives for sit-ins at lunch counters — or put the fictional Robinson at trial, knowing that he Possibly even if he is found innocent, he will be lynched.

“People are bold in doing things for the greater good of society,” Welch said. “They fully understand the consequences of what they do, but sometimes people can be in such a state of oppression that they are willing to sacrifice their health and safety for the greater good and social change.”

The 1962 film version of the book featured actress Mary Badham, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress when she was 10 years old. Badham, 69, plays Mrs. Dubose, Scooter’s hateful neighbor, in the Des Moines episode. The show runs through Sunday at the Civic Center.

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