After her headline win at the Black British Theatre Awards last month, we caught up with Welsh actor, Rakie Ayola.
Raised in Ely in Cardiff, Rakie scooped the Best Actor award for her role as Noni in National Theatre Wales and Royal Court’s 2019 production of On Bear Ridge.
“I hope black performers know they don’t have to deny their Welshness in order to succeed. Being black and Welsh will prove to be their super power.”
- How did it feel being nominated for the award?
I was thrilled to be nominated. To have received a Black British Theatre Awards 2019 nomination for Inua Ellams’ epic poem The Half God Of Rainfall and then followed it with a second nomination in 2020 for On Bear Ridge was the cherry on what had been an extraordinary 18 months for me professionally.
- You were up against stiff competition. Did you expect to win?
I was so grateful for the nomination but honestly thought my dear friend Sharon D. Clarke would win for her sublime performance in Death Of A Salesman at the Piccadilly Theatre. Though Ronke (Adekoluejo – with whom I did the film Been So Long) was also fantastic in Three Sisters at the NT.
- Why do you think this particular role stood out for the judges of the Black British Theatre Awards?
Noni in On Bear Ridge is such a beautifully written part. She’s a perfect realisation of innocent wisdom. Wise innocence. Ed Thomas has written her in a way that means the audience will laugh out loud at her behaviour one minute and sob deeply for her the next. In that sense she’s an actor’s dream.
- You played the role of Noni alongside side some old friends – Rhys Ifans and Jason Hughes. What was that like?
It was a joy to perform with old friends Rhys and Jason. It felt right to come together again as wise old owls with the hedonistic 90s far behind us.
- There was a lot of love and warmth from the Welsh audiences when you returned to Cardiff to perform on home turf last year. How did that feel performing in such a setting?
The last time I performed on The Sherman main stage was The Merchant of Venice in1992 so it was a huge deal for me to back on that stage. I was very nervous about playing to my home crowd but the warmth we received made me wish I hadn’t left it so long.
- You mentioned in your acceptance speech how rare it is to see black faces telling Welsh stories. Seeing you win this award will be inspirational for many young performers starting out in theatre, especially performers from Welsh black communities. What advice would you give them as they start their career in the industry?
I hope black performers know they don’t have to deny their Welshness in order to succeed. Of course, they will use other accents as all actors do, but they don’t need to hide who they really are all the time. Being black and Welsh will prove to be their super power.
- Your relationship with NTW has developed recently when you returned to the company to perform in The Other Room/Matthew Bulgo’s Constellation St. How was it performing virtually and not seeing / feeling the atmosphere of the audience in the same room?
I was so grateful to be asked to do Constellation Street quite soon into lockdown when everything was at its most uncertain. It was a real learning curve. Like so many performers I had to get used to rehearsing on Zoom in my living room and get my head around certain technical things about which I hadn’t a clue. I also became aware of how challenging it is to create a suitable atmosphere without lights and sound. I missed the team of creative people who together make theatre, TV and film happen. I missed the audience. Talking to a tiny hole on my laptop just wasn’t the same, but I hope the audience at home enjoyed the play and the DIY nature of it all.
- You stated in your acceptance speech that the only thing you’ve ever won was in Disco Dancing! Surely this can’t be true?
The disco dancing competition was at Butlins, Bognor Regis 1977 I think. I danced up a storm that afternoon and won a compilation album. (All the hits of the day performed by people you’d never heard of.) Also, the 2nd year cast of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child won Best West End Show at the What’s On Stage Awards. Oh, and lovely Broadway World Award sent me a Best Actress award via a private message on social media (for me to print at home) for Hermione Granger. So maybe the truth the Black British Theatre Award is the first solid award I’ve actually been handed and allowed to keep!
- You’ve been an actor for 31 years. What would you say are the secrets to success?
It’s a good idea to have a plan B in case things get tough or don’t work out, but I think it’s because I didn’t have any other skills that I’m still here ploughing on with my plan A, 31 years after leaving Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
- What’s next for Rakie?
At this extraordinary time, I’m truly grateful to be working on two new TV series. The Pact for BBC1 Wales and Little Door Productions and Grace for ITV. I’ll also be a part of The Sherman Theatre’s Digital Advent Calendar this Christmas. It looks like next year will bring another project with NTW and a co-producing gig for my company Shanty Productions. I count my blessings every day.