A nominee for the WhatsOnStage Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for her performance as Little Sally in Urinetown (Apollo Theatre), actress KARIS JACK has taken on another challenging role in the UK premiere of The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin at Theatre Royal Stratford East.
The actress, whose recent theatre credits include Chiffon in Little Shop of Horrors (Salisbury Playhouse), Little Innez in Hairspray (Leicester Curve Theatre), and Fay in Baddies: The Musical (Unicorn Theatre), will play Young Viveca alongside Sophia Mackay as the older Viveca in the UK debut of the musical written by former Broadway dancer Kirsten Childs.
First performed at the prestigious Playwrights Horizons in New York, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin’s UK debut will continue until 11 March with a press night on 8 February.
Musical Theatre Review’s contributor Aliya Al-Hassan caught up with Karis during rehearsals.
How have rehearsals gone?
They’re going great, a whirlwind really. We have had to work very quickly. On other jobs, I learnt the music first, but here it is the text that’s important. There’s no time to mess about, with just a four-week rehearsal time it’s been 10am-6pm every day.
What was it about the show that made you want to be part of it?
The music. It’s a very unusual mixture of pop, Motown and Broadway, fused to make magic.
You play Young Viveca – a girl trying to make it as a dancer in 60s America at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Can you describe her character?
She is an African-American young girl, I capture the essence of her youth aged 9-18. She is young, bubbly, determined and smart. Her dad doesn’t want her to see the negativity of the racism around her – she doesn’t have the knowledge and that’s why she is a chameleon. She wants to be white, not black, as that was the perfect picture of society. She reacts to the negativity, she tries to embrace it and steps forward and comes into her own.
The show is the UK premiere. Why do you think it hasn’t been produced in the UK before?
Maybe because of the topics – the racism, the sexism – are hard-hitting topics but they are covered in a comical way. Some people might not be comfortable with touching those topics.
One of the first things Viveca is exposed to is the Birmingham, Alabama bombing where four young girls were killed. We have a picture of the youngest girl, Denise, on our mood boards. The musical wants to represent the four girls as they didn’t get a chance to grow up.
Does the show have anything new to say to a UK audience?
It’s very relevant, even though it was written in the 90s. In the USA now we have all the unlawful killings, racism and sexism. We had the ‘women’s march’ against Trump the other day. It is all still very present and relevant today.
The show is billed as Sondheim meets Beyoncé. What is your favourite song?
‘Welcome to LA’ made me go wow! It’s just so different. My favourite is the Act I finale, which doesn’t have a title. Viveca has taken so much negativity and this song is the first sign she is shedding her skin. It’s the first time she swears and shows the transition from child to teenager.
Has this been your favourite role so far?
It has been the most challenging, especially vocally. There are 21 songs and I sing in 11 of them – six I am leading. It’s allowed me to learn the most so far. I really think it will take me to the next level in my career and as a person.
Viveca faces the reality of racism and sexism in 60s America in the show. As a black actress, have you ever come across any racism or prejudice in the business?
Not so far in the business, but it’s difficult with roles as there’s not so many for black actors out there. You’re often up against your friends for parts, as you all know each other. It’s the same for men and women; there’s always one or two ‘black parts’, but apart from The Lion King or shows based around Motown, there are not many ‘black shows’. I’ve been lucky as my roles haven’t been specifically labelled as ‘the black girl’. Little Sally in Urinetown was blind casting, so that was great.
Little Sally was the role you received a nomination for the WhatsOnStage Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical. How was that experience for you?
It was so great; she is my heart. I loved doing that role so much. It was my first West End credit so it means so much to me. Jamie Lloyd was such a fabulous director.
Who is the most inspirational person you have worked with?
Jamie Lloyd, but also Josette [Bushell-Mingo, director of The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin]. As a black female, she has really inspired me. Also, Susan Lawson-Reynolds [associate director] – they have both been so encouraging to me. This is my first lead and so their help has been amazing. At first, I really didn’t want to be in the centre, but they made me feel comfortable and believe I can do this.
When did you start performing?
I always did extracurricular singing and dancing; every day my mum was taking me to something. I did dance and music at GCSE and then college. My tutor said I should try musical theatre – I didn’t know I could do that as a career, so that was a light bulb moment. There was no other thing to do but to perform!
You trained at the American Musical Theatre Academy of London; what skills did you gain there?
I could hone in on the things that were unique to me. University had a specific sound I tried to adapt to, but drama school embraced me. I had teachers who really believed in me and I found the belt quality of my voice.
I won the overall dance award at the end of the year. I was ecstatic, as I’m not a technical dancer, but it made me want to push myself out of a safe zone.
The course included some time in New York, What did you learn there?
It was amazing. For eight days, we trained at the Broadway Dance Centre with Broadway performers. We had to live the life of a New Yorker, taking the subway and getting around ourselves. The hustle and bustle was crazy.
What part would you love to play?
When I was younger it was Nala in The Lion King, but now I don’t have a specific role in mind. I’d love to put my own stamp on a new show that hasn’t been on Broadway before.
What is your favourite musical?
It’s a cross between The Lion King, which was the first musical I saw, and Hairspray – it’s so feel-good, it just always lifts my spirits. I also love the music from Dreamgirls, I love that 60s sound.
What are your plans after the show?
No plans yet. I hope this show will allow me to have more exposure. I just want to keep going. If I could get another musical, that would make me so happy. I get asked if I want to do TV, but I’m so happy in musical theatre.
* The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin marks director and actress Josette Bushell-Mingo’s return to London. The production continues at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 11 March.