Racheal Ofori is an actor and writer who has worked in theatre, film, television, and radio. Right for Education joined Racheal to discuss her acting career and the pieces that she has written: ‘It’s Everywhere’ and ‘So Many Reasons’. ‘It’s Everywhere’ highlights how racism is everywhere, while ‘So Many Reasons’ is about two generations of women, depicting the relationship between a mother and a daughter, and the idea of where God fits into that. It is about a young girl who falls out of love with her faith.
R:Ed: What do you believe is the function of theatre?
Humans began with stories. The reason why we take photos, why we go out: everyone wants stories to tell their grandkids. I don’t think we could ever date back the first story told. Everything about us is narrative. That’s what theatre is. It’s magic, because it’s live. You here tonight with me, something could happen, that won’t happen tomorrow. Obviously, TV and film are magic because that moment in time is there forever, but I think the function of theatre is to tell and to revel in the stories of life. As soon as you can talk, you start telling stories about what you did today. Theatre is that experience of connecting people and collectively enjoying a live moment, and then talking about it, and telling stories about the story. That’s powerful.
I love theatre because it’s so raw, and you’re so naked. I started writing shows and was the most naked, without actually being naked, on stage you can be. I love putting myself out there and going, ‘Okay, here we go,’ from the moment I say my first line, because the shows I do play without an interval. I love that weirdness. If I mess up a line, oh well, you’re coming on a journey with me. I enjoy watching shows because I am trusting the actor to take me on a journey. It’s live and there’s immediate feedback. You can go straight out, chat to people and ask them how they felt about the show. I like that immediate connection.
R:Ed: When did you first want to be an actor?
I always liked the idea of it, but it didn’t feel feasible. I was a good academic student, good at maths, really good at English literature, and thrived at fine art. I pursued English but I didn’t want to carry on being academic or writing essays. I did a foundation in Art and Design for a year but felt out of place. Everybody at the college wanted to be fashion designers. I didn’t.
I thought: ‘I’m going to be an actor. Let’s just try it.’ I went to National Youth theatre and did their two-week workshop programme. I thought, ‘I’ll give it a go and spend one year applying for drama schools.’ I could only afford to apply for three. I happened to get in and I have been riding that wave ever since.
R:Ed: What problems have you faced during your career?
It’s hard to say, ‘this is something I’ve faced because of this reason’. It’s a hard industry full stop. I have such a broad spectrum of friends from different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different social classes. We’ve all faced difficulties. It’s the competition of it. The hardship is about continuing to find confidence, going again for that audition, and giving 110% every time. It was probably most difficult in drama school where they struggled to cast me and two other non-white students in my year. They didn’t know what to do with us. They didn’t have the appropriate play texts or didn’t know how to cultivate our voices or performances. But it’s a difficult industry full stop. It’s hard for everyone to break through.
R:Ed: What do you think about colour-blind casting?
For colour-blind casting, the base is always going to be Shakespeare, or the super classical texts, like Greek tragedies. With modern play texts it doesn’t make sense. They cast the lead character and then all her sisters are white, obviously. I don’t know if colour-blind casting is necessarily the way to go. Maybe in drama school to keep equal opportunity, but not in mainstream media, especially in families, when they’ve shoehorned a diverse cast just for the sake of ticking diversity boxes. If you know the family is from a specific area in the UK and the reality is that they wouldn’t be a diverse group of people, I don’t really enjoy watching. I would rather live broadcasters and platforms give space to other stories. Rather than take a story that we recognize, of an obviously middle-class family in Britain, and diversify it: ‘here you go’. I’d rather you told this other story about an Asian community or wrote stories about Britain as it is: multicultural. There are places all over London where not just one specific group of people live. Either tell the reality, or don’t bother. Tell various realities because various realities exist.
R:Ed: Could you tell me a bit about your piece ‘So Many Reasons’?
‘So Many Reasons’ was a solo show. I gave myself a brief. I wanted to write about two generations of women. I took my mother and myself as a springboard to examine femininity and God; how those two backgrounds see those two things in different ways. I had done another show before, which wasn’t necessarily a linear narrative. It was a collection of monologues. The brief was the challenge of telling one story and trusting that the audience would come with me and follow one character’s narrative. It was fun. It is a coming-of-age tale about a young girl, Melissa. She’s only eight when you meet her, and there’s these moments where she realizes she’s a sexual being before she feels like a sexual being. When she’s eight a man interacts with her in a certain way, and when she’s 10 people make assumptions about her: she’s called a lesbian, because, if she wasn’t a lesbian, she would act more feminine. She has an older sister who has more agency over her femininity and her sexuality.
There’s a push and pull between her mother, sister, and God – the man in the Bible – and what he wants her to be. You go from her being really young, running a race in school with the boys, to her first one-night stand, first Brazilian, and loads of crazy stuff. It’s ultimately about the relationship between a mother and a daughter, and the idea of where God fits into that. I find it interesting how much Christianity is fastened to black culture. I say ‘gospel’, and people immediately have visions of black gospel choirs in America. It’s quite synonymous in some ways. In the show, I play with and satirise that. As a young girl falls out of love with her faith, I think it is quite powerful to watch that journey unfold.
R:ED: What has been your favourite role?
‘Three Sisters’ was really fun. Udo, who is Irina in the classical text, went on a real journey. She was light and sprightly at the beginning and by the end was grounded and a bit destroyed but trying to be hopeful. I love stories with an arc, when there’s a clear difference between how you met someone at the beginning. There are some fun characters I’ve had with really good one-liners. I had a part in an action film, and she had huge blazing guns, a crazy Mohawk, and dark lipstick. But there wasn’t a journey with her. You met her as a badass, and you left her as a badass. Whereas Udo in ‘Sisters’ had a real journey. I enjoyed that every night as there was always somewhere to go.
R:ED: Do you try to enter a character’s head before you start learning their lines?
No, I trust the writing, that the writer’s got a sense of who this person is going to be. I go for it and explore the language and build that way. Rather than make decisions about the character, based on external research, I read the text: What did they say? What does it mean? How do they feel?
Other questions: What’s happening? What’s the backdrop of the scene? are secondary. With COVID, there will be loads of plays and stories written about this period, but, ultimately, people are people. If a character’s in the 60s, doesn’t mean that they’re automatically going to behave a certain way. I pay attention to what they’re saying and then of course I think about the structure in which they live and gender roles, but these things are secondary. Ultimately, the character’s nuance and how they feel should be in the text, and then you can build up from that.
R:Ed: Did you have dance lessons?
Dance is something I like to do. I didn’t spend money or years at a school. I had the odd class here and there at Studio 68 or Pineapple. But I do it in my room a lot. It’s the thing that keeps me sane these days.
R:Ed: Is there a role you really want to play?
I don’t know if I operate in terms of ‘there’s one person’s biopic I’d love to be’. A biopic is a bit of a nightmare for me because the person exists, there’s no real freedom. I have desires to play types of people. I want to play an unlikable female. Men get to be dicks and we still watch. ‘Breaking Bad’ is the perfect example. Walter White is a bad guy at the end, and we’re still rooting for him. I want to play women that genuinely don’t care and aren’t bound to their sex. As much as Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michaela Cole’s stuff is great, it’s all very sexually raw. Men don’t have to do that. Tracey Emin and female artists that have exhibitions have to bastardise their lives to get recognition. It applies across the board. Women have to be raw to stand out and have this immediate connection to their actual truth. With rappers, comedians, TV writers, a lot of their work comes from their real life. That’s not fair. Why can’t we write fun stories for women? I want to play an unlikable woman that’s fun and not necessarily specific to my real life. TV shouldn’t be a writer’s therapy, exorcising your demons all the time. Women shouldn’t have to do that.
R:Ed: Could you tell me about your piece ‘It’s Everywhere’?
It came off the back of talking about race as something that’s everywhere, because it’s so rooted in our history and we’re not aware. I didn’t know that slave masters were paid reparations until recently because their slaves were freed. These things are interesting, but if we don’t acknowledge them, we can’t move forward, so the piece is called ‘It’s Everywhere’. A lot of problems today are because the right sees the left as wanting to rewrite history, pulling down statues and pretending people didn’t exist, erasing their market history, while also saying: ‘this is something we need to continually address’. But we’re not moving forward when we do address it. We talk about it, pay lip service, and do nothing. When I wrote this piece, it was about unearthing that.
It’s everywhere. It’s in the way we’re taught education, in the way we give black history a month – because the rest of the year black people don’t exist. Black history is in all history because it’s the past. It doesn’t make sense for British history to have its own separate thing. Migration was happening before the slave trade. I’ve always been taught that there was a separate way our history was recorded, and it was told through the winners – the white people. That’s been the education of people my age, older, and younger. It’s going to manifest in the way that we live our lives. It won’t disappear until we go: ‘Okay, what can we do about this’, rather than ignore it, brush over it, and look at all the good things colonialism did. Can we address this and address how we educate ourselves about it? For a long time, education around the Empire and colonialism was positive, ignoring the mass genocide that happened, saying Britain is not as bad as America. America does have its own problems but that’s not good enough. You shouldn’t clap for yourself because you are less racist than another place.
R:Ed: Are we starting to have the right conversations?
Being black doesn’t automatically make you oppressed, there are different elements, there’s nuance. We have to acknowledge that if you come from a certain class, or race there are different things that affect opportunity, then we can make sure that that opportunity is available to everyone. The conversations are happening in a way that they weren’t even a year ago. People were talking about diversity years ago, but we’re still getting the same things happening over and over again. I think we’re just going to have to wait and see.
Racheal’s website can be found here: https://www.rachealofori.com/about