Gbenga Akinnagbe says he would think twice before appearing in a project like “To Kill a Mockingbird” again.
Akinnagbe is one of the stars of Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation of the classic Harper Lee novel. He plays Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of a grievous crime, and defended in court by Atticus Finch. It’s an iconic role, the kind of opportunity that puts an up-and-coming actor on the map.
And yet, Akinnagbe says, he’s become painfully aware of the cost of depicting black suffering onstage every night in front of a mostly white audience. And he’s not sure he would want to take on a similar role again.
“I love what I do, as far as storytelling goes,” Akinnagbe said in an interview this week. But, he added, “I’m not interested in being the guy who does black pain all the time, or the guy you go to if you want to see a black man suffer — ‘Well, go get Gbenga!’ No, I want to tell stories that have a full range.”
I spoke with Akinnagbe on the Post Reports podcast on Friday about his role in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the essay he wrote recently about the pain he feels in performing this role. In that essay, the Nigerian American actor recounted what it’s like to be called the n-word onstage every night in front a predominantly white audience, and the dismay he felt when several white audience members felt entitled to use that word to his face while congratulating him backstage.
And in a world fraught with violence against black and brown bodies, he says, there’s a banality to a story where the only significant black male character ends up dead.
“America’s porn is black pain. America — it gets off on it. It needs it,” Akinnagbe said on the podcast. “There’s a certain relief to it, a climax to it, when we see and reward black pain. And it fits what we understand of black people.”
My conversation with Akinnagbe made me reflect on the fact that I have not yet seen “To Kill a Mockingbird” on Broadway. And I’m not sure I will. One reason: It’s hard to get excited about the prospect of sitting in that audience, a sea of white faces, and watching a black guy onstage fight for his life as other characters debase him with racial epithets again and again.
It’s the same reason “When They See Us,” Ava DuVernay’s new series on the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five, has sat unwatched in my Netflix queue. It’s why my grandma said she regretted seeing “Twelve Years a Slave” in theaters, that it reminded her too much of what she’d experienced in childhood.
Depicting black suffering comes at a cost — for the actors, and sometimes for the audience.
For the record, Akinnagbe is effusive about his experience working with Sorkin and the play’s director, Bartlett Sher. And he said that one of the things he’s proud of is the fact that this new Broadway production of Harper Lee’s beloved story re-envisions the character of Tom — giving him more agency, an active role in deciding whether he’ll accept a plea bargain or avow his innocence, and clarifying to the audience that Tom is keenly aware of the inevitable injustice of his own fate.
And yet, to some audience members, that injustice still comes as a surprise.
“I’ve spoken to a few people after the show who — I don’t know how, or how it came to be — but they weren’t aware of how the play was going to end,” Akinnagbe said. “And they’d say, to me, like, ‘Wow, I thought you’re going to get off in the end.’ ”
“And I was like, ‘What? No, sir,’ ” Akinnagbe continued. “Maybe he forgot what town, and what era, and that all the facts are against this guy, as far as circumstances.”
Because you don’t have to have read Harper Lee’s original text to know how the story ends. If you’ve been paying attention — to history, to the world around us — there are no surprises here.