Sharon D Clarke is a showbiz triple threat. A powerful actress whose CV embraces Shakespeare, Holby City and the latest series of Doctor Who, she also has an all-singing, all-dancing parallel career in musical theatre, with a voice that can knock down walls.
The twin paths of her professional life sometimes converge — as on The Amen Corner and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre in 2014 and 2016 — and they did so again this year for Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s extraordinary Civil Rights musical Caroline, Or Change, which moved to Hampstead Theatre after originally opening at Chichester.
Clarke’s heart-wrenching performance as the black single mother trying to raise four children on her meagre earnings as a maid for a Jewish family in Sixties Louisiana has won her a place on the shortlist for this weekend’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards for Best Musical Performance.
“I am so proud and happy to be on the list,” says the 52-year-old Londoner. One of the central conceits of the show is that Caroline speaks to the appliances she uses in the basement. “They are her head, her heart, her repression, her grief,” says Clarke. “They belittle her, they encourage her — they are her.”
This month Michael Longhurst’s production transfers to the West End: testament, Clarke says, to its relevance. “When we first opened they were taking down the statues [of Confederate soldiers in America], and then we had the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville,” she says.
The show transfers amid the ongoing row over the UK Government’s treatment of the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants. Clarke — whose Jamaican carpenter father and seamstress mother were part of that generation, but who died in 1995 and 2016 respectively — talks movingly of how it must feel to be told “the work you have put into a country, the life that you have built, actually means nothing. Your contribution to society is not seen as worth anything.”
For her, Donald Trump’s nationalist agenda and the isolationist urge of Brexiteers is all part of a depressingly familiar narrative of division, which works of art such as Caroline, or Change can combat. “For me it’s important that we hold this mirror up and tell these stories,” she says. “If we keep repeating history, we will keep making the same mistakes.”
The show deals with Caroline’s relationship with eight-year-old Noah Gellman, which goes wrong when Noah’s stepmother tells the maid she can keep any change the boy has carelessly left in his pockets. “It completely disempowers her and puts her in a terrible position,” says Clarke, “but those nickels and pennies affect whether her kids will eat meat that week, whether they can have glasses or go to the dentist.”
Kushner, who partly based the story on his own life, invests Caroline’s oldest daughter with the spirit of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, but doesn’t shy away from giving both Caroline and Noah entrenched prejudices.
When they have what Clarke calls “their hateful exchange”, audiences in Chichester would laugh nervously. Except on a school matinee, when “every last kid” gasped. This gives her hope. She also thinks her industry might finally be getting more diverse, albeit slowly. “The day I have an interview and someone doesn’t talk to me about it, then the job is done,” she smiles grimly. “I would say 95 per cent of my work is American. I don’t have a problem with that, it’s treated me very well in my career, but I am a British Londoner, and I think that we have our own stories to tell.”
She talks warmly of Arinzé Kene’s solo musical drama Misty, for which he is also alongside her on the shortlist in the Standard awards: she briefly played Kene’s mother on EastEnders.
They will play mother and son again, alongside The Wire’s Wendell Pierce, in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic next year. That’s another American show, admittedly, as is Blues in the Night, which Clarke will perform in under the direction of her wife of 10 years, former Hackney Empire boss Susie McKenna, at the Kiln Theatre later in 2019.
For British balance we can cite her roles in Doctor Who, BBC One thriller Informer and in the forthcoming Elton John biopic, Rocketman. “I’m in that for minutes but it was fun,” she says of the former. “Doing Doctor Who feels like being part of history, especially with Jodie [Whittaker] as the first woman Doctor in 13 incarnations. You have to see it as progress. And I think Jodie is doing sterling work.”
Clarke was born in Tottenham in 1966 and has an older sister, Sandra. She attended the Ivy Travers Dance School in Clapton from the age of six and was clearly destined for a theatrical career. “We did variety shows and pantos, and my mum made all my costumes,” she recalls. “My mum and dad were always supportive, so proud of me, but they were like: ‘Get some education behind you’.”
She duly trained as a social worker at North London College but never worked a day at it, instead making her professional stage debut in 1988 with Talawa Theatre company.
She has worked almost continuously since, on projects of startling variety. Alongside her “straight” theatre and musical work, she was part of the group Six Chix, who narrowly missed out on representing Britain at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2000, and supplied the vocals on Nomad’s ever-golden 1991 floor-filler (I Wanna Give You) Devotion. She has also become a regular of the celebrated Hackney Empire pantos, directed by her wife: the two were married on its stage in 2008. Clarke was appointed an MBE in 2017.
She realised she was bisexual — “if we have to put a label on it” — as a child. While watching the children’s TV puppet show Stingray she realised she fancied the mermaid Marina as much as the sub-commander hero Troy. “My partners are about who they are, not what sex they are,” she says, “although I have been married to my wife for 10 years.” She and McKenna live in Crouch End.
As a born Londoner, what does the city mean to her? “I just love the fact that in London I feel you can be who you want to be,” she says. “We have a freedom in this city that is just so joyous. If my parents hadn’t come here I’d be exactly the same person but I wouldn’t have an avenue in Jamaica to do what I do. Everybody’s leaving somewhere to come here.
“At school I remember being able to taste my way around the world: Indian food, Greek food, Nigerian food, Jamaican food. London is no worse off for its migrants, and we should never lose sight of that.
“I think we should have a day where everyone who’s a migrant of some kind doesn’t go to work, just to show how they are woven into the fabric of London. The place would come to a standstill.”
Caroline, or Change is at the Playhouse Theatre, WC2 (carolineorchange.co.uk), from Nov 20
The winners of the 64th Evening Standard Theatre Awards will be announced on Sunday. For the full shortlist go to: standard.co.uk/theatreawards. #ESTheatreAwards
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