gal-dem in conversation with Idriss Kargbo, star of the West End’s Wicked
16 Jun 2017
The sad truth for myself and many other young children of colour growing up in the arts, especially in musical theatre, was that we simply could not picture a place for ourselves in the West End shows surrounding us. So when the announcement was made in 2016 that none other than Idriss Kargbo, a young black man, had been cast as Boq in the 10th anniversary London cast of Wicked, it was such a momentous occasion for myself and undoubtedly many others who shared this issue. The character of Boq, an early friend of the two witches, is a key role, and so important to now be inhabited by an actor of colour.
With such an impressive theatrical resume for someone so young, having played Young Simba in The Lion King, Eugene in the Young Vic’s Scottsboro Boys, and Donkey in the UK tour of Shrek, it’s easy to see how Idriss’s performance in Wicked was astounding. No matter the circumstance, in each number and scene Idriss entered you could just feel the joy in his performance. Both on and off stage, Idriss’s energy and zealousness is infectious. I met with him to discuss his journey through theatre, and his achievement of landing what has always been such a stereotypically white role in such an iconic production.
When did you first start out in the theatre?
I actually first got started in the theatre when I was ten years old, I played Young Simba in The Lion King, and that was my first professional job. It was an absolutely incredible experience, The Lion King was my favourite disney movie ever growing up, I actually broke the tape from watching it so many times! So even at 10 years old it was such a dream come true.
What has it been like not just entering, but really thriving in the world of theatre as a black actor?
Such a blessing! I am a very religious person, and I thank God every day, because the way it has happened for me has obviously come from hard work and determination. I’ve always known that this is exactly what I want to do from as long as I can remember. It’s been blessings upon blessings to not only get to do this for a living, but also know that I might be inspiring people of colour and people as dark-skinned as me that might relate to the journey I’m taking. I know growing up for me and so many others, there wasn’t much to relate to, but now, with so many things happening in the arts for people of colour it really is a great time to be experiencing this all!
Absolutely! Like you said, we’re seeing a lot more people of colour achieving these exciting, big roles in the theatre – Boyega, Dumezweni, you – do you feel that this is a great sign that our representation is going to continue to rise?
Oh absolutely. What I will say is that we cannot rest. I feel like it is getting so much better, and although the opportunities are showing right now, we cannot rely on ‘this’ being it. It needs to keep on going up from now. I feel like Moonlight winning the Oscar this year was such a big thing, especially the content of the story – a gay, black love story is so rare, and for it to win an Oscar, it’s starting to prove that society as we know it is moving forward, and our industry as we know it is moving forward. I pray that this is only the beginning, and not where we plateau. We have so much to show the world as we keep going higher.
Every show of course has its own unique individual enjoyments, but what have you loved the most about being in Wicked?
Just being a part of it! Especially being a part of the 10th anniversary cast, it’s been such a monumental year for the show. I grew up with the Wicked soundtrack. I went to a theatre school so I’ve kind of been #stage all my life, but I knew Wicked inside out, and saw the show quite a few times growing up, and, being honest, I never ever thought I would be in it. I couldn’t see something in the show that would be for me, I never expected this could happen, and so it means I feel ten times as blessed every day to be a part of this!
Boq is such an exciting and interesting role, and obviously without giving too much away, the character is quite pivotal to the progression of the play – was there anything that you particularly used when approaching the role?
Yes, I think I used truth. I think with actors this is the main thing you use anyway. I think if you are not being truthful then no one’s going to believe it! But I also returned to his vulnerability, it’s what a lot of people warm to with the character. He’s so vulnerable, he’s maybe a little bit naive, but he also has a massive heart. I think all of us at some point have been through a stage where we desperately love someone and that person clearly doesn’t feel the same way, but nothing’s going to stop us from trying. That is what makes him such a relatable character. For me, that was the foundation, allowing me to build from there.
Was there something that particularly drew you to audition for Boq? Or were you approached yourself?
It’s weird because I always believed that if there ever were a character for me it would be Boq – whether they would give that chance to a black actor, that was what I did not know. So when I got the call to audition, I was like “right this is great. Whether it’s going to happen, I do not know… But I have to go and do the best that I can,” and that’s what helped me through the whole audition process. I went in with the feeling of “if it happens it happens, if it doesnt it doesnt” and I feel like that took away the pressure that often hinders opportunities in life. I was very relaxed because I honestly did not know if they would do it. I kept thinking, after ten years why would they change the role? Because it’s been so significantly a white part.
That’s actually very good advice for going for your goals. I grew up with the Wicked soundtrack too! It was actually one of the first shows that I properly got ‘in to’.
Yass! *claps along with ‘in to’* Exactly the same!
My sister took me. I came out, age thirteen, and was straight away so aware, even since then, of how applicable the show’s plot and themes are to the world we as people of colour face today. The ‘scapegoat’ theme and how society gets ‘united’ against a created enemy – did this affect how you chose to portray Boq? Especially as the show progresses.
Yes, yes, yes. This was very difficult as you need to stay within the theme of the show! Obviously we are in “Oz”, it is completely a fictional story, but at the same time it is so relatable to what’s going on right now! It’s so political if you break it down. I think the theme of Elphaba being green, and the way people turn against her because of the way she looks, and the fact she’s different to everybody else, that is just society in itself. It’s judging someone without even knowing them because they look different to the collective “us.” I think with the show, that’s what makes it so universal because it’s not just about “a green witch” and “a blonde witch,” it’s about society and the way it can be shaped so easily by the people above us. That for me, is how Wicked speaks to me and how it will always speak to me.
Completely true. Lastly, do you have anything you want to share to any aspiring young actors of colour out there that are looking at shows and thinking “there’s not a role for me here”?
I say, never give up. I know it’s so cliche! But it’s so true. There are so many times that I’ve thought, “where else can I go? What else can I do?” For black actors especially we’ve got to keep pushing forward, keep widening the horizons. You can only determine your future if you put your mind to it, and if you say ‘that is what I am going to do’ then that is what you are going to do! It’s so incredible that we have shows we are creating for ourselves by black artists and other artists of colour, but I have and always will strive to go for these roles that aren’t necessarily written or thought of as something a black actor would play. Do not give up; no matter what skin tone you are, no matter how dark you are, no matter what height you are, go and do it if you want to do it. There is not a single thing you cannot do, if a role is out there then it is out there for you.
Wicked is currently showing at the Apollo Victoria Theatre. Be sure to catch Idriss Kargbo as Boq up until Saturday 22 July 2017. Click here for more details – https://www.wickedthemusical.co.uk/