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Sharon D Clarke: 'We need more British musicals with multi-racial casts'

As she opens in Caroline, or Change, Sharon D Clarke looks back on how she began, what she'd like to change in the industry and starring in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's musical


If you've been anywhere from the National Theatre, to Hackney Empire to Southwark Playhouse recently, you'll know that Sharon D Clarke is one of our brightest and best talents. Her career has taken her from stage to screen – she was a regular as Lola Griffin on Holby City – and from straight acting to musical theatre, including stints in The Lion King (as Rafiki) and We Will Rock You (originating the role of Killer Queen). She was superb in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at the National Theatre last year, and in just the last few months she has starred in The Life at Southwark Playhouse, picked up an MBE and opened in a revival of Tony Kushner's musical Caroline, or Change at Chichester Festival Theatre.

You've just got out of The Life and gone straight into Caroline, or Change, were you geared up or did you feel like a holiday was needed?
A bit of both, to be honest. Our press night was a Tuesday for The Life and on the Thursday I started rehearsals for Caroline, or Change. I've been doubling up for about five weeks. After that third and fourth week I started to feel it vocally. But both productions are so very different and they pushed me on through. It made me feel blessed to be working on two such fantastic shows.

The show was first workshopped in the early '90s and it's set in the '60s, does it make sense to stage Caroline, or Change today?
It absolutely does. In the play, JFK has just been shot and the civil rights movement is gaining momentum and black people are starting to stand up for their rights. The way that the world is at the moment, with the far right on the rise, I think it's an important show for people to see, especially young people.

Why young people especially?
Because it seems to me that at the moment the older generation are repeating our mistakes. It is our young people that we need to galvanise so we make change happen.

What is the show actually about?
Caroline is a black maid who works for the Gellman family in 1963. Mrs Gellman, who is Caroline's boss, thinks that she's helping her by saying that Caroline can take the small change Mrs Gellman's son is leaving in his pockets. For a woman of that time, who is earning 30 dollars a week and her rent is maybe 20 dollars, it puts her in this weird space. She doesn't want to be taking money from a kid, because that feels all kinds of wrong, but those extra pennies and quarters and nickels enable her to buy meat that week instead of padding out her kids' meals with bread. It makes a difference to her lifestyle but it also takes a great toll on her self worth.

How would you describe Caroline?
I see her as a woman who is grieving. Her husband went away to Vietnam and came back a changed man, as many men who went through the war did. He came back emasculated: he couldn't find much work and when that happens the only place where you can be the king of your castle is at home. He hits her and she decides she's not taking any of that, so the next time he hits her she beats the hell out of him and divorces him. But she's still very much in love with him. So she's suffering that loss and she has four kids.

You recently picked up your MBE from Prince Charles, did you chat?
Yes, I have actually performed in front of Prince Charles twice. And once was when he came to a gala performance of Cinderella at the Hackney Empire. He's not someone who goes to panto weekly so I knew he would remember it and he did. It was lovely to engage rather than just stand there very nervously going: 'Oh my god it's Prince Charles'.

You originally trained as a social worker, rather than an actor, why is that?
I wanted to have something that I could do which I loved just as much, if acting didn't work out. I didn't want to feel like I wasn't living my dream. At school I was one of those kids who was the first one to tell the girls in the toilets that they were having their period, and they weren't dying. That social worker aspect has always been a part of my personality. I absolutely loved the training. I worked with kids from problem homes, with older people in old people's homes and people with disabilities. It introduced me to this vast melting pot of humanity, although I have never actually done a day's work as a social worker.

How did you get into acting?
A friend of mine was going to a local dance school and I asked my mum if I could go with her. A wonderful Jewish lady called Ivy Travers ran a dance school in Clapton and I did pantomime and variety with her. Getting onstage was it for me; I completely and utterly knew what I wanted to do. That form of expression and working with the team. I got the bug and from when I was six that's what I have done all my life.

You're a seasoned panto performer, what's the attraction?
I think I did my first pantomime when I was 13 and I did my first panto at Hackney in 1999. I love panto. It is usually your first vehicle for getting kids into theatre and any time you can get a child into the theatre, I am quite happy. As much as panto is hard work - it's two shows a day for five to six weeks - it's so joyous. When you are in a place that knows what they are doing and knows the community and has got great production values, it's just a joy.

If there was one thing about the theatre industry that you could change what would it be?
As a Londoner, I would like to see much more multi-racial casting. The streets that I walk are multi-racial, and I would like to see that reflected back on stage. In The Life, the cast was from everywhere. It's not that it is a black show, it's a show about people. The other thing I loved about it was that the women on stage came in an array of different shapes and sizes. Also, as a musical theatre actress, a lot of the work I do is American. I would like to see more British musicals that are multi-racial. I don't always want to be telling the American perspective, we have been here long enough to have our own stories. One of the few things I auditioned for that didn't call me as a ‘large black actress' – which is what I get called for mostly – was We Will Rock You. That was a British based musical that had characters in it not because they were black but because they were people. I would like to see more of that.

Caroline, or Change runs at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 3 June.