To be or not to be: Take two.
Amaka Umeh, first set to star in Hamlet at the Stratford Festival in 2020 before COVID-19 came along, is now finally up there on the Festival Theatre thrust stage, following in the melancholy footsteps of the likes of Christopher Plummer and Brent Carver and Paul Gross until Oct. 28.
The pandemic wasn’t the first major inflection point in Umeh’s life. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, she nearly was sent to Britain for school, but instead moved in with family in Ottawa at the age of 11, before then settling in Calgary with her mother and sisters. Later on, two years into a biological sciences degree at the University of Calgary – “eyes on the doctor’s prize,” she says – Umeh made a fateful decision to audition for Randolph College for the Performing Arts in Toronto and pivoted towards acting.
“I think about my life sometimes and I feel like I’m standing over in the middle of a field, waist deep in corn, and the paved road that should have been set out for me is way, way over somewhere in the distance,” she says. “I can see it, and I could probably get to it, but there’s just something pulling me into uncharted territory all the time.”
Theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck spoke with Umeh on a terrace outside the Stratford’s new Tom Patterson Theatre, where she also starts performances as the Praise-Singer in Death and the King’s Horseman by the Nobel-prize winning Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka this August.
You were originally supposed to play Hamlet here in 2020. Did all the delays feed into your performance as the most famous delayer in drama?
I don’t know if I believe in “supposed to” and “should have.” We make plans and those plans happen to have changed, not just for me, obviously, but for everyone. Hamlet’s delaying doesn’t necessarily make him a delayer; it’s not passive, it’s not waiting. It’s investigating, it’s combing through, it’s weighing out, you know? It’s like trying to plug in the correct variables to a certain formula to come up with the answer.
When you talk about plugging variables into formula, I feel like you’re bringing some of your bio-sci background to this role.
Math is so satisfying, because there’s an answer at the end. Life’s not like that; art, obviously, is also not like that. So I am maybe trying to get my scientific kicks in the theatre space still...
What is Hamlet studying anyway? Do we ever hear what he’s taking in Wittenberg?
No, we don’t. And we don’t even know that he’s studying anything. He might just be pretending to go to class and experimenting with psychedelics and reading books and running around to restaurants. He’s going to see a lot of plays, this much we know.
Did anything change in the way you and the director Peter Pasyk created this version of Hamlet between when you first rehearsed it in 2020 and 2022? Or did it feel like picking up the work you did then?
A bit of both. By nature of what we were going through in our lives and in the world, our conversations changed – brought to our mind concepts, and aches, and struggles that we hadn’t thought of before. It feels like a bigger gift than even before, which I didn’t think was possible.
When I wrote about your Hamlet, I speculated that he might have bipolar disorder. I’m wondering if you have like a diagnosis for him?
Hamlet’s described as “mad” in the script and I can’t help but think about, yes, the meaning in terms of unwell, but also in terms of angry. I think he has a lot of reason to feel rage. He doesn’t have a way to verify what his intuition is speaking to him about. A lot of times, you know, we say, “the veil is thin and messages can come through.” I would also hesitate to put a diagnosis on him, because I think first and foremost, he’s grieving. I also think … [brief pause]
Well, I have so many secrets. I feel like my heart is pounding, trying to not say.
You don’t want to reveal your Hamlet’s secrets because you think audiences will view your performance differently if you talk about it – or because it’s something you have to keep inside in order to give the performance that you’re giving?
I don’t know. I’m sure if someone heard me say something, they wouldn’t be able to help but look at the performance and be like, “okay, so that’s where that’s coming through.” I think I just like the mystery and privacy of being able to say, “This is what I’ve crafted.”
That makes me want to go see it again, so I can try and crack the mysteries. Okay, so I didn’t ask Jonathan Goad seven years ago, you know “How do you feel being the ninth white dude to play Hamlet at Stratford.” But you are the first woman, first gender-fluid, first person of colour, first Black actor to play this part at Stratford. It’s an intersectional first. Is there one element of that which means the most to you?
I think that the meaning actually comes from the spectators – other than the fact that this was not a place that I imagined playing a leading role, definitely not at this point in my life. It is a first – for Stratford, you know, what I mean? Being in an audience and seeing somebody who hasn’t typically been invited to the front and centre before, I think that’s important, especially for young people, to see what the world could look like. And at the same time: Hamlet’s still Hamlet. We didn’t write a new play. It’s a baby step – and the baby step is still a step, of course. But there’s a long road still to cover. So, I guess, let’s strap on our onesies and hop in the stroller.
In terms of what’s changed since 2020: You’re now acting in Hamlet and in repertory Death and the King’s Horseman. Did you get to meet Wole Soyinka when he was here to speak?
I met Professor Soyinka that afternoon. He came to our rehearsal and he did a dialect and tone and music workshop with us for like an hour. It was wild. He saw our work in progress and he gave us some notes. I know we think a lot about, “What would Shakespeare say about this if he was alive today?” Here we have like, you know, another one of the greatest writers of all time actually here, so we can ask him.
I haven’t read Death and the King’s Horseman since university. Your part is the Praise-Singer – and that does involve you singing, right?
The Praise-Singer’s other name is Olohun-iyo – which means owner of the the salty voice, or whose voice is flavourful, the way salt enhances flavour. So, yes, there is singing involved. But the Praise-Singer is kind of a channel, a conduit for histories. He goes with the king’s horseman and reminds him of his purpose‚ of his calling, and talks about the times that came before, the ancestral lineage that they all possess and why that person’s purpose has to be fulfilled in order for the next generation to continue thriving.
I’ve only ever seen you in plays without music. I’m always struck by these actors who were trained in musical theatre, but who are also great classical actors. You went to Randolph, so you’re a trained “triple threat”, right?
That is the idea. I’m largely out of practice in what I learned there. But yeah, I’ve always enjoyed singing and dancing. I’ve found professional, but also just personal ways, to keep practicing that don’t involve a very early audition call with lipstick and heels to get cut by nine o’clock.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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