Soul Sister star Emi Wokoma talks to Jonathan Watson about portraying Tina Tuner as the show transfers to the West End
On April 19 this year the Hackney Empire thundered into life. It was opening night of Soul Sister – the story of the first three decades of Tina Turner’s career – and as the queen of rock’n’roll’s hits flooded the East End venue, fans hollered with delight as if they were watching the real thing in 1950s St Louis. But something was missing from the story we thought we knew.
In 1986, Tina Turner had released her autobiography I, Tina, the story of her abusive marriage to Ike. It was a relationship she once described on Oprah as “hell – trapped in negative energy”. Six years later, the book was picked up by Touchstone Pictures and Tina was brought in as an adviser.
The resulting film did a lot of damage to Ike’s reputation. Played by Laurence Fishburne, the songwriter is painted as a maniac who uses women as punch bags, and, as he towers over Angela Bassett’s Tina, eyes bulging, you forget everything else about the man some say invented rock’n’roll in 1951 with his song Rocket 88, written at the now iconic Riverside Hotel, Mississippi.
After the film’s release, both Ike and Tina complained it over-played the violence at the expense of the music, but the damage was done. At Ike’s funeral in 2007, Phil Spector, long-time producer of the group, said Ike had been “vilified by a piece of trash”.
Soul Sister has now transferred to the West End’s Savoy Theatre and the producers and cast seem to want to take this chance to shift the focus. The beatings, the alleged rapes and the drug abuse play a much less prominent role in John Miller and Pete Brooks’ jukebox musical. Instead, this story is being sold as a celebration.
“I’ve met both Ike and Tina,” says Miller, the writer who once referred to Ike as a Shakespearean tragicomic figure. “Both of them were horrified by what happened in the movie. Most importantly, from her perspective, that she was portrayed as such a victim. She never saw herself that way – she was in the relationship because she wanted to be.”
But in one extract of the book Tina describes an incident, “a beating”, where Ike hits her in the face with a shoe stretcher.
“We don’t pretend [that kind of violence] never happened,” explains Emi Wokoma, the exuberant star of the show. “We don’t shy away from it, but that’s not the basis of the story. We try to tell it in a balanced way – it is emotional and turbulent, and it’s draining to go through night after night, but at the end it’s a success story. It’s a lovely piece.”
Tina Turner was born Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee, in 1939. During US involvement in the Second World War her parents, both factory workers, relocated to Knoxville, leaving the young Tina to live with her grandmother. Moving around the state, she dreamed of stardom, singing in Baptist church choirs and, always the tomboy, playing basketball. By the time she turned 16, her grandmother died and her mother and older sister were living in St Louis. After months of badgering, Tina was allowed to join them and, much to their mother’s annoyance, the sisters became obsessed with the city’s night life and one club in particular – Club Manhattan. It’s here that Tina wriggled her way into Ike’s Kings of Rhythm band as a backing singer and, eventually, his affections. It’s also the set-up to Soul Sister’s narrative.
“Tina wouldn’t have got where she was without Ike,” says Bill Kenwright’s Josh Andrews, a co-producer on the show, “So this is a reaffirmation of him. This show very much shows how important Ike was to Tina, in the creation of her.”
“That,” adds Miller, “and the fact that Tina was a nurse in a hospital in St Louis before she met him, and she probably would have remained there if Ike hadn’t convinced her to come and sing.”
Does that undersell Tina’s bullish stage presence? Wokoma, with enough locomotive energy to flatten the West End, is the perfect fit to reach Nutbush City Limits – she’s a trained fitness instructor (a job she reluctantly gave up only three weeks before opening night), she’s toned from head to toe, and is able to command her vocal range with ease.
But nothing prepares you for the speed at which the Nigerian-born star flits from one point to the next when she’s interviewed.
Her background? “I came here when I was one, hence the cockney accent. My mum and dad were, like, ‘You need to get a grip’, but I was always in the school choir in Camberwell, the church choir, street dance crews, all that stuff, so they eventually supported me. My friends would sneer [she puts on a screeching voice] ‘Emi’s always singing, she’s always at the front, go get her off now’.”
The way she’s perceived by the press? “Let’s just get one thing straight, I just do me on the stage and I have a good time. It’s lovely to get good reviews but I just feel like they’re talking about somebody else.”
Her own relationships? “As long as my husband doesn’t say to me ‘That’s rubbish’, then I’m good. He’s a chef so he knows how to tell it like it is – if he tells me it’s dodgy, then I believe him.”
And, the big one, living up to Tina? “I’ve been given this role. Who wouldn’t want to be Tina Turner? There’s no time for complacency or thinking, ‘You’ve got it in the bag’. Just get on with it. That’s what I keep saying to myself – just do it.”
What made Soul Sister stand apart from its competitors was the way it resonated with audiences in Hackney. The Empire is famous for its rambunctious crowds, as its celebrated pantomime dame Clive Rowe would no doubt attest, so it’s no surprise the life and times of Tina made audiences scream, “Go girl!” But its new camp, the Savoy, is a different matter – different audiences, different expectations, tourists, and way more pressure.
“But the show has the capacity to cross all the boundaries,” argues Miller. “It moves from the first half, where the music was very blues based, which took hold of the critics, and then it moves to the second half and the 1970s where you get those big hits – Proud Mary, Honky Tonk Woman, Respect – before heading into the pop stuff at the end from the 1980s. It’s not just that there’s something for everyone, it’s that everybody likes all of it.”
“It’s also important that the West End gets a bit of everything, gets a bit of rock on stage, a bit of black music,” continues Wokoma, who, after working at the venue in Trevor Nunn’s version of George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess in 2006, is used to crossing boundaries.
“It’s our responsibility to get the audience involved, and to make that transition. It’s only an audience – they’re not different creatures. So whoever that demographic is, we’re going to get them up, get them rolling – that’s our job.”
And what about Tina, any chance she might show up? For once, Wokoma looks nervous. “Are you going to make that happen?” She jokes, tentatively, as if worried about how Tina might react. “I’m not gonna lie, that’s Tina Turner – you wouldn’t be able to get me out of my dressing room. Forget it, that’s too much pressure.”
* Soul Sister runs at the Savoy, London, until September 29, then tours until March 16, 2013