20 Questions With... Jody Abrahams
Date: 4 December 2006
South African actor Jody Abrahams - who premieres Spice Drum Beat at the Tricycle this month - delves into the secrets of his past & talks about how the theatre kept him on the straight & narrow.
South African actor Jody Abrahams started working in the theatre in his native Cape Town at the grand old age of seven, where he has been performing ever since. He was last seen in London at the Tricycle Theatre eight years ago, when he performed in Kat and the Kings, for which he received an Olivier Award.
In the interim, Abrahams has been working on stage and in television productions in South Africa. Most recently he was nominated for his one-man show IS JA! and won a SAFTA award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Hard Copy - a television newsroom drama currently enjoying its second season on South African television.
He is now starring in Spice Drum Beat, from the creators of the award-winning smash hit West End and Broadway success Kat and the Kings. Delving deep into Cape Town's early slave history, when the Dutch first settled in South Africa, Spice Drum Beat transforms both old and recent Cape musical history into a theatrical experience using a vibrant fusion of original songs as well as folk songs that evolved more than a hundred and fifty years ago in Cape Town.
Written and directed by David Kramer, the award-winning show received its world premiere at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees in 2005 before going on to have two sold out seasons at the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town as well as a season in Johannesburg in 2006.
Date & place of birth
I was born in Cape Town in 1974.
Lives now in
Cape TownÖ itís still my home.
Training? What made you want to work in theatre?
I didnít train actually. I trained at the college of knowledge. It was more my family who wanted to put me on the stage rather than me, although I loved it, but Iíve been doing it ever since I was a small kid because I was getting up to all sorts of mischief and they thought the only way to keep an eye on me was to put me on stage!
First big break
My first show, which I did when I was seven, I had my first line in it as well. It was The HaíPenny Opera and I jumped the cue for my one line and I freaked out. I thought ĎIím firedí but the director came afterwards and said the audience fell apart, they laughed so much that he asked me to do it that way every night.
Career highlights to date
Kat and the Kings was fantastic, which we did at the Tricycle and in New York. And then more recently Iíve been focusing on TV for the past few years and I just won an award for Best Supporting Actor in a series Iíve been doing Ė almost like the South African version of a Bafta - so I was really proud of that. But Iím very glad to be back on stage again now.
Do you prefer acting on stage or screen?
Both. Itís like two different cars, oneís a Hammer and oneís a Ferrari, theyíre both great cars but used for different things.
Iím enjoying the one Iím doing at the moment, thatís for sure. Kat and the Kings was such a big production, I was involved from the conception and I just loved every minute of it. I think everything you do youíve got to find enjoyment in it or it isnít worth doing, so I have had fun doing all my work. Spice Drum Beat is great because Iím taking over a role and itís a challenge and I want to break it up and do new things with it. Iím really enjoying the work and the subject matter is such a well kept secret about the world and thatís really interesting, delving into all these secrets from the past and the history of Africa.
Cape Townís a small place, I canít be mentioning certain ones! Iíve just been fortunate to work with people who are very generous with what they do; Iíve been working with some great, great directors.
Iím an actor, I donít read! Big old William (Shakespeare), heís like the dude! I enjoyed Closer by Patrick Marber, thatís great. But there are so many different styles and I think anyone who really captures the truth and the essence life or the story they are telling is a great writer.
What was the last stage production that had a big impact on you? And the first?
Well, I was in theatre before I really saw it, so I donít know if that really counts. I grew up with my grandparents and they got me into theatre. I havenít actually been to see a show in quite a whileÖ I saw some rehash of something that was just horrible a while back and I was not loving that. I love The Sound of Music which I saw when I was a kid. I actually wanted to be in it but Iím slightly too olive-skinned to be one of the Von Trapp kids. But yeah, Iíve been so buried with television and developing a documentary and getting into the directing side of things that Iíve not had a chance to see much theatre lately.
What do awards mean to you?
The acknowledgement is great but other than that they are just dust traps that get in the way on your shelf! It is phenomenal to be acknowledged for doing a good job, but after that itís back down to reality and just finding a job to pay the bills, because awards donít guarantee work!
What might you have done professionally if you hadnít become involved with theatre?
That wouldnít have been an option because I would have been in trouble in some other way. Iíd probably be a hooligan on the street. Although I did go through a phase when I wanted to become a marine biologist and then I studied graphic design, but I always ended up in the theatre.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be & why?
How can I cause the most amount of trouble in one day???? Um, probably swap withÖ my water polo teacher, and then I would pick myself to go on the team. Iím still cross that I didnít make the team in school.
I enjoy Bill Brysonís books, particularly Notes from A Small Island.
Favourite holiday destinations?
I love going back home to Cape Town and doing a bit of fishing.
Why did you want to get involved in Spice Drum Beat?
Basically David (Kramer, the director) gave me a call and said one of the guys couldnít do it any more and would I be interested in doing it. I was looking forward to a bit of a holiday and thought Ďhmm, London, cold, rainy, why not come here and do a show.í I decided it would be great to get back on stage and have a lot of fun. Itís new and exotic. Itís the untold exotic secrets of Cape Town and it resonates within me and itís all the product of the history of this country and I think itís just a fantastic piece.
What will audiences enjoy most about the production?
The beat, of course! The rhythm and the music, theyíre the most important. There are bits of dialogue of course but itís mostly the music and itís just shedding light on the secrets of our past and saying something people donít know, or usually think about.
How did you research the history the show is about?
Some of it is written down but a lot of it is not written in books and itís been so interesting looking for and finding some incredible information. People have been singing these songs all around me since I was a kid but researching this show is the first time Iíve really understood what those songs are all about, and it shows how weíve all been affected by the emancipation and freedom of the slaves, and other events from deep in our histories.
How does it feel to be returning to the Tricycle, where Kat and the Kings was so successful?
Oh itís so amazing coming back here, Iím so excited about it. Itís a really good place. But I will miss my family because they arenít coming over to watch Ė I donít make that much money from TV!
Iíve finally finished the documentary Iíve been working on, so hopefully that will go down well. And Iím planning to carry on creating my own work. I enjoy telling South African stories that inspire people, so I want to keep telling those kind of stories. Thatís my plan, until the day they bury me with a bag of marshmallows. I hear marshmallows help you to buy your way into heaven.
- Jody Abrahams was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Spice Drum Beat runs at Kilburn's Tricycle Theatre from 6 December 2006 to 27 January 2007.