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BWW Interview: Obioma Ugoala On Joining MOTOWN THE MUSICAL

Cedric Neal (Berry Gordy) and
Obioma Ugoala (Smokey Robinson)

Actor Obioma Ugoala's diverse projects range from numerous RSC and Globe productions, including Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 & II, Henry V and Holy Warriors, to Doctors on the BBC and Disney's upcoming live-action version of Beauty and the Beast. He has recently joined the West End cast of Motown the Musical, playing soul superstar Smokey Robinson.

When did you first get the theatre bug?

I first got the theatre bug reading Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. It was my older brother's English assignment and I devoured it. I painted the scene in my head; I cast it, I designed the sets, I could feel the atmosphere in the air. I read it in just over an hour and from then I was hooked.

Where did you train?

I trained at the Drama Centre London.

What was your first job in theatre?

My first job was at the Donmar Warehouse in a play called The Physicists by Friedrich Durrenmatt.

You've done a mix of projects, from classical stage work to screen. How do you select them? Do you prefer doing a variety?

They are so different but obviously related art forms. I love the immediacy and danger of live theatre - the presence of a live audience is unique in that sense. But also the world that you can create with screen work and the focus of the storytelling can be so much more precise when you're narrowing down from a 30-yard stage to a 30-inch television. Honestly I just find myself attracted to the story and why it needs to be shared now.

Is this your first professional part in a big musical?

It is indeed. I've had other opportunities before but clashes made it unworkable, which is unfortunate, so I'm glad to be finally breaking that duck.

The cast of 'Motown the Musical'
(Obioma Ugoala second from right)

Did you know much about the show (and the people it portrays) before auditioning?

Funnily enough I knew more about the artists than I did Berry Gordy, who is the main focus of our show. But when I researched more about him, I found myself walking into my final audition a tad starstruck, shaking his hand like "You're Berry Gordy". He replied: "I know." Ha!

Were you a fan of Motown music, or have you got to know it more recently?

My parents loved Motown. Whenever we would go on long car journeys we would only have one or two tapes in the car. They were, as I'm sure you can guess, Motown records. I never got bored of listening to them.

Was it intimidating taking on an iconic figure like Smokey Robinson?

Smokey is still going strong touring the U.S. Was I intimidated? Ah, yes! He's literally a living legend. He's performed countless classics, written countless more for other artists. It was daunting to say the least.

What was your way into that? Did you watch videos, listen to him singing, read about his career...?

I read his autobiography, I listened to his records, I watched numerous interviews with him. The thing about Smokey is everything is so effortless. He just has this sense of calm and collectedness, but also an intense musicality when he sings.

Did you get any advice from your predecessor?

Charl Brown originated the role all the way back to the original workshops, through to Broadway and then came over to open it in the West End. He had pointers and passed on ideas but also said "This is your role now. Make it your own."

Which is your favourite number to perform?

Funnily enough my favourite number to perform is "My Mama Done Told Me". It's one of Smokey's earliest records and he's auditioning for Jackie Wilson's manager when Berry Gordy interrupts. But it's a gorgeous song.

The cast of 'Motown the Musical'

What's it like working with such a notably diverse cast?

I've worked on shows that were nowhere near as diverse as this one. And this myth often gets peddled that the talent isn't out there and that there is a dearth of "BAME talent", which is why they're not getting cast in shows. I perform with this cast every night and I challenge any casting director, director or producer to come watch and not be blown away. The question should be "Why aren't more shows more diverse?" The excuses begin to wear thin.

Why do you think Motown music is so enduring?

The music of Motown, like any good story, is universally recognisable. We immediately place ourselves in the shoes of The Marvelettes waiting for a letter from a boyfriend in "Please Mr. Postman" or Marvin bemoaning the fact he found out his lady found someone else in "Through The Grapevine". Add some of the best recording artists of the past half-century into the mix and you've got yourself a recipe for perpetuity.

Finally, any advice to budding actors?

You are fabulous. There is a reason that you've chosen this career path. Hold firm to that. When you're pulling pints and have been turned down after the first audition you've had in six months, keep that alive inside of you. Find what makes you unique and push that. Homogenising can make you harder to cast. Often when you get a rejection it can be an arbitrary thing such as too tall, too short, looks like another character. But most importantly, you are fabulous.

Motown the Musical at Shaftesbury Theatre is currently booking until 28 October

Picture credit: Alastair Muir

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