Actor, Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) feminist activist and English student at Selwyn, Lola Olufemi is not your average first-year student. Grabbing a quick bite to eat after a rehearsal for the upcoming production of Othello we chatted about the power of the gender-swap in this new adaptation, her own experience of being a black woman in Cambridge and how she can directly identify with her protagonist role next week at the ADC.
The ever pertinent themes of racism, love, jealousy, betrayal and revenge have made Othello an enduring classic, and this production, Lola claims, takes on a new level of intensity as gender is “thrown into the mix” of a modern day army barracks. Arriving in Cambridge a week before Easter term to focus in on the role, she spent hours with director, Robbie Taylor Hunt, to make the “daunting, iconic role” of Othello her own. “Yeah, Robbie has done an incredible job helping me to channel the character and he knows exactly what we wants. We’ve used loads of weird techniques to adjust to the different tones of the play. He’s got good politics and so that feeds into everything we do. I also watched quite a few clips of Adrian Lester’s performance [in the National Theatre Live production] thanks to Laura Waldren, who plays Iago. Doing the show was also made a little daunting because every single cast member is so good in their own right but it’s really exciting to think your play has the potential to really move people.”
Describing how she never thought that “someone like her” would be accepted at an elite university, she pointed to the powerful influence that campaigns such as CUSU BME’s blog ‘I, too, am Cambridge’ had on her as a prospective student. “The campaign pictured BME students at Cambridge with placards voicing issues and concerns and I remember sitting at my computer and thinking, maybe I could actually apply. That is how important representation is.” Since matriculating in October, she hasn’t been content with “just being here”, or quietly settling in as some sort of ‘token’ black girl. Successfully lobbying for a separate position of BME Officer on her college’s JCR and as an active member of ‘FLY’ – a discussion group and blog that wrestles the intersections of race and gender and builds solidarity within the female BME community- she agreed that the role represented a fitting end to an active year of challenging perceptions in Cambridge. “I want to make more and more spaces here inclusive for BME people, including the drama community. With Othello, both things came together so well…like of course people of colour like theatre, but I rarely see any non-White faces at the ADC. It’s so rare for there to be a lead role for a black woman in Cambridge so when I heard about the casting, I seized it.”
Elucidating the link between the battles she faces everyday and the power of the gender swap in the show, Lola effortlessly sells the production to me as I down the rest of my cuppa: “Othello is in a high pressure environment, in which most of her peers don’t look or sound like her – or even approve her – and yet she challenges those boundaries. I’ve faced a lot of similar things as a student here and I’m really keen to see how audiences respond to the dynamic of having a black female be in such a powerful, central position on a Cambridge stage. It feels subversive.”