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Adjoa Andoh: ‘I’m bored of talking about diversity’

Adjoa Andoh. Photo: Matt Writtle
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From Clint Eastwood’s film Invictus to Doctor Who to the National Theatre, there is little Andoh hasn’t done. Now starring in Assata Taught Me, she plays former Black Panther Assata Shakur, who fled the US to Cuba in 1984 after being convicted of murder. She tells Tim Bano about playing a woman with a $2 million bounty on her head…

How did you get into acting?

I was supposed to do a law degree because I’m a good West African daughter. That’s what we do: law, medicine, if you’re a bit rubbish maybe accountancy. People didn’t become actors. But I went to the Old Vic in Bristol and saw Kate Nelligan in David Hare’s Plenty. It blew my mind. I was a little mixed race girl from the Cotswolds and she was a middle-class white woman in the 1940s, but there was something about her despair at not being able to do the things she loved that really moved me. It made me think: “That’s what I want to do. I want to be an actor.” I did my degree, then bailed on law. It broke my father’s heart. I went to London, auditioned for a play and got the job. I never went back. Other black actresses would tell me about auditions and I’ve never forgotten that generosity. I cleaned toilets, modelled for life drawing classes and eventually got a job with touring company Theatre Centre. I blagged it for years, waiting for somebody to tap me on the shoulder and go: “Did you train? No? Get out!”

Do you think training is important?

I’m on the audition panel at RADA and direct stuff at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance and I see the value of training. I spent a long time thinking: “Oh shit, somebody’s going to find me out.” I would just steal from the pros. It keeps you on your toes.

You’ve done a lot of advocacy work for LGBT and black, Asian and minority ethnic rights. Has the theatre industry become more diverse during your career?

The first thing to say is that I’m so bored of talking about diversity. Bored rigid. Because inside this black, female body is just a person. It’s a bore to have to talk about it. Surely everybody wants to live in a world where they just get on with their lives, but I suppose I have to think about it because the world doesn’t allow that. It’s a drag. Human beings are amazing and we get limited by things we have no control over. All humans like to see stories that reflect them and the people who decide which stories get told are the commissioners. When you have commissioners from a diverse range of people you’ll get a diversity of stories.

Tell me about the play.

In 2013, the FBI doubled the bounty on the head of Assata Shakur, the woman that the play takes its title from. She’s still in Cuba in exile. She didn’t bury her mother or raise her daughter. It’s a two-hander, an imagined relationship between this woman and a young black Cuban man. For him, America is freedom and Cuba is slavery. For her, America is slavery and Cuba is freedom. She’s grumpy and taciturn and keeps to herself.

You’ve worked in different media, do you like to move around?

I’m like lots of actors – we get quite antsy, we like to switch things round a bit. But ultimately I don’t care particularly what the medium is, it’s the content. The first rule of theatre or any art form is that it has got to be entertaining. I hate going to work that I can’t hear or see, because I’ve paid money to see it. I always think about that little girl going to see Kate Nelligan in Plenty who just needs something to touch her life.

CV: Adjoa Andoh

Training: None
First professional role: Akimbo Theatre Company’s Where Do I Go from Here by Deb’bora John Wilson
Agents: Sarah MacCormick and Emma Higginbottom at Curtis Brown

Assata Taught Me is at the Gate Theatre, London, until May 27

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