When I was at drama school I liked doing all sorts of things, but I had a real heightened interest in the classics. I remember being called to speak to the Principal and told I shouldn’t get my hopes up; they didn’t want me to be disappointed about not getting classical parts because I was black. I decided not to create an obstacle in my head and to just deal with obstacles when they came up rather than them stopping me do what I wanted.
My agent couldn’t get me an audition with the RSC, but then they asked if I’d do a play-reading as a favour and for a bottle of wine. I did and there was an RSC director in the audience; I got offered an audition the next day.
One of my first roles was as one of the witches in ‘the Scottish play’. I remember being absolutely terrified on the first day, excited as well. I just had this secret terror inside me that I wouldn’t understand the play!
At that time the system at the RSC was that in the company you had the veteran actors who nurtured the younger actors, so I learnt a massive amount. If you did well in the smaller roles you progressed up through the ranks; so I got to the point where I was ready for that leading role and that’s when they offered me Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost.
I remember the controversy around me getting that role, it was considered a big risk for the RSC - would audiences walk out? I just had to put all that noise to one side and focus on the work, the character and on the quality of the production. I couldn’t let in all the other stuff; the audience will only leave if it’s crap. If they questioned whether I should be playing the role there was nothing I could do about that.
At the time I didn’t think about the title of ‘the first black female actor in a lead role at the RSC’, I just wanted to do the role justice. In hindsight I do feel proud, to be part of RSC history in that way. But I hate the term ‘black actor’. People put too much emphasises on the first word, more so than the second. I’m an actor, that’s what defines me. Terminology means nothing.
My advice to someone wanting to be an actor is to have thick skin and passion. When people said I should or shouldn’t be doing a certain role for whatever reason it was passion that pushed me through.
Black History Month - October 2016
Join us in celebrating past performance and looking to the future of diversity in theatre. Follow our stories on our Black History Month blog and share your comments using #blackhistory