Personally Speaking: Actor Yaegel T. Welch
Cast member of My Children! My Africa!
Interviewed by Joel Markowitz
He commands the stage with emotion, power and strength. He’s Yaegel T. Welch, a talented young actor who is playing Thami Mbikwana in Studio Theatre’s critically acclaimed production of the Athol Fugard play. Peter Marks called him “the extraordinarily impassioned Yaegel T. Welch”. I asked Yaegel to talk about his role, the Studio Theatre production, and his theatrical training and experiences.
Joel: Please tell us who you play in My Children! My Africa!
Yaegel: I play Thami Mbikwana. Thami is a young South African school boy of undoubtedly high intelligence, who, after careful study, decides to lead a school boycott in protest of the Bantu education system. His conflict arises when this choice forces him to end relationships with his teacher of many years Mr. M (who wholly disagrees with any form of protest that might lead to violence) and draw students from the school; and a young white South African school girl (with whom he has recently formed a strong bond), because of the distrust their relationship might create amongst other black South African students.
Joel: How much of your own personality is in the character and the way you play, Thami Mbikwana?
Yaegel: Thami and I think alike socio-politically, and I fancy myself an amazing intellect like Thami, but we are very different in our approaches to solving society’s ailments. For instance, I don’t think I have demonstrated the courage (at this point in my life) to lead a rebellion. And I am not quite sure others would follow me if I did. Thami uses words at a much higher level than myself. And unlike me, Thami doesn’t take things so personally. We are very much alike in our passion. I think that when I believe passionately it may resonate the same way Thami’s does.
Joel: Are there any life experiences that helped you prepare to play Thami?
Yaegel: Being a black man in America has privileged me to be an unfortunate inheritor of social injustice. Consequently, I have a natural empathy for those black, white, or other who I see victimized by unjust written or unwritten laws. So it wasn’t hard to connect with the desire to change the social circumstances that exist within the play. Being a college graduate also prepared me for the intellectual challenges that performing the role requires. In college I was able to read books on South Africa and apartheid, as well as other social atrocities, such as the Middle Passage, the Holocaust, and on the Civil Rights Movement. I feel as though the aforementioned preparation gave me a well rounded sense of the magnitude and power of oppression, and how it is detrimental to the human spirit.
Joel: You get to sing in the show. Have you appeared in any musicals and have you had vocal training?
Yaegel: I am not a singer at all. I am an actor who sings. I can tell a story with song (I have rarely been known to move anybody’s spirit to tears). I had minimal vocal training when I was at Brandeis University.
Joel: What is the most difficult scene to play in the play?
Yaegel: The most challenging aspect of acting for me has been listening and being still. Well, in Act 2 Scene 3 I spend 90 percent of the time just listening and being still. It was very challenging to be okay in doing just that. I eventually came to the realization that listening is active, and it’s enough to just be still and Listen.
Joel: You are part of a talented ensemble. Can you tell us about working with James Brown-Orleans (who plays Anela Myalatya, “Mr. M”) and Veronica del Cerro (who plays Isabel Dyson)?
Yaegel: Working with Veronica and James has been a pleasure. They are both such talented and good spirited people. The rehearsal process was very harmonious. Which doesn’t happen on every show, so it has been a pleasure. We all arrive very early for rehearsal and performances to warm-up, so we spend more than an average amount of time together. Consequently, we have a myriad of inside jokes and fond memories that we will all share when we think of this experience.
Joel: Tell us about working with director Serge Seiden.
Yaegel: Working with Serge has been a pleasure and a privilege. He’s a very patient, giving and exploratory director with a very humble and open spirit that’s easy to be around, work, and connect with. I told him I wanted to be a better actor after this experience and I feel he helped me achieve that goal.
Joel: You performed the role of Thami at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. How is the way you played Thami at Wilma similar and/or different from the way you are playing Thami here at Studio Theatre?
Yaegel: I think the Thami I played at the Wilma revealed his anger a little more when it came to relating directly to the audience. For instance at the end of act 1, I give a speech to a group of black students and parents; at the Wilma I delivered it more as a plea to understand my side of the story, but I was talking to the audience as they were (a group of typical American theater patrons). But, I think my Thami has grown for the better at the Studio because I wasn’t as frightened of the role. As a result I think I am an overall more grounded, clearer, connected, and specific Thami. However, because I’m playing the character, to get an unbiased opinion, you might have to ask someone who saw me in both productions.
Joel: Tell us about your theatre training and other shows you have appeared in.
Yaegel: I have trained at Morehouse College, Brandeis University, and The Shakespeare Theater Company Academy for Classical Acting, at the George Washington University, and the Chautauqua Institution. Most recently I was seen in “Fly”, at the Lincoln Center in NY and in “Fences” at the Arkansas Repertory Theater.
Joel: This is your DC debut. How do you like the theatre community and what’s it like to work at Studio Theatre?
Yaegel: This is my DC debut and I love it! DC is such an advanced theater town. And I love that some actors are still unaware of that fact, because it leaves more work for me. LOL! I am thrilled that my debut is at the Studio because when I studied here (at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy for Classical Acting at George Washington University) I saw several shows at Studio and I knew instantly that I wanted to work there. I felt they did strong theater that made a very strong statement.
Joel: Can you offer some advice for young actors who are starting out?
Yaegel: Go for it! Be like a postage stamp, “Stick with it until you get there!” What you struggle with as a young actor, you’ll be teaching others how to do as an older actor, if you stick with it.
Believe you deserve to be on stage. And study, study study, and Do do do! Don’t just think about working on a monologue, play, or scene; study it and rehearse it. Most importantly find out “why” you want to act, because that will be your fuel when it gets hard, make sure it’s strong or important enough to sustain you
Joel: Please invite our readers to see My Children! My Africa!.
Yaegel: I would like to welcome all readers to come and see My Children! My Africa! at Studio Theatre. You will definitely leave the theater a better human being. You will laugh, cry, but most importantly at the end, you will be better informed. I believe you’ll see three good actors, directed by a really good director, performing in a really great play.
Read DCTS writer Debbie Minter Jackson’s review
My Children! My Africa! is playing at Studio Theater, 1501 14th St, N.W. (14 & P) through Oct 21. Showtimes are Wednesday -Saturday 8pm (also several Tuesday performances) , Saturday-Sunday matinees 2pm, Sunday 7pm. For additional information, call 202- 332-3300 or consult the website.