Noma Dumezweni on the Black theatre in Britain, Politics in theatre and personal ambitions
Interviewed By Shola Adenekan
The past three years have been good for the Black theatre in Britain as the mainstream embraces more and more Black actors and Black plays.
No one symbolises this new dawn than the delectable and velvet-voiced Noma Dumezweni, who, this year, won the much coveted Olivier Award for her sterling performance in A Raisin in the Sun.
A Raisin in the Sun, written by the award-winning African American playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, was the first Black play to make a breakthrough on New York’s Broadway and has been described by critics as the play that changed American theatre forever.
It also made Hansberry, who died aged 34 from cancer, the youngest person and the first African-American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play
Playing Ruth Younger, the wife of the hero Walter Lee, Dumezweni was following in the footstep of such great actresses like Ruby Dee and Phylicia Rashad of The Cosby fame.
Dumezweni – a Xhosa word for famous in the world - was born in 1969 in Swaziland of South African parents.
She spent her first few years in various African countries including Kenya and Uganda. Her mother brought the family to England nearly 30 years ago.
Living first in Suffolk, where she was educated, before moving to London. Her theatre credits include several seasons at Chichester Festival Theatre, appearing in The Coffee House, Nathan The Wise, The Master And Margarita, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The President of an Empty Room.
For the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), she has appeared in Much Ado About Nothing and Anthony And Cleopatra, while for the Young Vic she has starred in The Blacks, Skellig, and A Raisin In The Sun.
Her one person show, The Bogus Woman, won the Fringe First and Manchester Evening News Awards.
Dumezweni has now taken on another powerful role at the RSC as the wife of the Zimbabwean despot in Fraser Grace’s Breakfast With Mugabe.
You were born in Swaziland, of South African parents and brought to Suffolk, which is a predominantly white setting. What was your childhood like given the displacement from apartheid South Africa to an England still struggling with the concept of multi-culturalism?
I had a good childhood, because of the grounding my sister and I got from our mother, a single parent. It was by no means easy, but we arrived in England when I was seven years old.
We had arrived from Uganda three months before Idi Amin was overthrown, having also grown up in Botswana where my sister was born and Kenya.
Having moved through these African countries coming to England was a bit of a shock. The first time we saw snow was quite amazing, but I'm still not good with the cold. 'Multi-culturalism' is not a phrase I knew anything about; growing up and 'fitting in' was my priority. children are truly resiliant in that way.
Puberty was a hard time because it's about defining who you want to be, and when only four people (myself and my sister included) in a school of 1500 are of colour, one is aware that the bigger world is there to give answers to some questions, and London seemed the place to be, it was my goal. When I finally got there at eighteen, I really started to understand what multi-culturalism meant! I'm still here.
When did you realise you want to be an actress? Was it a conscious decision or a happenstance?
A bit of both really. During school holidays when Mama was working, she would sign us up for drama and art courses. my sister was great at art and music and I loved the drama workshops and art, so we kept on signing up over the years!
My real saving grace was the 'Wolsey Youth Theatre' in Ipswich, ran by a lovely guy called Antony Tuckey. Every sunday practically, for four years I would attend, loving the improv sessions, the summer productions, when the youth theatre were allowed onto the main stage.
I loved learning about the different forms of theatre, though I was never good at the musicals... just better at comedies than singing. This is where I met my two oldest friends!
The past two years have been very good for Black theatre, actors and actresses. You’ve won the Olivier and people like you, Oyelowo, Kwame, Sophie Okonedo and Chiwetel Ejiofor have caught the attention of the mainstream media. Black plays have gained critical reviews on and off the West End. What is behind these phenomenal changes?
All the people mentioned above, myself included, and numerous others have been working hard for quite a while to get to where we are and it is still about the work.
Wanting to be part of great story telling and working with some great actors who have been there before and those that are on there way - Dona Krall, Ellen Thomas, Lennie James, Novella Nelson, Golda John, Ewart James, Tameka Empson, Mo Sesay, Petra Letang, Lucien Msamati, Jenny Jules, Sharon Brewster Duncan, Jo Martin, Nadine Marshall, Jimmy Akinbola, Nicole Charles, Javone Prince, Colin Salmon, Jocelyn Jee Esien, Paterson Joseph, Claire Benedict, Fraser James, Tanya Moody, Don Gillet, Josette Simon... this is a tiny proportion of the brilliant actors I have come across, by watching them and working with them.
The pleasure is that there are so many more who are coming out of the woodwork. We are part of a great journey that's occuring in Britain and it's not at the exclusion of main stream White theatre, that would NOT work.
My white, Asian, Oriental friends and colleagues in the business have been there to push and support my cause as a creative artist.
That's what we all are - creative people, blessed to be doing what we chose to do - using our individual and collective experiences to share stories or tell them for others. We are going to be here as long as the earth is round!
In getting to where you are today you must have come across obstacles along the way, what challenges did you face and what did you do to overcome them?
I did not go to drama school. This used to make me feel a bit paranoid. Having that kind of attitude made me not trust my instincts but try and think my way through things. It doesn't help... There is no flow. I was never really happy with that way of working.
It was an actor in his 60s who told me that I was learning all that I needed 'on the job, the best way to do it, so start doing it!' It has served me well. Another obstacle was and is other peoples perception of you, how you have to keep surprising them and reminding them that you are more than the last job you were in.
You guys - Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Kwame, Oyelowo, Ejiofor etc have broken down some of the barriers for Black theatre. Should Black actors be burdened with the task of being role models? What do you think unknown black actors, playwrights and producers have to do in order to reach where you guys are today?
Integrity. Belief and Faith in yourself. Trust in your own Intuition. Fun, laughing and tears, loads of them! Challenge yourself and those who make you feel less in moments. Be brave and sometimes say 'No', because taking jobs only for the sake of money or because they're safe, don't move you to where you need to be. No one owes you a thing, so give of yourself without any expectations but because you want to.
And no, actors should not be burdened with the task of being role models, but we all have the capacity, as you have been somewhere along the line, to inspire others....
Whether performing a Shakespearian role or a solo performance as in Bogus Women, you’ve garnered praises from the critics, what do you attribute to your success?
I have been fortunate to work with some wonderful directors, writers and actors. It is always in true collaboration with others, teamwork, that great results seem to come my way.
I'm not a person who does my very best on my own, I like the tutoring, challenging, playful attitude of others because I love learning that there is always, always more to be humbled and surprised by; I find this only when i work with other people.
Winning the Olivier must be one of the moments you’ll forever treasure, are there any other highlights of your career that you’ll remember forever?
That was a lovely moment. I knew of the other nominees as truly talented. So when I heard I was up amongst them, I just thought the only thing I can do is get a great frock and enjoy myself on the evening. Everything that came after was and has been wonderful and I am thankful for that.
I was unemployed for a year and half about seven years ago, in a weird way it was the making of me, in the sense that I had to define exactly where my strength lay and how I chose to perceive myself and what did I really want to do and be. It was right for me.
The Bogus Woman. I had to tell real peoples refugee stories in a fictionalisd form, honour them through one woman's voice by being as true as I could be, and hold an audience's attention. I had never worked that hard emotionally up 'til that point.
When you are not working or reading scripts, what do you enjoy doing?
Blue skies and warm rays on my skin. Dancing, in my front room if necessary. Meeting up with lovely friends for very long lunches. Reading novels and biographies in bed, knowing that the fridge is full. My mum and sister being around. My Husband to be...
A Raising in the Sun, Dirty Pretty Things, The Bogus Woman and your current play, Breakfast with Mugabe, all have political undertones. Are you political yourself or is it just coincident that these roles found you?
They all happened to be great stories and I am so happy to have had roles in them. They reflected peoples experiences to themselves and showed to many more how 'other' people exist beside them.
I went to see Arthur Miller's play 'The Crucible' recently, beautifully done be the RSC, it was about fear and the people who perpetuate it and the people who are victims of it; communist trials in 1950s America, witch hunts of the 17th Century. what is scary is that it still resonates now, because it's about people. So if I happen to feel something trigger in me when i chose these roles, then i suppose I am political.
Breakfast with Mugabe is written by a white middle-class playwright from Cambridge who has never been to Zimbabwe. As somebody from Southern Africa, what was your reaction when you realise this? How did you prepare for the role of Mrs Mugabe?
Preparing for Grace Mugabe was interesting, she is not held in any kind of esteem by the many Zimbabwean women I met! she really is very unpopular. She is deemed not very bright by many; I wouldn't know I've never been in her presence. What I serve is the play and Fraser has written a sharp and wonderful character for me to enjoy playing, frocks and all.
The question, ‘where is the Black audience of the arts’ often get asked. A lot of plays with Black or African theme often have few Black people in the audience even when Black actors are leading, what do you think should be done in order to get Black Britons to come out and see Breakfast with Mugabe or any other plays dealing with Black issues?
Talking to you is a start. All the Black publications who serve the community must be aware of the plays and productions that are on and go and review them!
Give your opinion and let the rest of us know why you like or don't like it, even if the subject matter might not appeal to everybody, it will definitely appeal to some! Doing 'A Raisin in the Sun' was an amazing experience, the word of mouth, which is why people came, was phenomenal!
Who are your favourite playwrights, directors and actors? And why do you like them?
How much space we got? They are all around, we just have to nurture the one's coming into the business; help each other find our voices. But I will say the best film I have most recently, and there many good one's out there is 'RIZE' by David LaChapelle, if you have not seen it, do it! Now! That film is inspiration, I will make my future children watch it. Out of darkness truly comes beauty!
Career-wise, where do you see your self in the coming years, are you planning to cross over into the big screen and perhaps conquer Hollywood just like Sophie Okonedo?
Sophie has done beautifully, as have Chewitel, Marianne, Eamonn Walker, Lennie James.... It's all in the mix. I look forward to what my life brings me and if "conquering Hollywood" is part of it, I ain't gonna say no....!
Breakfast With Mugabe is now on a British national tour.
Shola Adenekan is the publisher of The New Black Magazine. He also writes for The Guardian (London), BBC News Online, The Times (London) and The Christian Science Monitor.
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