The actress Oyin Oladejo is having trouble sleeping these days. Racine, the character she’s playing in Aleshea Harris’s award-winning play Is God Is, is coming home with her, sticking to her sheets.
Oladejo, who was born in Nigeria in 1985 and moved to Canada when she was 16, is no stranger to challenging material. She’s been in productions of Hamlet (as Ophelia), The Crucible, Marat/Sade and A Doll’s House, for companies including Soulpepper in Toronto and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington. She played Lopakhin – as a man – in the Crow’s Theatre production of The Cherry Orchard, where any subtextual suggestion of an enslaved person taking over his former master’s plantation was entirely intentional. As officer Joann (Owo) Owosekun on the series Star Trek: Discovery, she’s kicked a lot of intergalactic butt.
But she’s never played the sustained tangle of rage and sorrow that is Racine – a 21-year-old who learns that her mother did not die in a house fire 18 years ago, though that lie plunged her and her twin sister into a brutal maw of foster care; that in fact her father set fire to her mother, and left his daughters to be badly burned themselves; and that her mother’s dying wish is that her girls find their father and make him “dead dead dead.” The mayhem she unleashes runs red.
So these past few evenings, Oladejo has been learning how to “de-role,” a technique the production’s fight director taught her. It’s helpful, she said in an interview on Sunday, in the theatre lobby immediately after the matinee: “I have to say, out loud, ‘Oyin played Racine. In the first scene, Racine did this. In the second scene, Racine did this. Oyin is not Racine.’ I’ve never had to do this before. I’m still trying to unpack why I can’t separate myself.”
Tall, lithe and strong-looking, Oladejo has cheekbones as steep as her dimples are wide. She wore a tailored white shirt, jeans and knitted slippers from her dressing room, and her voice was husky after the strain of the performance. “In the Black community, we’re used to telling the stories of resilient Black women, resilient Black men,” she said. “But in this play, we embrace that these characters are unleashed. They aren’t holding back the rage, the frustration we carry as Black people living in a society that is messed up.”
During the rehearsal period, the cast and creatives spoke about historical trauma – Black women on slave ships who threw their babies overboard to save them from a worse fate, for example – and anger and even violence as a valid response. “We don’t condone violence,” Oladejo says, “but it’s cathartic to be able to live it on stage. Every type of oppression or anger that we’ve suppressed, we face it with each other and share it with the audience. Because we can’t address those dark places if we don’t air them out.”
Arriving in Toronto at 16 after a “very African, very Muslim” childhood – her mother is a nurse; her father, who has since moved back to Nigeria, is an engineer; and she has three siblings and two step-siblings – Oladejo felt out of place even within her Black community. “I didn’t speak the language well, I didn’t understand the subtleties of being Canadian, where everyone feels free and you can do anything you want,” she says. “My first experiences of racism and oppression were from my fellow Black people. Because oppressed people oppress other people, right?”
Is God Is tackles that, too: Though all the characters are Black, differences in economic class and education pit them against each other. Oladejo’s eyes suddenly widen. “Oh my god, maybe that’s why I’m taking this home,” she says. “I’m just now realizing how close it is to me!”
A job at the Canadian Opera Company led Oladejo to study theatre arts at Humber College and the Soulpepper Academy, but it took her several years of steady work before she understood exactly what acting means to her. “I can tap into things, I don’t know how, and go to places most people can’t go,” she says simply. “I can serve people by expressing emotions they can’t. Telling them stories they should hear but otherwise wouldn’t. To get into the heart of what a writer wants, an actor has to go to a certain type of place, take a certain type of risk. I’m willing to go there, go all the way.”
Even her role on Star Trek: Discovery has impact, she says: “I didn’t know how huge Star Trek is until I first went to [the fan expo] ComicCon. I didn’t know its magnitude, how far back it went, how much people still lean into it to open their eyes. A young woman came up to me and said, ‘I want to go into science because of your character.’ We can serve in greater ways than we realize.”
Though she doesn’t yet know what her next project will be, Oladejo knows what she wants: complex characters who allow her to show every part of herself. “Every human is complex, but we push each other to be just one way,” she says. “When we do that, we’re not sharing our truth. Watching films or dissecting plays – it’s not just me wanting to perform. It feels sometimes like therapy. They have something to say.”
What does something as sleep-shattering as Is God Is say to Oladejo?
“Anger is absolutely needed. It’s there to call attention to something that needs to change, such as the Black Lives Matter movement,” she says. “But anger flares up and dies. Anger alone will not make anyone change. If we want change, we need to embody fierceness, not anger. Fierceness is rooted in something – in plans, in grace, in forgiveness.
“Oppression is rooted in fear,” she continues. “People in power fear having their power taken away. I get that. You have every right to be scared. But know why you’re scared. Make room, so you can be helped to think differently. We can solve things if our fear doesn’t take over.”
Is God Is runs through May 22 at the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto (canadianstage.com)
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