Theater actor Sharon D Clarke was raised on classic movie musicals but struggled to picture herself as an actor.
“My mom loved Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly. We watched all of those,” she says. “But there wasn’t much diversity.”
After watching “West Side Story,” which featured prominent characters of color, a world opened up to Clarke. “They were different folk, and the music was funky. It showed me that musical theater was a world where I could live,” she says.
Clarke smashed any expectations she may have set for her younger self, becoming a staple on London’s West End with acclaimed turns in “We Will Rock You,” “Ghost” and “Death of a Salesman.” She makes her Broadway debut in this fall’s “Caroline, or Change,” reprising her Olivier Award-winning role in the play about a single mother who works as a maid for a middle-class family in 1960s Louisiana.
“It’s a real honor to have a Black woman’s story as the lead,” she says. “Normally, that character would be a side character who you’d brush past but wouldn’t get to know any deeper.”
What has it been like to see live theater return?
Completely, overwhelmingly joyous. Everyone has been put on hold for nearly two years. To get back to what we love doing — telling stories and being creative and being with people — it’s a joy.
Were you worried “Caroline, or Change” might not open after Broadway’s prolonged shutdown?
Initially. But very quickly Roundabout Company assured us they were going to move heaven and earth to make sure the show happened. I’ve been really lucky. I haven’t had to worry like I think some people might have had to.
How did you spend time during the pandemic?
I didn’t work until July. That time period was quite scary. Over here in Britain, we were told by our government the creative industry should retrain. So, we didn’t have much faith in getting any help or assistance. No work was forthcoming. Luckily enough, me and my wife had some savings and we muddled through, but I know friends who lost their homes during that time. I consider myself very blessed I still have my roof over my head. And then in July, I got a voiceover gig with the BBC. I did that job in my office and then I thought, “If this is where it’s going to be, I need to get myself some equipment.” I got myself a little portable mobile vocal booth. I’ve got a nice little studio set up in my office. That’s how I’ve been earning my living. It’s kept me sane and creative. The work has been diverse and eclectic. I’ve been doing adverts for shoes, furniture, children’s TV shows. It’s mad.
What is it like to make your Broadway debut now?
It makes it all the more glorious. My mom would have said, “Everything in its time.” Whenever I’ve done this show, it has always felt so relevant. The week we opened in Chichester [in the south of England] was the week of the Charlottesville riots [in the U.S.]. The show deals with the burgeoning civil rights movement, the assassination of JFK, and here we are again after the summer of Black Lives Matter and Black lives meaning something. Being able to tell that story at this point in time feels prescient.
Caroline is a very vocally demanding role. How do you preserve your voice?
Sleep and water. With Caroline especially, I love that it’s a real challenge. She was a bit of a bitch to learn vocally, and I consider myself to be someone who’s quick. Although I don’t read music, I’ve got a good ear. But once you’ve got it under your belt, it’s a joy to sing.
It’s shaping up to be a landmark season on Broadway for plays and shows from Black artists. Will those changes endure?
I’m hoping that this has to be it. We can’t keep having this conversation and moving on a couple of steps and then going back to the “normal” way of being. That’s the same across the pond as well. This movement cannot be seen as a moment.
What needs to be done?
Keep employing, keep looking out of the box. One of the things that I get fed up with hearing is, “We couldn’t find anyone.” We’re here, we’ve always been here. You’re just not looking in the right place. If you’re only looking at a certain set of directors, and there is no one diverse, then you have to look further afield. The door has been closed to so many people for so long. You’ve got to open the door, and people have to be allowed to come through.
What’s your favorite show that you’ve performed in?
I like to play strong women. I have a bit of a problem playing weak women. I’m really proud of Killer Queen in “We Will Rock You.” Normally when I get a casting breakdown, it will say the character is Black. If it doesn’t say, “The queen is Black, has locs, blah, blah,” then I know she’s a white character. When I went up for Killer Queen, she was written as white, and I could see when I walked in the room they were like, “Well, you’re not what we’re looking for. You are this big Black woman. You do not look like the Queen.” The director, Chris Renshaw, was really up for me playing it, and then I did an audition for Brian May. I knew that Brian May loved the singing, and I got the role through that. Through getting to play Killer Queen, they looked further afield when they started [casting] “We Will Rock You” in different countries. When they were doing it in Spain, I got a call from my mate, who was then cast to play the queen in Spain. She was saying she knows she’d gotten it because I’d gotten the gig.
Things you didn’t know about Sharon D. Clarke
Go-to Broadway show tune for karaoke: “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from “Dreamgirls”
Favorite movie musical: “West Side Story”