Yaegel T. Welch, who plays Tom Robinson in the national tour of “To Kill a Mockingbird” that comes to Auburn and Huntsville this week, is no stranger to being on stage opposite actors playing Alabama icons.
In “Mockingbird,” of course, it’s Richard Thomas playing the fictional Atticus Finch, the attorney defending Robinson, accused of assaulting a young white woman in Maycomb, Alabama.
But in 2009, the icon was Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant in “Bear Country” in its world premiere at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Rodney Davidson played the title role, and Welch played several other roles.
“That show ran multiple years because it was their highest-grossing play ever because it was about Bear Bryant,” Welch recalls. “One of the most interesting things about that was that the audience would tailgate. It became a tradition for fathers to bring their sons to learn about Bear Bryant.”
Welch appeared in two runs of the show at ASF, as well as the tour that came to Birmingham’s Virginia Samford Theatre.
That was early in the career of the Morehouse College graduate who has master’s degrees from both Brandeis University and George Washington University Shakespeare Theatre Academy.
He made his Broadway and national tour debut in “The Play That Goes Wrong. His second Broadway run was as understudy for the role of Tom Robinson in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He’s been on tour with the show, in the role of Robinson, since it hit the road in March 2022.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a show Welch had his eyes on from the moment he heard the Aaron Sorkin-written version, based on the classic novel written by Monroeville’s Harper Lee, was headed to Broadway.
“I have a strong belief that art should have some type of social meaning,” Welch says. “And what this show’s about in terms of making people aware of social injustices and doing something to change that, this is a dream job for me, in that sense. Because every night I go on that stage, the play means something.”
In Sorkin’s “Mockingbird,” Robinson’s story is more of a focus than it is in Lee’s book, where it is told in two chapters.
“He has given the roles of Tom and Calpurnia more agency, so they’ve been beefed up a bit,” Welch says. “It sort of gives more voice to a community that was not really heard from very much in the book. … But the Tom Robinson tale is the catalyst for the story. The story is about a Southern white family encountering racism for the first time in a very real way.”
Welch has nothing but praise for Thomas, the TV icon who, like Welch, has been with “Mockingbird” the duration of the tour.
“He is fantastic, very humble, creative, eager to share and collaborate as an artist,” Welch says. “You sort of pinch yourself for the privilege of night after night, I get to go on stage with somebody with such a storied career in this business, who is clearly admired by millions of people. … Night after night, he walks on stage to entrance applause, and I think, ‘Wow, that is who my scene partner is.’”
Welch also considers it a privilege to be bringing the beloved “Mockingbird” to audiences.
“This story has inspired I don’t know how many people to be lawyers,” the actor says. “I’ve heard that on Broadway and on the road from people who became lawyers because of this book. Also, ‘My child’s name is Scout’ or ‘My son’s name is Atticus.’ This book has inspired so many people, and I feel like there’s an even deeper meaning in the South. We all know that though it’s a fictional tale, it wasn’t exactly fiction … And I feel audiences there value the story in a more personal way.”
By the time his contract is up in July, Welch will have been touring with “Mockingbird” for more than two years, and though he doesn’t know if it will end then, “that’s a pretty long time,” he says.
“My goal when I get back is to really hone in on television,” Welch says. “Hopefully, I’ll land a show that will run for seven seasons. I would love a procedural show on NBC, ABC or CBS that films in Brooklyn, and they pick me up every morning.
“That’s all I’m asking,” he adds with a laugh. “It’s very simple.”