Gbenga Akinnagbe plays Tom Robinson in the Broadway production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Larry Brown in the HBO drama “The Deuce.”
I was 8 or 9 when I first realized that I would have to soften my voice, cross the street or use big words I learned on TV to make white people feel safe around me. Since November, I have been playing Tom Robinson in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” For Tom, who has never known a day without oppression and the threat of violence, modulating for white people is imperative. But he can only go so far to make them comfortable. And when he is falsely accused of raping a white woman in the Jim Crow Alabama of 1934, there can be only one ending for him. He is a smart man; he never expects to survive this ordeal, and he doesn’t.
When I accepted the part, it was exhilarating. I was prepared for the long hours, the conversations dissecting race and class, and what the role would demand of me. I loved the work. I still do. What I did not anticipate was how deeply it would affect me — how wearing it would be to play a part that makes me the daily object of racist invective and racial violence for a majority-white audience.
Since our early rehearsal, I could see that it was important to the creative team to make theater that would reflect our national struggles in an inclusive way. For a year of preparation, the play was a piece of living text that we dissected endlessly. I got used to the safe space nurtured in that rehearsal room. I put it out of my mind that the play was going to be on Broadway — and that it was based on a book over which so many Americans felt ownership. I did not expect, ever, that performing it and rehearsing it would not be the same experience for me.
Most of the audiences who have seen the play have been white and seemingly well-off. That has been the heart of the theater in the United States for decades, after all. And for the most part I have found that these white theatergoers have a genuine experience of emotion and empathy at “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
But what has surprised me is how much it hurts my heart to tell this black man’s story, with its inevitable end, for the nightly consumption of this audience. I didn’t realize how desperate I’d be for the comforting faces of people of color in the sold-out 1,435-seat Shubert Theatre. I know that the black people who come to this play share the pain I experience onstage in a way white theatergoers cannot.
The word “nigger” is said a lot in the play — most often by white people, and most often to me or about me as Tom Robinson.
During our early rehearsals, I felt like I was in some bizarre alternate universe where that word, shared as freely as midday salutations and germs, didn’t have its historical meaning. After a short while, the shock of hearing the largely white cast say it over and over faded, and it settled into its place as the common vernacular of the world we were creating.
Later, during performances, as we could feel this process replicated with the audiences — their discomfort giving way to their becoming entirely accustomed to it — I realized the brilliance of Sorkin’s writing.
The heavy use of this word and its effects on the cast mirrored the process of its introduction into the culture and its use as a whole. The term became a weaponized insult to distinguish black people from white ones, and to degrade us in the process. Over time, white people began to use it to describe black people as a group in graphic and destructive terms. And, ultimately, some black people adopted and adapted the term, using it to identify themselves and one another as a way to defuse the term’s basic ugliness.
We got used to hearing it. At least, I thought I got used to it. But then last week, three lovely, older white women came backstage after the show and asked me how it felt to be the object of that word — all while using it themselves to pose the question. I walked home wondering if I had done something that made them feel that saying that word to me was so inconsequential, or if they believed their good intentions took the sting of it away.
I love this role. Our Tom Robinson, the Tom that Aaron Sorkin wrote and that I play, has a voice and agency that the Tom of the Harper Lee book and 1962 film did not have. Making work that shows black people as whole people, people with thoughts, opinions and complications, is everything to me.
The experience of playing Tom has been taxing in all the ways an artist wants to be taxed. We have the good fortune of this amazing platform — a Broadway stage — upon which to engage with some of our most shameful American history. This is often cathartic. But when the play is over, I am still a black man, in this racist country, still subject to its lethal systems and structures.
And when I’m on the witness stand during each performance, fighting for my life, images of black people running for their lives from the police fly in and out of my head. I cannot stop them. I think about Sandra Bland. I think about meeting Tamir Rice’s mother, Samaria Rice. I think about getting to know Trayvon Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, over the years.
I look out to all those white faces with enough disposable income to be able to afford to see this show, and I hear Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch ask me the age-old question, “Why’d you run? If you didn’t do anything wrong, why’d you run?” I think how, after all this time and so many dead innocents, do they still not understand why we would run? In that moment, like so many moments in this play, it’s no longer a play, it’s no longer a role, it’s not a theater, and it’s not safe.