Amara Okereke interview: We’re going to have a black Eliza Doolittle in the West End - it’s phenomenal

·7-min read
Amara Okereke will play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady in the West End (Photography Natasha Pszenicki, Styled by Alice Hare (dress Zeynep Kartal), Hair Dionne Thomas, Make-up Summer Dyason)
Amara Okereke will play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady in the West End (Photography Natasha Pszenicki, Styled by Alice Hare (dress Zeynep Kartal), Hair Dionne Thomas, Make-up Summer Dyason)

Eliza Doolittle: is she a puppet, or a powerful woman? When you talk to Amara Okereke, who’ll play the role in Bartlett Sher’s My Fair Lady revival at the London Coliseum this summer, the answer is obvious.

“Basically, she’s everything that I would aspire to be. She’s this powerhouse – she’s a grafter, she’s ambitious, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get the things that she wants. She may not be educated, but she’s incredibly intelligent. And I think she’s so intelligent that she sees outside of the status quo,” Okereke, 25, tells me. Her day of rehearsals won’t begin until after our interview, but Eliza is buzzing through her brain already.

Sher’s production was a smash on Broadway, with the New York Times suggesting its emphasis on feminist themes have made the show “better than it ever was”. Downton star Harry Haden-Paton rejoins the show as Henry Higgins, with the added prestige casting of Dame Vanessa Redgrave as his mother. The casting of an Eliza for London, though, was the subject of feverish anticipation.

In Lerner and Loewe’s musical, based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, we first meet Eliza as a cockney flower-seller. She collides with phonetics professor Henry Higgins, who bets his posh mate that he can polish her into a big hat-wearing, silken-voiced Ascot attendee. Eliza is aware that she lives “in a world of extreme classism, where there’s a real gap between the wealthy and the working class,” thinks Okereke – but still “sees each individual as just a human.”

Amara Okereke as Eliza Doolittle (Hugo Glendinning)
Amara Okereke as Eliza Doolittle (Hugo Glendinning)

“Her viewpoint is kind of revolutionary, for the time. She shows up at this rich man’s house, asking for elocution lessons. Who does that? Nobody would ever do that! But from her point of view, it’s like: well, I have the money to pay for it. You said you could teach me it. Here I am, what’s the problem?” she says.

“She’s just one of those people that could change the world. And I feel like that’s just as relevant today – you see it within the younger generation, people turning around and saying, ‘hang on, why do we do this like this? Why is this the way we’re supposed to conform to? Why are these the gender roles we’re supposed to abide by? Why do we have these unspoken rules, and who’s getting harmed if we break them?”

She might see Eliza as an inspiration, but there’s quite a lot of that spirit in Okereke already. When she auditioned to play Cosette in Les Misérables, she was advised to prepare a song for Eponine as well, “just to be safe” – a black actress had never been cast as Cosette. “I remember kind of debating it and being like, I don’t want to play that part though, I want to play the other one. And I don’t want to bring something in just because I think I’ve got a better chance at it.” It paid off: in 2018, she made her professional debut as Cosette, winning a Stage Debut Award in the process.

Since then, she’s starred in Oklahoma!, The Boy Friend and the Almeida’s recent revival of Spring Awakening. But Okereke, who grew up in Leeds and studied at ArtsEd, almost lived a totally different life. Her parents are both doctors, and she planned to train to be one too – even taking science and maths A Levels – until she realised performing was the right path. She joined the National Youth Music Theatre as a teen, and remembers turning to her mum after performing in West Side Story: “I was like, ‘I think I need to do this forever. I think this needs to be my job.’ And my mum was like, ‘I think so, yeah’.” Okereke isn’t on social media, but her mum is – and frequently bigs her up on Twitter. “She’s basically my hype man.”

Amara Okereke was one of the breakout stars of the Almeida’s acclaimed Spring Awakening revival (Photography Natasha Pszenicki, Styled by Alice Hare (dress Pinko), Hair Dionne Thomas, Make-up Summer Dyason.)
Amara Okereke was one of the breakout stars of the Almeida’s acclaimed Spring Awakening revival (Photography Natasha Pszenicki, Styled by Alice Hare (dress Pinko), Hair Dionne Thomas, Make-up Summer Dyason.)

Okereke talks about musicals with an infectious passion, which is no surprise given that she grew up with four DVDs in constant rotation – Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, Guys and Dolls, and, yes, My Fair Lady. “I was obsessed with them to the point where I would know them word for word,” she says. She salutes Audrey Hepburn as “a pocket rocket of energy” but she also had a copy of the soundtrack, sung by Julie Andrews, who was one of her idols growing up. “I just want to do her proud, basically.”

Her casting makes her the first black actress to have played Eliza. It shouldn’t have taken this long, she says, but it is a significant moment in changing how this type of theatre will be seen.

“There is the old narrative that is dying out, that if you look a certain way, you should be in a certain show, and you should sing in a certain way and act a certain way and dance a certain way. And I think the more we acknowledge - ‘okay, we’ve got the first black so and so playing this’ - we are shouting out loud, like, ‘hey, guys, remember that whole thing? It’s gone now, we don’t have to do that anymore’. We’re going to be in the West End with a black Eliza Doolittle and a black Christine Daae [in Phantom], which is... phenomenal. Which is extraordinary, and something I would never have imagined growing up.”

The company are exploring what having a black Eliza means for the story as they go through rehearsals. “Race and class are completely interlinked in a lot of ways, particularly in the UK. There is an undoubtable relevance to being black and working class in a story like this, but we are sort of finding that along the way,” she says. It’s a consideration that adds to the story, rather than takes something away. Essentially, though, it’s still a story about classism, communities, prejudice, oppression and breaking barriers.

Okereke stars opposite Harry Haden-Paton, as Henry Higgins (Hugo Glendinning)
Okereke stars opposite Harry Haden-Paton, as Henry Higgins (Hugo Glendinning)

Sher’s My Fair Lady was first seen on Broadway in 2018, and there was much discussion of its slightly tweaked ending (no spoilers, but it’s more Nora Helmer than Stepford wife). It’s an interesting moment for the ‘it’s too problematic to revive’ line of thinking; Daniel Fish’s dark, stripped back Oklahoma! is opening at the young Vic around the same time. Okereke thinks it feels natural to look at shows from the perspective of the world we’ve living in today; it wouldn’t be possible to rehearse a show in 2022 that was written in the early 1900s and try to keep it in the past.

“That’s what theatre is, that’s always what theatre is going to be – it’s supposed to touch you in some way that’s relevant to your life in this present moment," she says. “I don’t think that necessarily means it has to change, it’s just always going to be different every time it’s done.”

She’s coming to My Fair Lady fresh from her Olivier-nominated turn as Wendla in Spring Awakening, a musical about a group of teens grappling with burgeoning hormones. She had some wincingly intimate scenes with co-star Laurie Kynaston, who played Melchior, that have given her invaluable courage. “It was probably one of the best things I could have done for myself. It’s a very vulnerable character to play, and it really helped me sort of get out of my own way in lots of ways – to just sort of say ‘fuck it’ and do the scene as truthfully as possible. I think it made me a better actor,” she says.

Amara Okereke on Eliza Doolittle: “Her viewpoint is kind of revolutionary, for the time.” (Photography Natasha Pszenicki, Styled by Alice Hare (dress Valle&Vik), Hair Dionne Thomas, Make-up Summer Dyason.)
Amara Okereke on Eliza Doolittle: “Her viewpoint is kind of revolutionary, for the time.” (Photography Natasha Pszenicki, Styled by Alice Hare (dress Valle&Vik), Hair Dionne Thomas, Make-up Summer Dyason.)

“Of course you’re gonna be embarrassed – you’re playing a teenager who knows nothing about sexuality, who is experiencing these sexual things in front of an audience. Embrace it! It is what it is. Now I’ve done that. I’ve gotten as vulnerable as I probably could on a stage - what else can scare you?”

Nothing much. Okereke is racing through her dream roles so quickly, at the top of her list is now to originate a role in a new musical. (Oh, and play her number one idol Audra McDonald’s daughter in The Light in the Piazza, which was something that came to her in an actual dream.) Away from the stage, she’s learning to animate, inspired by a love of drawing and storytelling. First, though: she’s got a loverly summer ahead.

My Fair Lady is at the London Coliseum from May 7 to Aug 27; buy tickets here

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