To Kill a Mockingbird's Russell Harvard Marks an Historic Milestone for Deaf Actors on Broadway

Interview   To Kill a Mockingbird's Russell Harvard Marks an Historic Milestone for Deaf Actors on Broadway
 
For the first time in his career, the actor takes on two roles not defined by their Deafness.
Russell Harvard
Russell Harvard Marc J. Franklin

When Russell Harvard was offered the roles of Link Deas and Boo Radley in Broadway’s To Kill a Mockingbird, it was the first time the actor had played a character not defined by being Deaf.

Harvard, a third-generation Deaf man, is part of To Kill a Mockingbird’s sophomore cast, joining the show as it enters its second year at the Shubert Theatre. He portrays both Link Deas and Boo Radley, roles previously played by two different actors.

“I think it simply means I’m good at what I do,” Harvard says with a modest laugh. “It makes sense with Link Deas and Boo Radley because they share similar qualities. Both are outcasts in the community and good-hearted men who know what’s right and wrong.”

Recently on Broadway as the Duke of Cornwall in the Glenda Jackson–led King Lear, Harvard first encountered the story of Harper Lee’s novel when he read it in sixth grade.

“I watched the movie not long ago … the experience moved me to tears,” he says. “I saw myself in many of the characters, and their pain and struggle strongly resonated with me. I’ve always believed in having an open heart and mind when learning about other peoples’ lives and stories, and this film taught me so much.”

Unlike most long-running shows, where actors step in one by one to replace original cast members, Harvard joined the show alongside an entirely new cast, including Ed Harris as Atticus Finch.

“We’re wearing our hearts on our sleeves and pushing for the truth within this story,” he says, crediting Bartlett Sher’s confident (and Tony-nominated) direction with allowing the new cast to come together as a team.

“We aren’t here to compare ourselves with the iconic performances of the original cast. What we’re giving onstage together is entirely our own.”

If there’s one thing Harvard is most grateful for (he says he’s used the word “blessed” about 50 times), it’s the opportunity to share American Sign Language with Broadway audiences.

As Link, Harvard speaks mainly in ASL, and playwright Aaron Sorkin has tweaked the script so that the kids in the story say his lines aloud in English; but the seamless integration allows for the audience to interpret if Link, the character, is Deaf or hearing. For example, when he takes the stand, Link testifies in ASL, the kids repeat his lines aloud, but the audience will see the full courtroom understands. Whether Link is Deaf or hearing is besides the point—and that is a milestone for Harvard.

“I’m an actor who happens to be Deaf, and I get to share the artistry of ASL with the audience of this landmark show,” he says. “It’s a lovely and fascinating language that is very seldom seen onstage, and it beautifully delivers and supports imagery and emotion.”

A perfect fit for a story and play already suffused with both.

Additional reporting by Mark Peikert.

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