BWW Interviews: THE UNICORN THEATRE COMPANY'S' Amaka Okafor
"When I was a baby, I used to sleep in his guitar case." So says Amaka Okafor, Miranda in the Unicorn Theatre's current production of The Tempest, of her father, a musician / actor who passed the acting gene to his daughter.
Like many actors, Amaka can't remember a time when she didn't see her future on the stage. Thousands of kids dream, but, for the vast majority, a dream is all it is - as Dionne Warwick sang, "And all the stars that never were / Are parking cars and pumping gas."
Apart her father's inspiration and support, Amaka identifies a couple of elements that often appear in the professional actor's backstory. "I got into every school play I could and I had an amazing teacher. I took this exam and got into a boarding school. I did not want to go there, but we went on a tour round the school and they took us down to the theatre and opened the door and I couldn't believe it - the smell of the theatre, the mustiness - and I knew I really wanted to come here. My teacher really believed in me, keeping me in the Upper Sixth's Caucasian Chalk Circle, when the other staff wanted to take me out to concentrate on exams. He trusted and believed in me." Amaka did not go to drama school, but gained her education on the road. "There were four of us with a van and the heaviest set I've ever carried. We would zig-zag across the country, arriving at church halls, carry in the set, eat the host's dodgy food, do the show, take the set down and then stay with the local families in digs. We did three or four months of one-night stands like this, going from one end of the country to the other. My learning curve was vertical!" After some theatre-in-education and community theatre, Amaka had an Equity card and was living the dream.
The Tempest is Amaka's first venture into Shakespeare. "It's hard, man! We had five weeks' rehearsal, which isn't bad, but with Shakespeare, you're never finished. For me the challenge is where the breaks come - sometimes you just have to put some pace into it. But you can only afford to do that if there are other sections where the plot is advancing and there is space. A lot of the kids have read about the play and know the story, so they can deal with it well. All the Mirandas I've seen are really wet and dainty. My Miranda, at 14, has her hormones raging and switches from one thing to the other really quickly. I wanted to find more colours in her - she has developed during the run and is not too angry any more. My challenge in the ensemble is to take the young female roles and make them different."
Amaka is of Nigerian and Indian descent and is pleased to be working in a theatre that attracts a multi-ethnic audience, but she's aware that this isn't always the case. "A lot (of ethnic minority people) came to see Cinderella, because there was a black Cinderella on the poster. A woman came to me after a show and said, "I've always felt like Cinderella and when I saw the poster, I knew I was coming to the show". The Unicorn has so many great links into schools - when we go out to do workshops, the kids recognise me from "The London Eye Mystery", and they are comfortable and looking forward to seeing The Tempest. What I really want to see are more productions of African classics, because there are families who want to educate their kids with this rich culture. The Afro-Caribbean experience of theatre is different - much louder, speaking back to the cast. People feel that there are only certain acceptable ways to behave in theatre - people feel that they own a cinema, but not a theatre. Cinderella, though not a panto, was raucous with the audience screaming at the ugly sisters. Even if ethnic minority people think theatre is a white thing, but then see black faces in the cast, then that's opening doors."
The Unicorn Theatre is one of London's less well-known delights, consistently producing high quality work for children (and their parents) in an environment that respects the fact that the kids in the theatre today are the adults in the theatre tomorrow. Amaka's story shows that inspiration, belief and hard work, mixed in with not a little talent, can realise a kid's dream and, in turn, inspire others. Long may the Unicorn, and Amaka, continue.
Thanks to Amaka and Rachel at The Unicorn Theatre