Interviewed by Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Thursday, April 26, 2012.
Some comedians have a reputation in contrast to their exuberant stage persona; of being depressive, grey and morose in real life. Despite making her name in that cut-throat profession, this description wouldn’t fit Jocelyn Jee Esien. She is much more than a stand-up comic; with appearances in more straight acting roles than comic ones and skills in writing, co-producing and co-directing. Throughout our recent ‘phone conversation, which came at the end of a busy day’s rehearsals for her upcoming role in Bola Agbaje’s new play Belong, she is open, honest, talkative, full of jokes and humour - and not at all reserved.
We spoke about her co-stars and her role in the play, her career up to now, writing, multi-tasking, Nigeria and ambitions for the future.
Following successes at the same venue with Gone Too Far and Off the Endz by the same writer, this Tiata Fahodzi co-production with the Royal Court Theatre is the first since the ever versatile Lucien Msamati – in the lead role here - succeeded Femi Elufowoju, jr as Tiata Fahodzi’s Artistic Director. Msamati is joined by Pamela Nomvete [with whom he recently worked in The National Theatre’s reworking of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, alongside Lenny Henry]. The ensemble is completed by former Royal Shakespeare Company stalwart Noma Dumezweni, dependable Richard Pepple and rising stars Itoya Osagiede and Ashley Zhangazha.
“I am with the big boys now,” Jocelyn Jee Esien remarked enthusiastically about the impressive cast.
Whilst Director Indhu Rubasingham has already overseen plays written by Bola Agbaje, Jocelyn has never worked with the Sri Lankan-born director before. She describes the impending Tricycle Theatre Artistic Director as: “really, really insightful and identifying with everything as well.”
Although Ms Esien as the star of hit TV shows 3 Non Blondes and Little Miss Jocelyn has followed the award-winning Bola Agbaje’s playwriting career, she’s yet to see any of Ms Agbaje’s work performed on stage. “Every time one of her plays was on I was doing something - and I never got to see one but, I know her work well” she tells me.
Set in Nigeria and the UK with themes of heritage, identity and culture Belong could be seen as a gear change for Ms Agbaje. According to Ms Esien: “this is one of many plays she has wanted to write for a long time - it doesn’t seem such a departure; it is just another aspect of a young, Black female writer growing up in London.”
With Ms Esien playing a no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is businesswoman Fola, the sister of Lucian Msmati’s lead character Kayode, the question could be asked whether Belong is aimed at a Nigerian heritage audience or a British one.
“I think a Nigerian audience will get the Yoruba nuances; but everyone is going to get it because we all know the characters. It is about finding out where are we from, and where do we belong; and where is home?” the actress remarks.
And it’s clear that the themes are as close to Ms Esien’s heart as they are to Ms Agbajes’s. Describing the many perceptions - and mostly misconceptions - of Africa’s most populous country she states - with some passion that the: “first thing people mention is corruption, or fraud; and maybe oil.”
As a Nigerian-born herself, Ms Esien recognises the pessimism that is sometimes associated with her Nigeria; but emphasizing that it’s not all doom and gloom the actor highlights Nigeria’s booming Nollywood film industry as testament to a vibrant society where: “there’s a lot of positivity [and] I respect Bola for [covering this] this as well. All of the characters have their own arguments. But there isn’t one answer - the audience can find their own - but it’s not glossing over [anything]”.
After a diverse and successful career Ms Esien is one performer who is not complacent; especially in the current economic climate where even her consistent work isn’t taken for granted. Success over many years hasn’t dimmed her unlimited ambitions. And nor is her skillful ability to do either comedy and stand up or straight roles regarded as a luxury.
“I feel lucky because I can create whatever I want to do. I am doing what a lot of people are doing now - people aren’t waiting to be unemployed - they are making themselves employable. It’s the time of the forward slashes - actor/writer/filmmaker. “
The experience of writing 3 Non Blondes and Little Miss Jocelyn means she has even more to give. Expect to see another TV show soon and more standup which she is currently developing.
“I do feel like this is the beginning because [the writing] is still quite new to me. I did start out just acting and then I found comedy and started doing standup - and then got into writing. So there are so many things that I will hopefully get into.”
Although a successful standup profile is more than matched by constant straight acting work the danger of stereotyping and type-casting could be a hazard; but the actress doubts that her comedy work has harmed either her acting credentials or future work.
“Since doing my own show I have really embraced it. It has opened up more doors for me. It doesn’t have to harm my acting; people get excited when they realise you can act. It is a bit of a bonus.”
It’s an assertion backed up by a glance at her CV which confirms her contention that most of her work until 2009 on stage and screen occurred in straight acting roles; punctuated only by the massively successful Little Miss Jocelyn and 3 Non Blondes.
Although she confesses to an unorthodox motive it all seems a long way from her days studying law.
“I didn’t actually want to be lawyer - I just wanted to play a lawyer because of the show LA Law”, she reveals. And whilst she pursued her preference to perform on stage rather than in front of a jury - eventually graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – it was only recently that her parents accepted her career change .“When they realised I was going to be actually studying acting - that is when they changed. They wanted to know I could make career out of it.”
And make a career out of it Ms Esien certainly has. Being the first Black British woman on either side of the Atlantic to have her own mainstream TV comedy sketch show is a definite highpoint, but it doesn’t mean she is insulated from the pervasive problems of limited diverse and solid roles for women of colour in theatre and TV.
“There is this gap… you’ve either got to play the teen, who is at school and gets pregnant [or] the young mother, and you suddenly jump to the woman in her mid-40s. There is a huge gap and nothing after that.”
With her own writing skills and experience though she believes the onus is on upcoming wordsmiths to create even more good roles which, coupled with definite changes in the industry, [especially those new wordsmiths she mentions] and colour-blind casting can break even more new ground in the industry.
She’s recently been seen in the popular and high grossing, but critically panned, Anuvahood and disputes that this and others in the spate of hood films restricts the space for other stories of the Black experience in Britain.
“It is not about people not writing it - people are writing; other people just don’t want to put it out. I think there is room for more; but that is all we are seeing at the moment. There is still a story there, but if that is all we are seeing then it is harmful.”
After Belong, which will continue at Peckham Rye’s Bussey Building after its Royal Court run as part of that Theatre’s Local Season, the Hackney-born actress will be busy developing her comedy show and with Olympics related work. “I have to knuckle down and get back into stand-up. Everyone keeps saying: ‘when are you gonna come back’.”
As a genuine Eastender we may even see Ms Esien alongside one of the other non Blondes Tameka Empson, in the long-running soap opera. And so the legal profession’s loss has been a big gain for the theatre, TV and comedy.
Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.
Co-produced by Tiata Fahodzi and Royal Court Theatre
Written by Bola Agbaje
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham
Jerwood Theatre Upstairs
Royal Court Theatre
Sloane Square, SW1W 8AS
26 April - 26 May 2012 at 7.30pm
+ Saturday matinees: 3.30pm (from 5 May);
+ Thursday 17 May and 24 May: 3.30pm
Box office: 0207 565 5000