feature: london-based adebayo bolaji tells us his story as a young black actor, writer and director

September 10, 2014

So, I’m in rehearsals and talking with with my co-actor Allyson Brown about honesty, relative truth (if there is such a thing) and human behaviour-why people do what they do, yes I know… all very existential in the rehearsal space that day. This rehearsal is for my new play ‘In Bed’, a play about two actors who spend a night together to rehearse a play, but rather than analysing both their characters, the play takes a turn and they both encounter a real-time analysis of their own. Is there a weaker sex, do men and women understand each other, if not, why? Writing and directing this play, has forced me to encounter ‘truth’ in my own life, and how I’ve dealt with and still deal with honesty. At certain points I’ve loved honesty, maybe when I’ve seen an immediate benefit, at other points not.

By Adebayo Bolaji 

My name, Adebayo Bolaji (aka Ade), I am an actor, writer and director. I was born and raised in West London and trained as an actor at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. When people ask me ‘how did you become an actor’, I tend to get a little excited, but then this excitement is followed by memories of sweat, frustration, confusion and relief. Like many other actors, I started out with the school play, where I played the lead role before attending High School. I was eleven years old and was cast as Oliver, in Oliver Twist. It was quite a triumph for me then, one-because I really didn’t expect to get the part and two, because a white girl (who lost out on getting the role) actually said ‘it’s not fair, why did he get the part, there were no black people in that time’… I know, shocking. My best mate, turned around and side ‘well Oliver is not a girl’. Ironically, this girl later that year became my girlfriend… cute. Jumping a few years ahead, at fourteen I was accepted into the National Youth Music Theatre’s (NYMT) production of Bugsy Malone, this played in the West End. Getting into this production was somewhat of a miracle on many levels. I was never a ‘stage school’ kid, never had acting, tap-performing arts lessons like all the other kids did, my schooling was my family’s film collection and my obsession with Michael Jackson. But the real miracle for me was that I was allowed to do it… from my parents.

Coming from a Nigerian background- and a strong academic one- my parents were not too keen on the whole art scene. Art represented instability, awkward and non-conformist behaviour, something that didn’t sit well back home. Don’t get me wrong, my parents were and still are big music lovers, music would always be on in the house and I was surrounded by musicians.. but acting… this was just something alien. So, because they didn’t understand ‘that world’, when it came to taking the art form up seriously (after many years with the NYMT), the battle commenced.

My father’s argument was, ‘I don’t care if you can be rich from acting, I care that my son can stand in a room and have an opinion of his own, that he is educated. Here in the west, if they look at you they see a young black man, and if all you say you can do is perform, well it’s no surprise to them’. On the outside friends of mine would say ‘just do what you want- I did’. But, if you grew up in my home, it was different. I respected my parents and if I didn’t have support (especially at that age) it was pretty scary. Then, everyone’s opinion mattered- everything mattered.

I ended up at University, studying Law, I forced myself to love it, for survival purposes… but I hated it. If you ask me to name one person from university I couldn’t do it, because I didn’t talk to anyone. I simply, clocked in and out. Although, something interesting did happen. I developed an immense love for reading (you have to if you’re gonna study law) and writing. But these were all for ‘escape’ purposes. I graduated, worked in the city for a while, nothing particularly impressive, Just your standard office work. Then came the change. Looking back, this change was inevitable. I became sick.. really sick. Doctors did not know what was wrong with me, my skin was infected, I was weak, couldn’t move. My blood was fine, in fact everything was fine. So what was it?… It was stress. No matter how hard I worked, I was unhappy, depressed and gained weight.

In short, I had to quit my job, I remember my mum saying ‘I don’t care what you do, how much money you have, I just want my son to be healthy and happy’. I worked at a little book store that sold theology, philosophy and apologetics. It was peaceful there and no pressure to be anything. After a year there, I realised that nothing was in my way- no one was telling me I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. So after much thinking, meditating and praying the only clear thing that wouldn’t leave me alone was… acting.

I only auditioned for the Central School of Speech and Drama, because I wanted one intense year and they were offering it. I always remember my course director saying at the Open Day, ‘here you are only in competition with yourself not anybody else’. That was it for me. I auditioned, got in, got fit, began to do what came natural to me, to do what I love. I got my first job before I graduated and thankfully, have continued to work in the industry.

But the most important thing in all this was the discovery of choice, courage and opinion… to have one and own it. what do I mean? In retrospect, I’m glad I studied Law. I developed skills that are invaluable. And my dad was right, people do take me seriously. Was it the only way? of course not and if I have the mind I have now, I probably would’ve done what I wanted. But, through lateral thinking, or better said- gaining some perspective- so ironically, not conforming and taking a traditional route into the performing arts but going into the ‘world’ experiencing ‘real life’ has actually made me a better actor, writer and director. It’s having all these experiences that make me unequivocally sure of what I want, to do the kind of work I want to do, and to be portrayed the way I want to be portrayed. By being somewhat pushed into a lifestyle I didn’t want, has only made me sure of the thing I do want. I was always ask people, ‘what do you want?’. How honest can we be with ourselves? Even actors are commonly asked by directors ‘what does you character want?’ Everyone wants something.

I think the characters in my play ‘IN BED’ are noticeable, either we’ve been them or have friends, family etc like them or at least have tasted a bit of what they experience. I find this satisfying, when people connect with the play because finding similarities is reassuring, reassuring that we are not alone. That’s why honesty is important to me. I know it’s not so simple, we’re dealing with primitiveness, with society, convention, politics and so forth. How do we respond to each one of these things, should we respond at all?

Adebayo Bolaji’s new play IN BED will be on at the London Theatre Workshop from the 15th-20th September. This play, with only two actors – Allyson Brown and Adebayo, explores society’s interpretation of men and women, love, sexual advances and flirtation. book and or facebook/inbedtheplay for updates.