However, actor Amaka Umeh has already solidified themself as a certified Shakespearean pro who lives for the challenge. Their acclaimed history-making turn as the first Black, non-binary performer and Black actor to play the titular role at the Stratford Festival will stand in the echelons of Canadian theatre forever. Their ability to enrapture an audience and breathe fresh life into age-old characters is refreshing. The Dora Award-winning actor has now set their sights on another popular role. They will star as the determined jazz performer Rose Lacroix in the newly adapted two-part play of Anne Marie MacDonald’s beloved book Fall On Your Knees, presented by Canadian Stage.
Umeh is reserved yet bubbles with a quiet confidence that is alluring. Born and raised in Lagos until the age of 11, Canada was the next stop in their journey. A smile emerged as we started to go down memory lane. Their reasoning behind their love of theatre may sound trite, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s the connection and understanding behind the concept of what they do that stands out. “It feels like it comes every day. When I wake up in the morning, there's that little bit of a foggy, liminal space between that subconscious submergence and reemergence into this waking dream. I'm like, where am I?” showing gratitude for their love of the profession.
On the other side of the sphere, having grown up in the church, we witnessed a communal space where people in the audience were the congregation, and the pulpit was the stage. We were receiving stories and being affected. We were being asked to challenge ourselves. To investigate what brings us all together and makes us the same or what makes us different. We were invited to celebrate, express ourselves, and work hard to keep those things sacred. I didn't know that when I was a child, but I've realized that in my adulthood. And I've always been interested in it.”
There is a chasm between being a Biological Sciences major and being an actor. But it was a difficult spell that brought them to a much-needed personal hiatus. And it was during this time that Umeh decided to try out for the Randolph Academy auditions that arrived in Calgary at the time. With the support of their mother, they moved on to a new career path, setting the stage for what was to come.
Now, Umeh gets to bring their talent to the international best-seller and Giller Prize-nominated book. As Rose Lacroix, we will be privy to the many facets of Umeh's talents, from acting to being a musician." I was singing as soon as I talked, and I played piano when I was little. I play piano in the show, so it's almost been a reintroduction to my inner child. I remember being eight years old, sitting with my piano teacher, learning the scales. And I remember sitting there thinking, 'Oh, I'm going to do this forever."'
"And then we moved, and circumstances changed. I couldn't continue my lessons, but in a way, it is kind of reviving that old dream of mine. So I'm very excited about that. And I've been working with Doug Price, our associate music supervisor, on the compositions. Some are already in the world of music, and some are original pieces," says Umeh.
The character drew Umeh in. She was intrigued by Rose Lacroix's elements, and prepping for her debut has been a myriad of pieces coming together. "We started rehearsals at the end of November. Preparing for me a lot of the time is similar. There will be things that come up based on the context. But for Rose, she's kind of wrapped up in mystery. We don't get to meet her until much later in the story," says Umeh.
"And so I think that invites an ongoing questioning. So for everything that happens and everything Rose says, she has a strong opinion based on all of the stuff we don't know. So constant questioning, trying to meet this character. I think a big hook for me was the relationship with her mother. She performs the role of a caregiver, and of course, her relationship with music, with which I also have a solid connection to."
While we touched upon a few things they learned along their theatrical journey, positive energy, punctuality, and genuine support came into play. We're all aware of how energy can change the disposition of a room in a heartbeat. Imagine how that would flow amid a production. Umeh says, "I think what we do every day is challenging. And if we can make it at all pleasant, if we can be a little bit kinder to one another, that goes a long way."
Punctuality goes without saying. There are many rehashed versions of the quote, but have you ever heard the saying, 'If you're five minutes early, then you're already ten minutes late?' Well, that's a tune sung daily in an actor's world, and Umeh laughs at the thought of it. But it does help in the long run. "You know what? Nobody's perfect," says Umeh. "I still struggle. I still drag my feet sometimes, but there is nothing like arriving with enough time to enter the space, collect yourself and make sure you have what you need to be prepared. There's so much work in this industry that happens outside of contracted hours, so it can be overwhelming and exhausting. But, I think that little bit of extra effort to be there so that when the clock strikes 9:30 am, it's time to get started."
As for support, this is one that Umeh holds close to their heart. They recounted a story of unwavering support and encouragement by their Black women peers while in Stratford during auditions for the Birmingham Conservatory. The mention of the experience lit their face up like a warm hug from a dear friend in a dire time of need.
"I don't even know if I can put it into words. It's beyond anything we can say. I think the ways that (when we can) we show up for each other are truly awe-inspiring. Especially knowing what it is that we have to encounter in just the daily grind. It was like, we're out here, we out here for real. It's not even like we're around in the background on the sidelines struggling. And all of those things are still true. So, who else are we going to turn to other than each other? It was just so nice. It's about sisterhood, siblinghood, and brotherhood too. The amount of care and the level of trust that I think is available within our community is unmatched," Umeh shares.
Umeh has been hoisted and admired by her peers and audiences alike. Their work continues to captivate and enchant regardless of classical or contemporary pieces. They don't take any part of this journey for granted. The best part of it all? They've only just begun leaving their mark on the theatre community. We have so much more to experience, and Umeh is ready and willing to provide their expertise with thankfulness.
“Oh, this is what I get to do! (laughs). This is the story I get to embody in this lifetime. Wow. What a gift.”
Fall On Your Knees is currently on stage in Toronto at Bluma Appel Theatre until February 5th and will tour Halifax, Ottawa, and London through February and March.