Yaegel Welch as Tom Robinson. (Photo by Julieta Cervates)

A play focused on racial injustice that’s based on a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1960 is onstage in central Iowa this week.

The Des Moines Civic Center is the first theater west of the Mississippi River to host the touring Broadway production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Actor Yaegel Welch says Harper Lee’s novel was required reading for generations of students and it’s still extremely relevant, even 60-plus years after it was first published.

“This book, at one point in time, seemed to be the symbol of awareness but now we can look back at it and see where the story might have had some flaws,” Welch says, “but it remains a historical lesson because at one point, it was the standard, and I think we need to see what the standard once was so we can now see how far we’ve come from that.”

Welch plays the role of Tom Robinson, a black man who is falsely accused of raping a white woman in Depression-era Alabama, and he says Lee was unafraid to tackle the strong themes of discrimination, prejudice and classism. “This book, what it touts most importantly is the lesson of empathy and I think it’s important to look back on that strength that was there even then,” Welch says. “I think that’s what makes it necessary. If we can continue that sort of type of empathetic thinking, I think we can continue to grow as a society and as individual people just to be better and more concerned about each other.”

This stage version of Mockingbird was written by Aaron Sorkin, perhaps best known for creating TV’s “The West Wing.” Welch also played Robinson on Broadway and says the role has made him reflect upon the spectres of racism in the Deep South when the book was written versus the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

“It sheds light on the injustice in our legal system today and the unjust killing of citizens, and in this case, black citizens,” Welch says. “I think Aaron Sorkin honing in on that event makes it so current and things keep happening that just sort of highlight it and go, ‘Oh, wow, it’s still happening,’ so it’s not an encapsulated story. It’s current.” Welch says he recently visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which made him consider why people would have risked their lives to stage sit-ins at lunch counters — or for the fictional Robinson to risk going on trial, knowing he’d likely be lynched even if he were found innocent.

“People do things out of boldness for the greater good of society,” Welch says. “They understand fully the consequences of what they’re embarking upon, but sometimes people can be in such a state of oppression, that they are willing to sacrifice their health and safety for the greater good and for the transformation of society.”

The 1962 movie version of the book featured actress Mary Badham as Scout, which won her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress when she was just 10 years old. Badham, now 69, is appearing in the Des Moines production as Scout’s hateful neighbor, Mrs. DuBose. The play runs at the Civic Center through Sunday.