The West End performer on her role in Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning new musical
Every now and then, amidst a steady stream of film to stage adaptations, jukebox musicals and revivals, we are gifted a piece of musical theatre that offers something entirely new. And whilst tradition and familiarity are valuable parts of what makes the West End magic, brilliant new theatre is always something to get excited about.
Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop has just landed at London’s Barbican, fresh off one of the most decorated Broadway runs imaginable. The show has won every major Best Musical award, from the Drama Desk and the Tony to the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its producers include huge names such as Billy Porter, RuPaul and Jennifer Hudson. It is, according to cast member Sharlene Hector and virtually everyone else who has come into contact with it, a challenging but incredibly important piece of musical theatre, and exactly what London has been craving.
Known best for her work with Basement Jaxx, Hector’s theatre credits include Hairspray and Dreamgirls. We caught up with the performer just a few days before her opening night in A Strange Loop to chat about her experience so far, navigating the show’s challenging material, and what it is that makes this job different from any she’s done before.
You open on Saturday. How are you feeling?
Very excited. Can’t wait. It’s been a lot of hard work, so it’ll be really nice to be able to actually perform it for people now.
Did you see the original production on Broadway?
I didn’t. I didn’t know anything about the show when I first auditioned. But when I got the first pieces of script that I had to use for my audition, I was like… this is interesting. Let me have a look at this. I went on Spotify and listened to the soundtrack and just fell in love with the show. I was like, “Please, even if I’m the tree in the background, I need to be there”. It’s an amazing, amazing piece. It’s quite hard-hitting in some areas, but it’s really a privilege to be part of it.
What were those early rehearsals like?
They were interesting, because obviously it’s an American team, so there were references that perhaps we didn’t know, like certain celebrities in American culture that we weren’t familiar with. There was lots of familiarisation with some of the language in the piece. And also, there are themes of race and sex and lots of different things and we had to get used to using certain language in those scenes as well, which was quite difficult. But we managed it. We’ve got through it. We’ve had a lot of help. We have a drama therapist who looks after us if we need someone to talk to about what we’re doing. We also have an intimacy coach. So some of the scenes that, you know, might be a bit difficult to get through ordinarily, she helps us with that. They really looked after us in terms of what we have to do on stage. Hopefully it’ll become second nature.
Obviously preparing for any role is going to require a level of vulnerability, but it feels as if with this production in particular you’ve had to do quite a lot of mental and emotional work to prepare and protect yourself.
Yes, absolutely. A lot of the themes are quite difficult. Not things that we haven’t all dealt with personally as well. Some things are quite triggering for cast members, and also will be for the audience as well. We’re just working on desensitising ourselves, so that we can actually just put on this show and tell this story, which is a really important story.
It sounds like quite a bonding experience as a cast.
Yeah, we’re all good friends. We’re definitely a unit, which is really nice. And that’s not always the case in every production. Understudies as well and covers and swings and everybody… It’s just a love fest, I’m not gonna lie.
This is such a decorated show in the US, and there’re such big names tied to this – people like Jennifer Hudson and Billy Porter. Has that brought any pressure into the rehearsal room, or have you managed to keep it separate?
I think at the moment we’re just consumed with the storytelling. We’re so grateful that such big names are involved and want to support the show. We met Jonathan from Strictly and he took some pictures with us. He’s an ambassador for the show, so that’s really cool. But at the moment, all that we’re focused on is how best to tell this story. We’re honored that people are supporting it the way that they do though.
Could you tell me a bit about your role in this production?
Basically, the protagonist is a young man called Usher, who works in a theater. And he’s surrounded by his Thoughts, literally what goes on in his head. He has six of those Thoughts, and I am Thought 1. I’m the only girl in the cast, and that’s been really, really cool. I’ve learned a lot.
You’ve got some quite significant theatre credits already. Has anything about this process felt particularly different to the work you’ve done to date?
Quite honestly, yeah, it has felt very different. From the first audition, I felt different about this show. I felt like it was going to be something really special. Not that I didn’t think anything else I was doing was going to be special. Because each job I’ve done has been really special. But I identify quite a lot with the themes in the show and some of the scenarios in the show, so it meant a lot to me to be able to be part of this production. This one has meant the most so far, definitely.
Could you tell me a little bit about some of those themes that have like really struck home with you?
Well, the show is about a young gay black man who happens to be overweight, writing a show about a young gay black man who happens to be overweight, writing a show about a young gay black man… So that’s the basic story. But the themes we deal with, for example, having Christian parents when you’re going into an industry that perhaps isn’t the easiest place to be a Christian in… also being gay and being raised in a Christian family is hard. I mean, my experience personally comes from wanting to go into the arts but coming from a Christian home, where that’s not something that’s supported. But now my mom comes to everything. She’s really supportive now. But then there’s also a lot of race issues. I don’t know a person of colour that hasn’t experienced racism. And the way it kind of joins in with people’s preferences, people’s sexual preferences, people’s racial preferences… It’s interesting.
Have there been any moments in rehearsal when any of that has hit you particularly hard?
100%. I think there’s been one for all of us.
When audiences watch this show, what do you want them to take away from it?
I find that question really difficult to answer because everybody is different. And everybody will take away something different from the show when they see it. Being in it, I just want people to understand that this stuff goes on. This stuff happens. You know, the stuff that happens in the show, it actually happens in real life. It’s not fake. It’s real. And I think there’s going to be a lot of people’s eyes opened. But also, Michael, who wrote the show, said that he wants people to either be looking through a window or into a mirror. And I think that’s a really good way to put it. I think as long as people are learning something – whatever that may be, whether it’s that you need to go for your dreams or whether it’s that you need to speak up for yourself – I want people to take away what is best for them to take away.