Join host Phil Rickaby as he talks with the playwright of Sweeter, Alicia Richardson and Assistant Director Amaka Umeh who enlighten us on the creative process behind the play. Set in 1887 Florida, this magical and surreal tale of a talking mango tree and a 7-year-old black girl tackles themes of black womanhood and growing up black. The origins of Sweeter trace back to an ambitious exercise where Alicia penned seven plays in seven days, with many forming the foundation for her other work, Articulation.
We also talk about Amaka’s journey to joining the production as assistant director, and the thrill and challenge of bringing a theatre production to life. From a short piece to a full-scale production, the evolution of a play is indeed a labor of love. The value of versatility and embracing multiple passions in the theatre world are also discussed. Our conversation takes an intriguing turn as we explore the art of creating distinct character voices in a new play, and the significance of representation and diversity in theatre. Hear how theatre provides a platform for young children of colour to explore their identities and see themselves represented on stage.
Finally, Alicia and Amaka share their journeys in the theatre world. Amaka shares her passion for movement, and Alicia, her interest in voice training and dialect coaching. They also discuss the importance of storytelling and representation in the theatre world, especially for Black individuals. Hear about the Alicia and Amaka’s early encounters with theatre, the power of storytelling in shaping our identities, and the role of education in promoting diversity and inclusivity in theatre.
Alicia Richardson is an African-American actor/writer and voice coach originally from Boynton Beach, Florida. She came to Canada for the affordable tuition, then she got health care and figured…why fight it? Now she’s a Permanent Resident livin’ that sweet (but sometimes sour) artist’s life in Toronto. Her body of work spans television, film, theatre, and voice-over. Alicia is PUMPED to have the world premiere of her Theatre for Young Audiences play, Sweeter, a co-pro from Cahoots Theatre and Roseneath Theatre slated for production in December 2023 in Toronto.
Amaka Umeh is an award-winning English theatre performing artist of Nigerian descent who enjoys puns, sweets, and adventures. A graduate of the Musical Theatre Performance Program at the Randolph Academy for Performing Arts, she explores the provocative, liberatory, and transformative powers of investigating truth through imagination and pretense while wrestling with the limitations of the spoken word as a vehicle for communication and understanding. Their work has been generously recognized with a Dora Mavor Moore Award, a Toronto Theatre Critics Association Award, and two MyEntertainmentWorld Critics’ Pick Award nominations.
Tickets and Info for Sweeter: https://www.cahoots.ca/production/sweeter
Transcript auto generated.
0:00:04 – Phil Rickaby
I’m Phil Rickaby and I’ve been a writer and performer for almost 30 years, but I’ve realized that I don’t really know as much as I should about the theater scene outside of my particular Toronto bubble. Now I’m on a quest to learn as much as I can about the theatre scene across Canada. So join me as I talk with mainstream theater creators you may have heard of and indie artists you really should know, as we find out just what it takes to be Stageworthy. If you value the work that I do on Stageworthy, please consider leaving a donation, either as a one-time thing or on a recurring monthly basis. Stageworthy is created entirely by me and I give it to you free of charge, with no advertising or other sponsored messages. Your continuing support helps me to cover the cost of producing and distributing the show. Just four people donating $5 a month would help me cover the cost of podcast hosting alone. Help me continue to bring you this podcast. You can find a link to donate in the show notes, which you can find in your podcast app or at the website at Stageworthy.ca.
Now onto the show. Alicia Richardson is an actor and writer based out of Toronto, a maker of fine soups, a world traveler, who desperately wants to have an Italian greyhound. Wente Amaka Ume is an award-winning theater performer of Nigerian descent who enjoys puns, sweets and adventures. They both joined me to talk about Alicia’s play Sweeter, which is being produced by Kahoot’s Theatre in association with Rosé Theatre from December 2-17 at Native Earth Ackee Studio in Toronto. Here’s our conversation. Which of you would like to give me the elevator pitch for what is Sweeter?
0:02:18 – Alicia Richardson
I will volunteer as tribute. So Sweeter is a theatre for young audiences play geared towards third grade and up. Our bullseye would be between the ages of 7-9, because our protagonist is a little girl who is 7 years old. So typically in a young adult story the protagonist is the target age of who we want to really come and see the show. So Sweeter is the story of a magical talking mango tree and her best friend, who is a 7-year-old little black girl, and it is set in the year 1887 in the town of Eatonville, florida, and the two of them learned how to grow together.
0:03:12 – Phil Rickaby
That is a delightful description. Thank you Right on. Okay, so what is? What was the inspiration for this show?
0:03:23 – Alicia Richardson
So Sweeter was what began as an experiment. I was in Obsidian Theatre Company’s playwriting unit and because I was very obsessed and continued to be with Susan Laurie Parks, I did an exercise of seven plays in seven days, based off of her work doing 365. So, if you don’t know, susan Laurie Parks is a prolific playwright, a black woman in the United States who has gotten the MacArthur Genius Grant, who is, you know, trailblazed. She walked so that I could run, essentially. So I did this exercise thinking what, what would come out of writing a single, you know short play, and by play it’s just defined as something that has a beginning, middle and end. So what would happen during these seven plays in seven days was that the majority of what I cooked up became the basis of a play that I wrote with Obsidian, called Articulation. And then this play was this wacky magical realism thing that did not fit. One of these things is not like the other one. It didn’t fit.
0:04:36 – Phil Rickaby
0:04:36 – Alicia Richardson
It didn’t. And so I went to my dramaturg at that time, mel Hague, who now is the ADF factory. She was the playwright unit coordinator. She said this one just doesn’t feel the same Because the other ones took place in the present day. And like it was just weird, like this is in the past and this is so wacky and so surreal, Like it’s not of this world. And I was trying to articulate the experience of inhabiting a black body in spaces that were comical, farcical, sometimes inhospitable. And she, mel, gave me this prompt to you know, really think outside the box, really go for it. And this doesn’t even have to make sense in the realm of human experience. You know, it can be a cloud or a dog. So I thought of a talking mango tree, because I feel like a black womanhood can be what’s the word exemplified, can be represented by a tree. I feel like we are a very giving and loving and generous group of folks. I think what we have is sweet and juicy. And why wouldn’t you? Because what?
Yes so we have something that’s so delicious and so tasty and so colorful and so vibrant. So that’s the positives. But on the flip side of that, I feel like we’ve been very exploited, and I think that that’s something that is true of a lot of crops, is true of a lot of our environment is that it gets exploited. So to be a black woman in our society feels like we are loved for what we make, whether that’s our food, our hair, our music, our dance, our fashion, like people eat it up. But then, when it comes to our very persons, that’s not as loved as what we make. So our product can be something that people ravenously devour and love and adore and uplift, but our person is something that can be exploited and, in some cases, destroyed. So I wanted to speak to that really bizarre dichotomy of like feeling like blackness is so loved, but black folks are not always, and so thus the play was born.
0:07:25 – Phil Rickaby
Now you mentioned, this play was very much like the other plays that you were writing in this process. When you were starting to write those plays, were you thinking of a theme and this one just sort of like went its own way? Is that what happened where this one sort of came out so differently?
0:07:42 – Alicia Richardson
Yes, Well, the play that I had written was is, I should say, present tense, is called articulation and it’s designed as it’s just a meditation on what it feels like to be black in this society in North America. So I’m originally from the States and from Florida, and you know, growing up in the States it’s like the, it’s like the more violent cousin of Canada.
There’s a lot of similarities, it’s just more scary. So I was trying to articulate what that experience was. So I I meditated on it in terms of the five senses. So how does it influence our perspectives? How does it influence the way that we speak? There’s all these different like our tastes are, you know. So there’s all these different ways that I was using as a vehicle to discuss blackness and black folk and how we, how we, negotiate space. So this, this experiment on day seven, was, I think I asked myself, how would I explain being black and especially being a black woman? How would I explain that to a child? How would I use metaphor, how would I simplify it to a child that might not understand commodification, color hierarchies, microaggressions, like a child of seven wouldn’t be able to wrap their brain around them.
0:09:18 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, absolutely. I wanna come back to that for sure. But, amaka, you are the assistant director on this show. How did you come to this show and what was your reaction to Sweeter when you first read it or heard about it?
0:09:37 – Amaka Umeh
Yeah, I was invited to take on this assistant director role by the director, tanishita Tate. Very happy to receive this email out of the blue one day, I just took her reddit over and over and every line was a yes for me. So I mean, I was shocked and overwhelmed with gratitude. And I had known Alicia for a couple of years before this and I just always admired and been inspired by her generosity, her creativity and just the way that she opens up worlds for people. I think we met just before the pandemic and then stayed in touch throughout with our online gaffer and a black woman. Shut out the wine and then big out the wine and then yeah, and so I just couldn’t believe that sometimes and this will happen in this industry where opportunities will come along that, for one reason or another, can’t be accepted, or you know you can’t be accepted or you know, just don’t work out. But everything, just like all of the pieces were just in place so perfectly and I happily sent absolutely and then reading sweeter yeah, I remember this like a very vividly taking myself on a date to the ballzacs in Stratford and sitting there with a play, with my notebook and being like, okay, let me take this in For a moment and just the biggest smile on my face, like I had just wrote so many notes and you know details about my impressions and it’s very on the page. It’s very fully realized, like they could really characters and action and the progression like just lifted off. I could see them, see the characters, like you know, moving around in my imagination and, yeah, it really impressed me and I knew that it would, but it really impressed me like the fact what Alicia has spoken to of the multiple layers on which it resonates, it’s so darling, like I think that any theater for young audiences has to appeal to the adults too, because the children are not gonna bring themselves to the theater. You know we’re not there yet. Anyway, we don’t have the droid guardians who will have a watch over them while they’re sitting in the seeds.
And I think you know there is a child inside each of us. We all at least have that in common. You know we were all children once and I think part of living in will filled adults and fulfilled adult life is tending to that young mind inside of us and I think this does that really well. It like delights the sort of the more innocent parts of our sensibility and it challenges our what’s the word? Our sense of authority. Now you know, as adults or authority over the world, that we inhabit the world we want to leave behind for generations that are coming.
And yeah, and I wept, like I don’t mean to say I don’t really like to do this. You know, to be like when someone hasn’t seen a thing or read a thing or whatever Actually a pal of mine was talking about this recently Like if someone’s like oh, you’re gonna love it, and then you have to sit there and like who are you to love it? Or like will yourself to love it? So you know, I don’t wanna you know what’s it called prescribe anybody’s reaction. But it rocked my world. I was sitting there at the end of the play, just just really emotional at the climax of the narrative and I don’t wanna give too much away. But yeah, the ending really is tied together so neatly. Invites like. I really like the invitation of like okay, what’s next? The what’s next feels very clearly actionable. Like, okay, next step forward is gonna be this. Yeah, I think that’s it.
0:14:52 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, now there’s something you mentioned about. When you sort of say to somebody you know you’re gonna love this thing, you know I get that all the time people are gonna love this. I always I find myself not like almost refusing to watch the thing for a while. I’ll come to it, I’ll come to it later, but there’s something about the pressure of you’re gonna love this where I don’t know if I’m what, if I don’t, what if I don’t. You know, it’s just a huge thing. Now, Tanisha is a brilliant director and I think that she wrote a very compassionate warm room as far as like putting this show together from the cast to all of the people involved in it with it. What, amaka, as an assistant director, how do you compliment the room that Tanisha is running?
0:15:44 – Amaka Umeh
That’s a very good question. This is my debut directorial endeavor and the majority of my role is coordinating Will’s Ment. I consider movement my first language. It’s one of my favorite ways I think I call it my favorite way to express myself, and I think language is a thing of the body. So I was immediately like, I was so thankful to have that anchor, that place where I know, okay, this is what I’m. Are you hearing that weird buzzing?
0:16:29 – Phil Rickaby
I am hearing that. I don’t know if it’s coming from you, but we’ll press on through and I will try to clean that up later.
0:16:37 – Amaka Umeh
Okay, cool, yeah. So I know very clearly what the thrust of my role is and, having worked with Tanisha before, was just very excited to sit beside her and soak up everything about her process and her approach. But it is difficult. I knew that it would be. But to be on the side of the table, that kind of is responsible for the bird’s eye view of it all and where it’s an audience for the performers to practice with, but we’re also the influencer of what the audience will be receiving. It’s a lot.
I definitely spent the first week of rehearsal kind of like in wide-eyed and in silence. I don’t have a but. Yeah, like Tanisha has put together a fantastic cohort of people who are just open, and I think that more than ever, I’m aware of the fact that making art, making any type of creation to share with the world, is a very vulnerable thing to do, and as actors, it’s done with the voice and the body. Like you really don’t, you can’t rely on anything but your presence and your intention, and so it brings to mind a new appreciation for the craft that I’m most familiar with. And then just listening to the conversation, sitting in all conversations, all of the different aspects of the production team.
It’s like we could run the world, like I feel like we should get theater makers into policy, into government, because we talk about what we need and we ask if it can be done and if it can’t be realized, what are the alternatives. We find that stage management is constantly taking notes on like, okay, this is what this actor needs for now and this is how much space we need over here, and so we’re in constant network, you know, just communicating about this world that we’re inhabiting, that we’re trying to build and share with other people. So, yeah, I’m definitely I knew that I would learn a lot, but I’m learning. My brain is like massaged and steeped and marinating and leaking and oozing and the best, most delightful way, Awesome, Awesome.
0:19:40 – Phil Rickaby
Now you mentioned this is your first. Your first time directing or in a directorial role. Was this something you thought of for yourself or did? Did Tanisha blindside you with this?
0:19:55 – Amaka Umeh
A little bit of both. I don’t necessarily enjoy telling people what to do, but I will say I’m kind of struggling to get that hang of it. I think I might like it in the future. Yeah, I did imagine that I would inhabit a more directorial or inhabit the more production me side of things, but I thought that it would most likely be relevant, related and and dance forward. So this is like the best of both worlds. I get to try my hand at that.
I mean, I’ve put my movement on other people before, but never for, never for theater and and yeah, like I get to, I get a little bit of an insight into the directorial aspect of things, which I’m also I’m also learning to enjoy.
I don’t believe that I am ready, like I will be ready, to direct anything myself after this, but I’m definitely down to like shadow more directors whose work I enjoy and and I was like I could be happy as this and directing from from here on out, to be honest, and, yeah, definitely having the having the mind for like bodies or space and how to shape the picture. I I’m very into that and for a moment I thought, ok, so did I pick the wrong thing, like should I put an actor? Should I go on and been a dancer instead? But a very good friend of mine was like you can do whatever you want. It’s like praise. Be you know, I am grateful to have a life that awards me these freedoms and and a community of people who are willing to allow me or invite me to try my hand at them.
0:21:58 – Phil Rickaby
So yeah, yeah, back when I was in theater school in the ancient days, the 90s, they, when I was in theater school, they basically told us only do one thing. If you could do, like, don’t if you could be, if you’re, if you’re a stage combat person, don’t do that, only be an actor, only be an actor. And that was like I mean, I guess it was, it worked at the time, but it was so short, cited in the idea that, like, we should be able to be all of the things that that we are, all of the things that all the passions that we have and everything else, it should be things that we can and it should embrace, because it makes us fuller performers, fuller artists. So this, this show that started as a short thing that you wrote and became more what, alicia? What’s the writing process being to take it from that little thing to this, this larger life that has, like you know, actors and a whole like staff behind it? What was the process of writing it and getting it to this point?
0:23:06 – Alicia Richardson
Wow, so I am so glad you asked that because it it came about in a very organic way and it was a long time coming. So I originally wrote. I wrote the first scene 11 pages worth in 2015. So that’s when I began working on this piece and it took me until now to get it made. And I first developed my first draft.
I was in the Cahoots Theater Hot House Creation Unit and under the tutelage and dramaturgy of Marjorie Chan shout outs, who now is TPM, and I remembered feeling, you know, a bit overwhelmed and a bit stuck in a lot of moments. I myself I’ve been an actor since I was 11, since I was Yeha, I’ve been out here, so there was never any shortage of an understanding of plot. I knew that there needed to be beginning, middle end. I knew that I had to cultivate these things. I read a little bit about story structure and all these things. So I did my own research about that and I just compared side by side, like reading plays and trying to understand different plot, different story beats and how they work.
One of the best things that happened to me in that development process, marjorie Chan, who did not know me and I was encouraged by Mel Hay got obsidian. She’s like you should submit for Cahoots Hot House, and Marjorie was so busy at the time that she didn’t have time to read the email that had the attachment in it. So we had set up a meeting for me to go to Cahoots. And she’s like, oh my God, I’m so sorry. I’ve been so, you know, swamped and so I had the pages in my hand. And then she’s like I’d like to read it now and I’m like I’m just like a class from her and watched her read my work in real time.
0:25:10 – Amaka Umeh
She’s not the bottom of hot house.
0:25:17 – Alicia Richardson
Oh, I see, and when she finished the final page she closed it and said I’d love to have you.
0:25:28 – Phil Rickaby
Oh, yes, yes.
0:25:30 – Alicia Richardson
And I was. I was overjoyed. I was like what should we talk more about it? I mean, I was like I’ve never well.
0:25:39 – Amaka Umeh
I need it.
0:25:43 – Alicia Richardson
I’d love to have you. And so she just took that chance on me, and we were in one of our hot house sprints, and so something that they do is that there will be like a week long sprint where all of the writers that are developing something we’re invited to just show up at Cahoots and, you know, plug in your laptop and then, you know, each have our coffee or matcha for myself, and then we just, you know, we grind, we’re just there plugging away. And I remember talking to her about trying to flesh it out and develop it, and I wrote it out of sequence. I’m the type of writer that writes out of sequence. I might write the end as the first scene, I might write the middle I don’t really know why and, as she said, just close your eyes and imagine the plot and just try to picture the images of the piece.
Don’t worry about the dialogue, don’t worry about stage directions or none of that. Just close your eyes and envision what you see. And so I wrote them down as almost like little tableaus, and I didn’t know what any of them meant. I just knew at some point this one image is going to be created, and so then I put them in a sequence and I said I believe this feels like it’s a climactic moment. It felt very theatrical. I think this should go towards the end. This image feels more relaxed and more casual. I think this should go towards the beginning.
So it was kind of a backwards way of doing it, where I know some writers do all of the story beats first and then they flesh them out. I did the images first and then I attached the story to those images and then I fleshed it out. Who knows, who knows? I mean, that’s what really worked for me, and each character is based off of somebody I know, like I literally hear the person’s voice in my head. So that’s how I create very distinct character voices, that each individual character in my brain. I’m like, how would this person say it? So one of the characters is inspired by my dear Uncle Ralph and I know exactly how Uncle Ralph would say that. And so Uncle Ralph is a character, very big character, in this play and I can’t wait for my family to see it and go. It’s a true story. It’s a true story.
0:28:19 – Amaka Umeh
That’s awesome, that’s awesome.
0:28:21 – Phil Rickaby
It’s exciting for them and for you.
Before I get into a little later on, I want to talk about both of your theater origin stories, because at least you mentioned about how you’ve been doing it forever and all this sort of thing.
But the way that you describe this play is, I think it’s really important for not just young children of color, young black children, but for all children, and I think this because when I was growing up, my brother, my sister, were both adopted, and my brother was a black man.
It was a black child and my sister was a mixed race child as well, and my parents did their best as white parents, trying to raise black children to understand their blackness, but of course, they were white parents and couldn’t do that. They didn’t know the right things to talk about. They did their best to try to research, but we didn’t have the internet. We had the internet in the 1970s, so we were doing our best and it’s the kind of thing that I wish that we had had for both my brother and my sister to see their blackness on the stage and to see themselves on the stage and to be able to learn how to talk about blackness in a way that we couldn’t give them because we were a white family. I think the play is really important just because of that. Thank you.
0:29:56 – Amaka Umeh
Absolutely, I agree, and I mean thankful for the internet that we have now all of this access to a wide range of stories and to a network that helps us to imagine that we’re not alone in the world, when it may feel like we are. But, yeah, I really think this is important. I was thinking today about. It comes to me a lot Like these voices that were lost or that are lost, yeah, like stories that we don’t like. I was trying to remember a story that my father told me when I was a child. This was one of his go-to’s and it would always bring me so much delight and I realized how informative, how important it is to have our story, our lore, whatever it may be, you know, that is specific and mystical and acknowledges but there’s a lot of the tiny stories will have a worldview that isn’t kind of the Western or individualistic like me, me, me kind of thrust, but how enriching it is to be nourished with like myth that belongs to us, you know, you know.
0:32:05 – Alicia Richardson
I’m snapping for those of you who do, yeah.
0:32:07 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, just listen to it.
0:32:10 – Amaka Umeh
I’m out here, yeah, because we can, we absolutely can be anything and do anything and we are infinite, 100%. I believe that so strongly and we have our own like special brand of magic that I think is important to celebrate and nurture.
So, yeah, what you’re saying about wishing that your siblings had had something like this earlier on, I totally resonate. I totally recognize absolutely the importance of that and I know for a fact like that’s part of, that’s a big part of why Alicia wrote it to make it available, so that we don’t have to, we don’t have to say that anymore, we don’t have that excuse anymore, and it’s written specifically about Black folks and our experience. So yeah, we’re out here. Yeah, we are here with the words and stuff.
0:33:21 – Phil Rickaby
You know it’s because I think one of the other detriment is the fact that you know, my brother and I we were in school in the 70s where we were just talking white stuff. Right yeah, there was. We weren’t. We didn’t talk about anything who, black people, people of color it was just the white stories all the time. And that’s, I think, a product of that particular era of education, which I’m kind of glad is like on the way out, that we’re getting more.
You know, the classical theater is not just Shakespeare. There’s like classical theater from all over the world that we need to explore because, you know Shakespeare it’s kind of cool, but also like all this other stuff Shakespeare had like 500 years or whatever. Like let’s get some other stuff on the stages. Now, one of the things I want to talk about is your theater origin stories. Now, alicia, you mentioned that you grew up in Florida and came to Canada. Now you said, here you came for the affordable tuition, but then you got the healthcare and figured why fight it? But I mean, let’s start with your theater origin story, like what got you into the theater and what really brought you to Canada.
0:34:40 – Alicia Richardson
0:34:42 – Phil Rickaby
Those two separate questions.
0:34:44 – Alicia Richardson
So the first question, my theater origin story, my very first exposure to theater. We would do school field trips as early as the third grade, I want to say. And I want to say we saw shows like Cinderella, Peter Pan type stuff, and although I didn’t see anybody black in these productions, I remember thinking it was intriguing. There was something about it that I was really drawn to. And the moment that I really I first did it I was in the fourth grade and I was in the school play and it was a ton of fun and I just did it off and on for a few years, just school plays, and I didn’t know until I was 14, which I know is still quite young. But I was watching a production, a high school production, that I wasn’t in because I was on the basketball team and like the schedules conflicted and anyway.
So I remember watching this production of Guys and Dolls and my friend Genevieve was in it. She was wearing this polka dotted halter dress and she was looking glorious and she did a twirl and the skirt would fan out in this glorious mushroom type cloud of sorts. And I remembered in that moment thinking, oh, I’m sitting in the wrong spot. That’s all I knew. All I knew was that I wasn’t supposed to be sitting down here. I was supposed to be standing up there. I just know I was in the wrong spot, and my whole career has been me finding the right spot and just staying there. So that was the moment that I knew what I was going to do with my life Now. Did I know that I was going to be the one writing it?
0:36:45 – Amaka Umeh
No, I just thought I was going to be the one doing it.
0:36:48 – Alicia Richardson
I know I was going to make it, but here we are.
0:36:53 – Phil Rickaby
I want to. When did you figure out that writing was the thing that you wanted to do and were good at?
0:37:02 – Alicia Richardson
So I first wrote poetry and I want to say short story or something in high school and the very, very, very first play that I ever written. I entered into a contest and I got runner up for it. It was an old theater known as Florida Stage in Manila, pan Florida, which is unfortunately now no longer operating. But they had this program for youth to engage with theater and so you could submit to this playwriting competition. I had no idea what I was doing and I got runner up and I was like, okay, that was pretty cool because you got a little prize, money and you got published in an anthology, so cool.
And then when I went to school, my undergrad, I got from Florida State University. I majored in a bachelor of theater and I didn’t have time to do any writing because it was very intense with. There were performance classes, I did dramaturgy classes, I did anything. You had to learn how to do certain technical aspects as well. So I was in like costuming, stage makeup, so many things, and I was trying at one point to do a dual major of literature. I had taken non-fiction essay, short story, post-colonial literature, poetic device, fiction. I had done all of these literary classes but I never really bridged the two worlds. It was like in theater I performed and in the English department I just I wrote novel type stuff. So I never really married the two.
And then the next time I would write a play play was the final year of my graduate degree at York University, where we have to do a 15 minute solo show. You have to write it, perform it and direct it Loved it, I just loved it. I was enamored with the idea that I could say words that were mine, because I was just dying. There was so much. I was just bursting at the seams and the tremendous empowerment of that exercise. It transcends. There’s something about it that feels so courageous and so inspiring that it made me feel much more powerful that I don’t just perform somebody else’s story but I get to make my own. And so from there it’s been a wild hodgepodge of sometimes I’m booking a lot of acting gigs and I don’t have a ton of time to write, so I have drafts of things just sort of live on my laptop, and sometimes I can’t book to save my life. So then I get my drafts done, you don’t know. Yeah, so that’s how things came to be.
0:40:00 – Phil Rickaby
I find that, as somebody who writes and performs, I find that whole aspect addictive. Like, oh, I’m going to do both, I can do both, I’m going to write it and I’m going to perform it, and there’s something that is so powerful to do that and it’s really addictive. You do it the first time and then you’re like I want more of this, give me more.
0:40:25 – Alicia Richardson
Yes, yes. So from your earlier point, we only studied a very white Western European male canon, so there wasn’t a ton of study of the African diaspora. So I was really thirsty for more representation of my culture, so I just decided to build that into my project. I was just like, well, I don’t want to talk about Ibsen or Chet God help me if I have to discuss it or watch Chet call Jesus, take the word, as we say in the South. Y’all going to have to fix me if you make me sick, check off, good night. I was thirsty for my culture and to represent that.
0:41:19 – Phil Rickaby
Now, you did come to Canada for the school. Yes, what school drew you here?
0:41:26 – Alicia Richardson
Okay. So this is the other story that I’m like it’s a two-parter. Okay. We now travel back in time to the year 2013, of our Lord.
I had graduated from my undergrad and I was traveling the world. I was paying off my undergraduate student loan debt as an English teacher in South Korea. I was having a whale of a time, but feeling very unfulfilled. And there’s only so many trips to Thailand, although it is pretty great, but there’s only so many trips to Thailand. That’s the one continued before. I want to start my actual life now. That’s cool, anyway.
So me and my then partner at the time sat down and we’re like okay, so what do we do next? And he said that he still wanted to continue traveling, but perhaps go to an English-speaking country, because I wanted to go to graduate school. And so I looked at schools in Australia, I looked at schools in the UK and I looked at schools in Canada because I thought, why not? So I applied all over the place and I was fortunate enough to get into a few. I even, just for safety and for the sake of argument, I applied for schools in the States as well. I wasn’t too keen on paying the cost of a mortgage to go to school. That’s not really my jam and that’s what tends to happen where I’m from, but all the same I did all the interview processes and I so, when it came time to go to Canada, I narrowed it down to York University and I think you, vic, also at the time had a voice teaching component. So I had the really clever idea.
For anyone who’s watching this, who is an emerging artist, here’s the little nugget I want to give you Deliberately pick a joe job that is going to be tangential to the one that you want, so that way you’re surrounded by people in the industry and that way it can be sort of a segue to the job that you actually want. So I knew that I wanted my joe job to be a voice and dialect teacher and I wanted to be a professor and I also wanted to be a coach. And voice class was always one of my favorite classes and I love it and I really tend to. I tend to really sink into it. I love the sound of the human voice. I’m a really big linguistic nerd. I like to look at phonetic transcriptions and watch the little diet critic marks Like I’m very very.
So I said to myself that’s the joe job that I want to have. And to this day, my professor, Eric Armstrong, shout outs. He’s like is it a joe? It’s kind of, it’s more like a joe-sith job. You’re a good person, You’re a good person.
You’re a good person, you’re a good person, you’re a good person. So I knew that I wanted to not only train as an actor but train as a voice, and I was always a dialect coach, and there were two programs in Canada that offered that, but I think UVic was, I think, on a hiatus. That particular I might be misremembering, anyway. So, for whatever reason, it got narrowed down just to your, and the only time that they had available was like immediately after my contract with Sun in South Korea, after I’d done some traveling. So I flew from Tokyo, I was in Japan for a bit, I flew from Tokyo to back to Busan, where I was based, from Busan to Seoul, from Seoul direct to Shanghai and then from Shanghai to Pearson Airport, and then two days later I had to audition.
So I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but after you crossed the international date line, sure, but you’re a bit like you know, a bowl of ramen, you’re just kind of squiggling and all of. So I did that audition thinking, oh man, I’m not going to get this Like I’m. Oh, I’m tired, I’m exhausted, I’m exhausted, I’m jet lagged, those are the ones I don’t think that this is going to.
But I wasn’t as nervous because I was like I’m too tired. I didn’t think I was going to get it. But I’ll tell you one thing Sitting across the table from David Smuggler and Eric Armstrong, I felt this tremendous amount of calm. It seemed like the two of them were just surrounded by this warm bubble and I think it’s. I think it’s because they do so much breath work in the program.
There’s so much talk of mindfulness and meditation and a lot of the movement practices like Alexander, based on like optimizing and being as healthy as possible. So they really embodied those practices and I thought to myself I’ve been on these tours of other universities and I’ve met their staff and they’re crazy chaotic all over the place and these two people are just calm and they felt very safe. They just felt like they wanted to cultivate the best group of people possible, and so I didn’t know much about them. But I knew in that moment that they were going to provide me the kind of sincere and generous attention that I wanted. So I left thinking, if nothing else, I just really enjoyed this trip, and then, three weeks later, they gave me a slot Wow.
0:47:12 – Phil Rickaby
Where were you for those three weeks? Were you still in Toronto or did you go?
0:47:15 – Alicia Richardson
No, I went back to Florida and I just took some walks with my mom. We’re just chilling around the block eating fro yo or whatever Just vibes, yeah it’s just a wyman waiting for the call home.
0:47:31 – Amaka Umeh
Whatever happens happens. No, I love that.
0:47:35 – Phil Rickaby
There’s something about this story, though, of having just that journey. If that person walks into the rehearsal hall and you hear that they’ve done that many flights to get to the audition, quite frankly I’m like that’s a lot of effort, I mean come on Welcome You’re hired.
0:47:53 – Alicia Richardson
Yeah, exactly, I mean it’s so funny. People say I go through a lot of trouble, and I take that as a tremendous compliment. I do work quite hard. When people think of it as like impressive or a feat, I’m like that’s what was required. They were not moving the audition date for their MFA program For me. They said these are the dates. We will give you a time slot and I’m like well, I guess.
0:48:19 – Phil Rickaby
I’m getting on a plane. Yeah, yeah, absolutely Absolutely. Now, Amaka, what is your theater art story? What made you want to start doing this? Now, you’ve mentioned more of a movement based person, but so what brought you to theater in the first place, and how did you find your way to a movement practice?
0:48:44 – Amaka Umeh
Well, my movement practice I would consider like a lot more of a personal thing. It’s kind of the way into plays for me. But yeah, I guess I’ve been shaking my thanks since I was a wee one. But yeah, I’m not entirely sure. I don’t want to call it a mistake or an accident, but it was an unexpected turn of events for me.
So Lil Baby Max was singing and dancing all the time in the little house and my mom said somebody, do something with all of this energy. No, she was very encouraged. Actually, I was very inspired by her because she was also a singer. She’d be singing around the house all the time and playing beautiful music and I just idolized her and wanted to be like her. So she was very supportive actually from the jump. But she was like I don’t. It seems like you have something inside of you that wants to come out and so I need to put you in the place where that can be nurtured. And it turned out to be. This is all happening in Lagos, Nigeria, by the way.
So her priority was making sure that I had a solid education, which is not well offered by the public school system there. So she enrolled me in a private school which had a lot of wonderful extracurriculars, performing arts being one of them, and I started there doing school plays and musicals. Then, you know, with the notion that this would be a hobby and I was going to become a computer scientist like my mom, who was my god and my idol. So around the time, you know, we moved over to Canada and the bent had kind of changed. We moved off from computer science to medicine, which was very much encouraged by an uncle of mine who was a neurosurgeon. So, yeah, did, did school plays and musicals and then started getting like traditional sorry, I guess, western dance styles of ballet and jazz when I was about 16. Just, it was an option during school and high school.
And then I went to the University of Calgary to start my pre-med journey and a bunch of circumstances beyond my control that this found me in the audition room for the Randolph College for performing arts. I was encouraged by someone who had just graduated from there. He was like they’re coming to Calgary, they’re doing auditions, you should go. So I went and they accepted me and I thought, well, I can, I guess I can do this Like. I guess I can go and try my hand at this. I always wanted like a well, a more well rounded instruction or in the performing arts. And you know, I brought it up to my mom and she was like, yes, that makes sense, you should go ahead and do that.
And then, of course, like probably continued to sacrifice, pull a hell in heaven and earth together to make sure that I would be okay, and moving across the country to join the circus. And then after that I stayed, I thought, well, I’ve got this training completed and I’ve been introduced to some of the professionals here in Toronto. I can stick around and see what happens if I audition for things Try my hand, try my luck and the rest is silence, the rest is history. Yeah, I’m surprised all the time. For a couple of years I would be like, am I living someone else’s dream? But no, I don’t think so.
I think that we all love a good plot twist and I think that’s just. That seems to be like the way that it was ordeal or that it was meant to be or that it was written. The world is wide and I have a range of interests, but I think, yeah, ever since I was a little, a little tyke, I’ve just wanted to entertain people and tell stories and dress up and pretend, make believe that sort of thing, and I’m also very interested in human life and in wellness and in health. But I think the doctors need something to do on their night off and, as opposed to watching other surgeons do surgery, every once in a while, they might meet the medicine of an escape into a farm in Florida with their little ones to learn something that you can’t learn in a book you can’t get 100% on a test for yeah, that’s, it wasn’t me. It happened on the way to the having, on the way to the bar.
0:55:12 – Phil Rickaby
A funny thing happened on the way to medical school. Yeah exactly, did you, as you were like heading over into, like going into the to Randolph, did you ever look back at yourself and say I was supposed to be a doctor, or did you just like go? And like never look back.
0:55:29 – Amaka Umeh
Very much so. During the pandemic, you know, personally I felt I felt like oops, I took the wrong turn at the fork because, as much as we were sustained and comforted by the art that was available, like the theater, industry was kaput and the the need for medical attention was astronomical. And so I was, you know, sitting there, you know, teaching, teaching kids Shakespeare online, wondering like, would would this crisis be better served by, like, you know, mackie, in a land, you know, sir, enough to reach me and dish I’m, I’m, I’m Stan. So, yeah, I do. I do think about it all the time, I I don’t. I think we all have a past, we all have regrets and, you know, I do wonder. It’s hard not to think about, like the parallel universe version of somebody of all of us that did a different thing.
But, like I said, art is medicine too, and and I, I can’t, I can’t complain, I can’t.
0:57:11 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, I mean I can’t so as a sort of like jumping into this, this new role as an assistant director now, as you’re sort of settling into that and you know I don’t think anybody jumps from, jumps right into being a director. It’s good to learn from really talented and smart directors like Tanisha and other people that you might work with in the future. But after that, do you think it’s possible that you could, you might, direct, or are you happy as an assistant?
0:57:50 – Amaka Umeh
Oh, oh, I’m very, I have a few events on the horizon and I think what has worked for me so far is is an openness to, to whatever comes and a willingness to be uncomfortable, and I think that I will continue to move forward in that way. I can’t, I can’t tell. Like, more than ever now, I’m just aware of the fact that, like it’s just, it’s just gonna, it’s just gonna come at you, like, yes, I have hopes and wishes and dreams, but sometimes the best, like the most fulfilling events are absolute chance, like just leave it off to circumstance. And it’s been this way, I think, since I graduated from theater school. Where the community is is the network, like the network Sorry is the is the agent for, like all of this miraculous change that has happened. So, yeah, I do, I, I hope to do anything and everything that this world will allow me.
0:59:18 – Phil Rickaby
So yeah, bring it on, absolutely yes, yes, just as I, as I, as I bring the conversation to a close, we’ve been in rehearsal for a sweeter for a little while now Week and a half and as the show has come together for each of you, what’s something that has surprised you about this show so far?
0:59:48 – Alicia Richardson
I am. I am surprised and touched by how affectionate and tender it is, even though, yes, that is what I wrote. But it was so funny because one day I think it was just the last rehearsal I had that Tanisha removed one of the hugs from it, which is like take it to all and, you know, touches my love language. It’s my primary love language. No way.
It’s like when character brushes past the other one and puts an armor on them to warm them up. Another another character kisses, like. There are so many elements of affection and warmth and tenderness and I wrote specifically, with their hands, with their bodies, this smile, this grin, they dance, they laugh. There’s so much of it that feels romantic, even, and not in a way of like sexuality, but just in a way of passion and whimsy and in a sense of being enamored with someone, and I had no idea that that’s what came across, but it is deeply who I am as a person.
I’m very romantic and I just I remembered watching rehearsals going oh, oh, I didn’t, I didn’t realize that there’s so much of it in this piece and it’s so soft and tender and in moments and yeah, I it’s it’s so emotional and so vulnerable and I didn’t know. I was just writing how I felt at that time and now that I’m watching it, I’m like this is my heart on my sleeve and it’s thrilling and a little terrifying, because anybody who watches it, you’re going to know who I am fundamentally as a human. When you see this piece you’re going to be like, oh, that’s who Alicia Richardson is. You will know and yeah, and then I invite you to give me a hug. Give me one Awesome.
1:02:21 – Phil Rickaby
Now, Amaka, is there something that surprised you so far in the rehearsal process?
1:02:26 – Amaka Umeh
Oh, it’s hard to think of. There’s like a new one every day. Gosh, now I’m on the spot. My legs are tingly. Yeah, I think I was.
I think that, okay, like sitting on, sitting on the side of the table, then I am, I think I’m just surprised by how, how easily I think things can come together.
Like I was sitting, you know, preparing, thinking like oh, it’s going to be so hard to get it and we’re going to have to work to and don’t get me wrong Like hard work is happening and we’re going there, like you know, there’s there’s some, there’s some stuff to get to get out, there’s some stuff to get through, like it is work as much as it is fun.
But yeah, I think I’m just, I’m surprised by and it and it, it warms, it warms my heart so much to see, both in the fiction and, you know, in the, the, the meta like the real life of making the theater, like black folks at ease, man and ease, and in comp and feeling comfortable and joyful. It’s so healing, yeah, yeah, I’m loving that, I’m living for it. To be honest, I’m living for it. I’ve I’ve had a hectic summer and I learned a lot and grew a lot, but have a lot of, like you know, a lot of a bit of a weight in my chest, and this is just every day. It just feels like it’s it’s falling away a little bit more a little bit.
It’s really powerful, really simple stuff.
1:04:27 – Phil Rickaby
Amazing. That is absolutely beautiful. Well, Alicia Amaka, thank you so much for joining me this evening. I really appreciate it and it sounds like such a beautiful show.
1:04:39 – Amaka Umeh
It is. It is a wonderful show. Come see sweeter. Okay, bring your people. If you don’t have any littles, any kiddos in your life, just bring yourself. At your at your most. What’s the word? You’re most available, bring yourself. Yeah, curious, that’s right, bring yourself.
1:05:04 – Phil Rickaby
1:05:06 – Amaka Umeh
Bring yourself and your bestie, absolutely, bro. Bring you and your mango tree, your sweet bean, your mango tree, one down Love to have you. Yeah, and I love to talk to you about it.
1:05:18 – Alicia Richardson
Like I’m putting it out there. If anybody comes to see this play, shoot me a message. Find me on the gram, talk to me in the lobby. I really want to engage with the audience. Please don’t be shy. Come see me, let’s talk. I want to hear from you.
1:05:36 – Amaka Umeh
Don’t talk to me, thanks, just kidding.
1:05:45 – Phil Rickaby
This has been an episode of Stageworthy. Stageworthy is produced, hosted and edited by Phil Rickaby. That’s me. If you enjoyed this podcast and you listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, you can leave a five star rating, and if you listen on Apple Podcasts, you can also leave a review. Those reviews and ratings help new people find the show. If you want to keep up with what’s going on with Stage Worthy and my other projects, you can subscribe to my newsletter by going to philrickaby.com/subscribe and remember. If you want to leave a tip, you’ll find a link to the virtual tip jar in the show notes or on the website. You can find Stageworthy on Twitter and Instagram at StageworthyPod, and you can find the website with the complete archive of all episodes at stageworthy.ca. If you want to find me, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram at Phil Rickaby and, as I mentioned, my website is philrickaby.com. See you next week for another episode of Stageworthy.