Meet the Membership: Obioma Ugoala

The former RSC actor is now playing George Washington in Hamilton. He talks to us about representation, Disney, and being an Equity dep

What made you realise you wanted to be an actor?

There’s some kind of power in being able to tell a story and to sell a story, and a lot of societal change happens by people having a personalised story of something. People will react to a situation a lot differently because they feel like there’s a personal connection to it.

I remember reading A View from the Bridge, and picking up the book of the complete works of Arthur Miller and just racing through it and digesting all of these stories as if they were a Netflix binge or a TV series. There’s something about the immigrant community that really resonated with me. There was something about coming from an Irish-Nigerian immigrant family, to London, and seeing the parallels that resonated. That made me think, “This is a world I want to be a part of.”

Also, I didn’t realise this until later down the line, but there was something about not seeing myself on stage that made me think, “Maybe I want to be a part of that, maybe I want to shape that narrative myself and give somebody who looks like me an idea that they can fall in love too, and that they could be a superhero and they belong.”  It’s funny having a father who is, obviously, like, non-white.  I didn’t realise the importance of watching a film like Rush Hour, which was quite a large part of my teen years; I didn’t know why is this film a) a favourite of my father’s and b) a favourite of mine. Then it struck me that this is one of the only films where there are two leads who are people of colour and they’re falling in love, they are saving the day. 

You are a big fan of Black Panther, and are currently acting in Hamilton. Both the film and the play are noted for giving representation to black actors. Why is this so crucial?

Jim Crow laws only finished in the 1960s – that is literally people’s parents’ generation. So to then turn around and say “we’re done with racism, we’re post-racial, we’ve got an Obama” feels reductive. We need to recognise that there are still things to be negotiated and that we need to work through. If we don’t, we’re going to feel a sense of entitlement to something that we shouldn’t really feel entitled to.

As social creatures, all we really want is to be seen for who we are and to be recognised as individual people and to be able to share that narrative as a human. So I think we need to be conscious of the decisions that we make when we’re casting. Why are there no dark-skinned women who play love interests? Conversely, as a darker-skinned black man in America or in the British theatre, you can be reduced to the role of totemic black man – like a big Mandingo-type or a historical leader. These things don’t allow us to get into a nuance of what it is to be human.

One of the beautiful things about Black Panther was that it said this is a world where we were allowed to be nobles, we were allowed to be kings, and to have power struggles and relationships in a way that wasn’t solely centred around colonialism. I think the poster for the original Hamilton was “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” The United States was built on the back of immigrants, and this is a re-telling of that story from a multicultural point of view. I think casting people in some of these roles is a political statement.

What was it like being a flirtatious farmer in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast?

My little brother had no idea that I’d been off filming and so I took him to the cinema and he sat there, and then he looked up and went “that…that’s you!” So that was fun.

There’s something weird about a Disney film. I think every actor has this sense of “ah, it’s all going to come crashing down at some point!” Whereas now even if everything does go wrong and I end up working as an accountant or an economist or something else totally different, I have been in a Disney film. I can just dine out on that.

What made you decide to be one of the Equity deps for Hamilton?

We had a couple of younger guys in the company, and I think some of them weren’t sure if they should join the union. So it was a) a good way to encourage people to join and b) to take on responsibility because sometimes things might not be perfect. It’s wonderful for people to have someone they can feel safe to go to talk to, and we can bring it up with the company or Equity, honestly and discreetly, and that allows us a world in which we can move forward as a company.

If you’re considering being a dep, do it, choose, and be empowered by the fact you have chosen. The very fact you are thinking about it is a good thing and it shows that you have a care and a consideration for the workings of the company and the wider community.

Why is it important for actors to be unionised?

If you’re in a company that doesn’t have full membership, try to get everyone to sign up because when we have the weight of numbers we can negotiate better deals, we can make sure that we’re not taken advantage of by producers. It can happen in the smallest play, it can happen on the biggest stages.

Photography by Paul Stuart