Jude Owusu plays Tom Robinson in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of the Harper Lee Novel To Kill A Mocking Bird.
Set in Maycomb, Alabama in 1934, To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of young Scout and her father Atticus Finch, a lawyer tasked with defending a local, Tom Robinson, who is accused of rape. The novel explores justice and racial tension in a small Southern town.
Jude Owusu’s theatre credit include The Taming of the Shrew, Bartholomew Fair (Shakespeare’s Globe), Tamburlaine, I Cinna, Julius Caesar (RSC), The Cherry Orchard (Bristol Old Vic), A Tale of Two Cities (Regent’s Park and more.
We spoke to the actor about his character and what Tom Robinson represent’s in the World today.
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Jude Owusu
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now…
Currently, I am feeling middling to marvellous.
In this adaptation of the book, the role of Tom Robinson has greater agency can you tell us how and why Aaron Sorkin chose to do this?
I think Aaron chose to give Tom more agency because it would be almost impossible to do the play in this age without doing so. After what we have all been through the past 4+ years. To do an adaptation it has to say something about the world of the play and the world we live in now.
Before joining the cast had you read the novel if so what was your personal take on it? Do you see any of yourself in Tom?
Before joining the cast I hadn’t read the original. I knew of it through family and friends and knew what happened. I think there is Tom in all of us. At times it can be hard to remember that. Life can beat it out of us.
How did you go about building the simultaneous strength and vulnerability of your character?
I started building the character of Tom through doing research on what life was like for him in 1934 Alabama. I knew about the racism and harshness but I wanted to be specific in terms of how one had to behave, address and be addressed, etiquette etc. Then I also looked at a line that Atticus says about Tom which I wanted to explore more. Atticus says that ‘a man will have his dignity‘. I wanted to unpack what dignity meant for me and for Tom.
Ultimately I came to the conclusion after reading and talking to family, that it was about understanding that we are all born with inherent value and inherent worth and that dignity is also very fragile. Tom and people at the bottom have that worth chipped away through laws like Jim Crow, segregation, language etc. Tom claims back his dignity, his inherent value and worth when he is most under pressure. We are not only valuable and worthy but also inherently invaluable. All of us.
To Kill A Mocking Bird is a classic American Novel depicting racism and prejudice in the American south. The themes surround heroism, morals and religion, its titular quote is “Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” what does this quote and the themes explored represent for you?
The themes in the play and especially through the eyes of Tom forces us to ask ourselves some tough questions about the criminal justice/injustice system, prejudice, privilege and how far or how slow we have moved along that arc that bends towards justice
What is your favourite thing about this adaptation of To Kill A Mocking Bird that you hope the audience also pick up on?
At many times I feel different things about this story. Often though, I am left with a feeling of hope, a hope that we can and will learn to do things better, hope in the younger generation.
As well as your credits as an actor on stage, you also act on-screen – will we be seeing you in anything on screen in the future?
Nothing on the horizon… yet.
What role have you done to date that solidifies why you became an actor?
Every role I play solidifies for me why I became an actor. Fundamentally you hope every role allows you to explore different parts of yourself that normally you don’t or aren’t able to explore in everyday life.
What is your ultimate dream character on stage or on-screen to play?
I have never thought about a dream role. I really want to do work that challenges me to think about my world from a different perspective
If you could emulate anyone’s career projection, whose would it be and why?
This is a tough question because there are so many actors that I admire but I would have to say if I am pushed, it would be David Oyelowo.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU…
- A book you have to have in your collection? A book I have in my collection right now is The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? One of my favourite albums is Boy In The Corner by Dizzy Rascal.
- A film/TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? Films I have watched repeatedly, the first Matrix, any of the Godfathers and Raging Bull.
- The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)? First show I saw was Adrian Lester playing Henry V at The National. I had never seen a black king on stage before and it was inspiring and life changing for a young black boy from East London. It made me feel like I could do anything.
- What has made you sad, mad, and glad this week? The tragic events in Ukraine have been particularly difficult this week. Mad to see such violence, sad to hear and see stories of black people being discriminated against even at a time of utter desperation but also glad to see people stand up to defend their loved ones with dignity in the face of overwhelming force.
To Kill A Mocking Bird runs at The Gielgud Theatre from 10th March – August 13th 2022