abrielle Brooks needs her work to matter. In the past eighteen months, the actor has made a documentary series about the experiences of black creatives in the arts, co-founded an all-female, all-black Shakespeare company, and starred in the utterly life-giving J’Ouvert in the West End, which put Notting Hill Carnival on stage and had some of the most diverse audiences I’ve ever seen. She might also need to have a nap, but there’s no time. She’s straight back in the West End for Get Up Stand Up, playing Rita Marley in a musical about Bob Marley’s life, with Arinzé Kene playing Marley himself. Everyone in the room, she says, “feels like not only do they want it to be great for themselves, but they really want it to be great for their parents and their grandparents.”
The final auditions for the show took place last summer, as Black Lives Matter protests swept the world in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Brooks, 31, was exhausted. “It was a really difficult time emotionally to be auditioning for things,” she tells me on a terrace at the Jerwood rehearsal space, as trains shuttle by. “I sort of said to myself, maybe I’m not in the right place for this. But then they announced Clint [Dyer] was going to be on board for the project [he replaced Dominic Cooke last year] and I remember phoning my agent and saying, ‘yeah, it’s all systems go. Let’s do it, I have to stick with this’.”
She had wanted to be a part of the show from the beginning – for her, asking what her favourite Bob Marley song is feels like “asking what somebody’s favourite child is”. Marley’s music was “like the heartbeat of my house growing up,” she says.
“I would describe his music like Sunday morning cleaning music, which means something to a lot of people in black communities, because a lot of black mums emulate what they see in the Caribbean – which is getting up at the crack of dawn to start cleaning the house. And then eventually bringing their daughters into that tradition,” she explains. “So from 6:30 in the morning, your mum would be playing music and it would become part of your subconscious, and that music often was Bob Marley’s.”
Rita Marley married Bob in 1966 and has nurtured his legacy in the years since his death at the age of 36 in 1981. But she was much more than a woman who stood behind a man, says Brooks, who already feels protective of her story. As part of her research, she spoke to her daughter, Cedella, and briefly to Rita (she has recently been unwell), who was “gorgeously regal”.
It was in fact Rita, a musician herself, who introduced Bob to Rastafarianism. Her aunt had introduced her to Marcus Garvey, and therefore to ideas of black liberation, at a young age. “She was a visionary in and of herself. She made choices to uplift her husband, because she believed in his message, and I think there’s no stronger woman than that. But what’s special about getting to tell her story is I get to tell not only the stories of her strength and her triumph, but also her vulnerability, which we don’t see enough of in black women, I feel. In fact, I’m tentative when I use the word ‘strong’, because I think it’s a word that gets used too much with black women because it discounts the fact that we have feelings, and we’re not super women.”
I ask if having Bob Marley’s music as the basis of a mainstream West End show feel like something of a moment. Yes, it’s new to have so many black creators at the helm, but, posits Brooks, moment or movement? That’s not something we’ll know for another 10 years. “This show was already in production before the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, so I think it’s really important to say that this isn’t a fad we’ve created in order to buy into something that’s just happened. But I won’t sit here and lie to you and tell you I think this is the start of a massive change, because I think there’s a lot of deep-rooted issues to be sorted out, just beyond getting black people on stages.”
Getting into the arts was “completely accidental”, says Brooks. “I just happened to get into the arts because I talked too much in school,” she laughs. Born in London, where she still lives, and from “a totally working class immigrant family” with two older sisters, her mum put her in an after-school drama club to feed her overactive imagination, the teacher of which then set up a talent agency. She landed her first West End role – in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind – at the age of seven, and later went to the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (if acting hadn’t work out, her plan B was journalism).
Performing in Yasmin Joseph’s play J’Ouvert earlier this year, which was at the Harold Pinter Theatre as part of Sonia Friedman’s West End new writing season, Brooks had “the time of my life”. The play is about three female friends at Notting Hill Carnival; with it being cancelled for the second year in a row, “it was like a part of us was being taken away, for black communities. So to give that to people, and to surround them with other black people in a time when we couldn’t hold each other, where we needed each other the most, made it honestly one of the best experiences of my life.”
Brooks’s Blackstage UK project, which features interviews with 30 interviews with black creatives about their experiences in the industry, felt like “a necessity for me”. (She’s keen to stress she wasn’t productive all the way through the pandemic – “I feel like people hate on those people a little bit… I swear I had times that were really down and hard!”). Performing and activism will now always go hand in hand for her. “I’m not fed without one feeding the other. I’ve realised I feel pretty stale if I’m just performing in something where I don’t have autonomy, but also if I’m not doing something to help my community.” In the future, the sky’s the limit: “where there are holes, I want to fill them.”
How does she do it all? Cue pretend hysterical laughter. “Ha ha ha! No, I’m so tired.” But she does have downtime sometimes – partly watching terrible reality TV. “Love Island wasn’t even good this year and I soldiered on to the end. It wasn’t even good.”
If you’d have asked Brooks how the arts world was doing in terms of representation and inclusion two years ago, she’d have been less honest. But she’s now discovered the power of speaking out. “Some theatres, some institutions, some organisations… are doing nothing at all. It’s all lip service. And I wish they would reach out more,” she says. In order to move forward, there needs to be more accountability from organisations, more coming to terms with actions taken in the past. “If you keep denying that your organisation has had anything to do with the toxic environment that we’ve built up for marginalised groups, then anything that you’ve put in place to combat that will always make it an unsafe space for marginalised groups.”
On Get Up Stand Up, needs specific to the black community are being catered for: Brooks has been asked about her hair, and the company have had drama therapy to support working on material “that can really badly retraumatise a certain demographic”. In some quarters, things are better – but it doesn’t mean it’s time to rest. Moment or movement? That question matters – and Brooks will keep making work that matters.
Get Up Stand Up starts previews at the Lyric Theatre from today, booking until April 2022