There’s something distinctly noble about Nigerian-born, Antiguan/British-raised actress Nikki Amuka-Bird. From her regal features to the gracious way she accepts the apology I proffer for my tardiness to our interview (serves me right for cutting it fine and not factoring in diversions and traffic). Perhaps it’s this nobility that has played a hand in her being cast as strong characters in the BBC’s Survivors and adaptation of Andrea Levy’s Small Island as well as most recently, the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf –inspired lead in the National Theatre’s forthcoming Welcome to Thebes.
Amuka-Bird portrays Eurydice in writer Moira Buffini and director Richard Eyre’s re-imagining of the Greek myth as set in a contemporary African state struggling to establish stability after being ravaged by war. The piece is influenced a great deal by the story of ordinary women who were instrumental in bringing peace to battle-torn Liberia and has been described by its star as ‘an amazing play with amazing parts for black women’.
Welcome to Thebes opens later this month. On her lunch break from rehearsals, Nikki explains to me why the role of Eurydice excites her.
“It’s probably the most challenging role I’ve had. I’m finding out how challenging it is as every day goes by,” she says. “As we’ve imagined Thebes, it is a poor country that has survived ten years of civil war. They’ve had hundreds of thousands of people killed brutally. The women who have risen to power and have put an end to the violence are just normal mothers, sisters and wives who’ve said ‘Enough!’
“They took to the streets and they protested peacefully and the country got behind them and now they’re given the opportunity to rule but these women have no political experience. So they’re challenged in terms of holding onto their principles but also learning to think like politicians and their opponents so that they’re not beaten.
“As an actress playing Eurydice you’re having to turn on a six pence. Some of the time you’re using your mind, your heart. She doesn’t have any political ambition; she has just suffered so much herself… she’s lost her son, her husband, her eldest son has been blinded. The brutality and the violence just seem completely inhumane and she is fighting for human rights. Thebes as we’ve imagined it is a beautiful country, rich in natural resources; it should be thriving. Why are the people destroying each other?”
Nevertheless, Bird is conscious of not representing Eurydice as a total saint. “I think [Eurydice] is deeply courageous but I also think she’s somewhat naive. She’s a passionate woman, strong-willed. She’s obstinate and arrogant as well so you can’t hold her up as a heroine. She’s discovering every side of her humanity in this play. From an acting point of view you’re thrown right into the deep end and hopefully rise to the challenge.”
Nikki has a knack for portraying tough, morally complex individuals as evident when I ask her to select the role she’s most enjoyed bringing to life thus far. “I played a character called Mrs Muller in Doubt by John Patrick Shanley at the Tricycle Theatre.” [A film adaptation was made in 2008 with Oscar-nominated performances by Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour-Hoffman and Viola Davis as Muller.] “It’s funny because it’s quite a small role in fact; in the play it’s literally one scene. I was just moved and inspired by the strength and commitment of this mother to protect her child at all costs during the civil rights movement in America.”
Mrs Muller is the mother of the only African-American boy in an East-Coast Catholic school during the ‘60s. The headmistress, Sister Aloysius Beauvier suspects that he is being molested by one of the priests. When she approaches Mrs Muller with her concerns the boy’s mother appears to turn a blind eye in order for her son’s education to continue without disruption. Nikki can understand the motive behind this decision.
“I felt very much that it was something that spoke to me in terms of the compromises we might have to make in our lifetime to make sure the next generation has better opportunities… This is a woman with an intelligent son with a bright future. She’ll do anything to protect that future and of course, morally it’s questionable but you have to ask yourself how does a person get to that state where they are willing to make this type of moral sacrifice? That’s what interested me about the part… I just love that woman.”
As it happens Meryl Streep, who starred as Sister Aloysius in the big screen version of Doubt is, not surprisingly, one of Bird’s acting icons. “I know it’s a cliché but she is able to be so truthful and yet transform with each character. She can do any accent, any genre. Really, when you see performances like that, where you feel the person has completely immersed themselves, it makes you want to do the same thing.”
Acting wasn’t always on the horizon for Nikki. She initially wanted to pursue a career in dance. It was whilst at Sixth Form College that her path was redirected to that of the dramatic arts. “I had a teacher called Mike Friend… You know everyone has that one teacher who inspires them and he was mine. Basically the dancing was a hobby and something that fascinated me but he saw some spark and said that I should try out for Drama College. At that point I didn’t really know much about acting and it’s really because of his advice that I tried out. It’s when I got to Drama College that I discovered how much I loved acting.” That’s not to say there weren’t some teething problems at the start – “In fact I didn’t get in the first time I auditioned; I knew nothing about acting,” she admits. “They asked me to speak up the whole time because I was just quietly mumbling to myself…”
In a recent interview, Nikki said that once out of Drama College it is easy to be stereotyped. Having grown up watching women of African descent being generally ignored by TV or film and, if featured, often cast in parts of a sexual nature, I wonder if things have improved somewhat in the last few years. I pick Nikki’s brain on the topic, citing the Alisha character in award-winning superhero-sans-glamour series Misfits as an example of anachronistic misrepresentations of brown women still rearing an ugly head.
Bird, however is far more optimistic. “I feel that things are changing for the better. Last night turn on the telly, you’ve got ‘Luther’ on one side, you’ve got Sophie Okonedo in ‘Father and Son’ on the other side. It is prime time TV. They’re both fantastic shows; the quality is fantastic. I can’t remember that happening even a decade ago. So we’re definitely on our way.”
For Bird, keeping things in perspective is paramount.
“I think as an actor you don’t want to feel you have this responsibility to show black people in a certain light. You want to just be an actor, be a human being; not necessarily a person of colour. But then it’s a balancing act because you don’t want to be typecast. You do have to think about the roles you’re taking on but you need the freedom to express yourself as an artist first and foremost.
“I’m aware that it’s still news if there are more than four companies of black actors doing plays at the same time or that Idris Elba is Luther. I think whether you’re black or white you should be allowed to play any character – morally ambiguous or not. There is universality; whether you’re black or white we still face the same issues. More than anything our job as actors is to show the colour of our skin doesn’t matter.”
Nikki points to Chiwetel Ejiofor as a good case in point. “I’ve never heard him refer to his colour and it’s interesting that that’s been reflected in the roles that he’s played. His confidence meant that it’s not an issue; people in the industry have responded to him.”
I suggest that American actress, Kerry Washington’s career is also exemplary in that regards. Nikki readily agrees; “I’ve read and seen Kerry being interviewed and she is someone who strikes me as being so confident, so intelligent that she can play whoever she wants. She doesn’t seem to be setting limitations on herself. I’m sure she has her struggles but that is still, to me, reflected in the roles that she plays. She’s just a great role model. Sometimes you can’t look at the problems; you just have to keep thinking, ‘What are the solutions?’ You can’t carry the baggage of the history of the limitations of black actors because I don’t think that would affect change at all.”
Nikki’s apparent fearlessness as an actress could possibly be traced to the wholehearted support she has constantly received from her mother. “‘I think my mum has a very European sensibility in terms of valuing the arts and she’s a naturally artistic person. She’s somebody who’s just encouraged me to create opportunities. Whatever I found interesting…if I told her I wanted to be a lawyer, a doctor or a dentist she would have supported me. She’s been a Body Shop franchisee, she’s worked in the arts, and she’s worked in Journalism…So I learned from her [to] follow your passion, whatever it is.”
Nikki’s dad and the Nigerian side of the family, on the other hand, are yet to be won over. “Just recently in my life I’ve started to get to know my African family and to them I’ve noticed that the attitudes to being an actor are not that open-minded. My father coming to this play would be the first one he’s seen me in.”
I put to her that although previous generations have had their misgivings, not all Nigerians are chary of the arts as the long tradition of travelling theatre and Nollywood indicate. Still, Papa Amuka is not an easy customer and Nikki is determined in the most good-natured way to change his mind. “I think it’s always seemed a bit amusing to him…I talk about acting and he laughs’. She chuckles. ‘I’m trying to prove to him it’s still a proper job, a serious job. But it’s good; I think it spurs me on because I want to achieve something that in his eyes will be taken seriously.”
Welcome to Thebes is currently on at the National Theatre in London, throughout the summer. Priced from £10 upwards, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk for information, dates and to book tickets.
Photo credit: Nobby Clark