Chipo Chung – interview
Dido, Queen of Carthage, RSC
I had the chance to interview actress Chipo Chung for Afridizak Theatre News. Chipo is well known for her many theatre roles as well as appearing on our screens in BBC’s Doctor Who, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, and the Sky Atlantic series Fortitude. Chipo is currently in rehearsals for the lead role of Queen Dido in Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Dido is a rarely performed play from the playwright Marlowe and is about the great and first Queen of Carthage, she is one of our greatest historical female leaders, but because of the threat she posed to Rome the Romans destroyed nearly all records of her existence. It is a fascinating and passionate story being revived at the Swan Theatre with director Kimberly Sykes, as part of the RSC’s Rome Season in Stratford-upon-Avon.
How are rehearsals going?
They are going good. It’s exciting, a little overwhelming she’s an amazing character. Sort of a dream come true kind of character as she’s completely wild in her emotional range and imaginative capacity. It’s so exciting and kind of terrifying to be playing Queen Dido.
The character of Dido may be unknown to a lot of Afridiziak’s readers and followers, as this is a play that is hardly ever performed, could you give us more of a background on this relatively unknown historical female legend?
Yes Queen of Carthage is not a play that is done often and I think part of that is because the lead character is a woman, a woman of authority. She’s passionate, strong, and quite emasculating, which has been a point of discomfort historically, this is my guess. Thus Dido has been viewed historically as a histrionic and emotional woman, as opposed to complex and dangerous. She is emotional but there is a complexity in the range of her emotions. I keep asking people why this play is not done very often and what they think the reason is and we came to the conclusion that it is partly becuase she is a black woman and you know it’s taken so long for black actors and East Asian actors and actors of colour to be recognised as being good enough to do classical theatre, for hundreds of years that has been a strange concept, but she is a female equivalent to Othello and should be seen.
There are ways of seeing this play and interpreting it, which will be dependent on your own personal background, but there will be perspectives that you will have if you are African or of African descent, or a colonised people that I think you couldn’t get from a production that ignored race.
Is that what attracted you to the role? How did you get involved in this production?
I was called to audition and I knew the play before from drama school. One of my drama school teachers gave me a text called The School of Night, by Peter Whelan, the playwright. It was put on by the RSC in the 90s I think, and it is a story of Marlowe and Shakespeare. They are characters in the play and in it Marlowe has picked up an Italian actress who has come to London with the Commedia Dell’Arte troupe. At the time the plague is happening in London and her parents who are both performers in the troupe die. Everyone is going to the countryside to get away from the plague and the city so this Italian actress goes with Marlowe and Shakespeare and they both fall in love with her in this play, but what is interesting is the fact that she is a mixed race woman.
She was half Moorish and half Italian, that was a big theme in the play. In this play Marlowe is writing Dido; Queen of Carthage and he is inspired by this mixed race actress who he is in love with, so that was my first introduction to Dido. I’ve always loved classical theatre which is why I went to RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) to study. For this play Dido Queen of Carthage the fact that there’s a character who is African in a play that is set in Africa and is of a high blown, high verse kind of love poetry that I love reading is a match made in heaven for me as an actress who is African and lived in Africa.
I think its perfect timing I think the audience are ready for it. We all need to see this whether we are black or white or whichever race, we all need to see a woman like this and recognise her place in history.
Yes I think it’s long overdue. There was a production that happened at the National Theatre some time ago but they sort of whited out the race issue. It was motivated mainly towards people who were interested in the classics, which may have been their main focus. I went and saw it and I was probably the only black person in the audience.
And what did you think of it?
I thought the actors did an amazing job with the verse speaking they made it so fluent, as this play is high poetry, so they needed to make it absolutely intelligible and understandable. I still remember some of the lines from the way that they delivered it so they did a really good job. We all know Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a great story of young love, but we are unfamiliar with Marlowe’s love story between Dido and Aeneas. But I came out of that NT performance thinking that this was a play about miscegenation and the fact that people aren’t comfortable with miscegenation. Now that I am performing the play and exploring all of the themes I’m re-thinking that and questioning if it is about that or not.
There are ways of seeing this play and interpreting it, which will be dependent on your own personal background, but there will be perspectives that you will have if you are African or of African descent, or a colonised people that I think you couldn’t get from a production that ignored race. In this play it’s so exciting because the colonizer is a black woman, she is running the city it is her city and to have those kinds of inversions makes you question your history. There’s so much in there that can’t be ignored. I’m glad that the RSC have had the courage to say ok let’s talk about it.
On a certain level the play is just a love story and I think whatever race, age or background that you are from you can understand the torment of love and the sacrifice of love and the competitiveness of love and the absolute agony and despair when someone chooses their own ambition and destiny over being with you which is sort of a greater betrayal as it’s not even another person that they have chosen it’s themselves that they are choosing over you. And that’s sort of universal but there are so many lenses one can put on the play of a woman being in power and a black woman being in power. I think those filters on top of it make it a really interesting piece of theatre.
You are of mixed race heritage (Chipo Chung is of half Zimbabwean and half Chinese descent). Did you feel that you could draw from your own personal life experiences in your exploration of this character? Your early childhood years were in Africa, could you bring something unique to the role that maybe another actress might not have been able to.
I have always owned the fact that I’m African and always will, so it is interesting being in a room with a very diverse cast of people of multiple ethnicities. We did an exercise in the first week of rehearsals where we all had to place ourselves geographically in the room according to where we came from and I was out the door. (We both laugh) I was the one person who was an immigrant and so I do hold my corner in stating the fact that Africa is a real place and that this is play part of African History.
I went to Tunisia which was amazing as there the legend of Dido still exists, it’s very much alive and her spirit is alive. She is an immortal in that people are still talking about her. The myth of Dido originated from that area now called Carthage, then Virgil, the Roman poet, 500 or 800 years later appropriated the legend of Dido so it’s really interesting that the original myth still exists in Africa and there is a due reverence to her in Tunisia. They actually love the fact that Virgil incorporated her in to Roman history as she is now part of the Western canon, she’s a major character in classical literature and Greek and Roman mythology. Dido was a real character who managed to become immortalised and that’s what I found so thrilling because the play talks about immortality and one of her lines that stays with me is “He’ll make me immortal with a kiss”.
She’s talking about Aeneas here and I think there’s something special in that. It is remarkable that 2000 years later we are still talking about her. Her legacy was so legendary and electric that she became immortal and thus became a legend. The literal meaning of immortality is to be a god and immortality is to have your story told again and again and again, forever. It is very powerful and amazing to be part of that trajectory and it’s even more wonderful to actually be an African and to be playing her with the RSC and the fact that they’ve never done this before and it’s never been done before by an actual African. I do feel proud of that.
And so you should, I’m proud of you. How do you prepare mentally and physically for a project like this?
Your question is very good as it’s one I’m asking myself right now. Artistically, part of my preparatory work was going to Tunisia and really smelling the smells and seeing the sights, that was the most amazing research to be able to do. To actually be able to go to the Old Carthage ports and be in those places, these were the places that she stood. The sea and the mountains do not change. If this woman existed she stood right where I stood and that was an amazing experience.
Doing the classics is a very muscular, a very athletic undertaking, you have to be very fit for it. So I am just getting started at getting my breathing and my muscles up to speed every day. That’s the thing about living and working in Stratford upon Avon there’s no escape. I live one minute away from the rehearsal room which is great but it also means home is work, it’s a 24 hour 7 days a week activity. I’m constantly bumping into my director at teatime and learning my lines in the bath. That’s how I’m preparing.
You’ve had a lot of success on stage and screen. How did you first get into acting how did this passion get ignited for you?
Acting was always my hobby. I have always been a bit manic as in hyperactive as a child. I went to an all girl’s convent school as a child and I was in the guitar club, the debate club and public speaking club so I did a lot of extra-curricular stuff. On the weekends we made plays together, and explored theatre together, that was how we made friends and that’s how I started off. I fell in love with the theatre and it was also my social life as a child. I was quite academic as a student so some people would have expected me to do something more academic but instead I turned my hobby into a profession; which I’m very grateful to myself for doing. As I grew older I was into English Literature, I read a lot and I watched Jacobi’s Richard the 2nd like 11 times and also a lot of Kenneth Branagh’s stuff too. Then one of my relatives gave me Antony Sher’s Year of the King when I was 17 and reading that was how I was introduced to the RSC. At that time Antony Sher was quite inspiring as he was from South Africa and in Year of the King he describes coming back home from Stratford and returning back to Cape Town. For me as a child from Harare I could put myself in that experience.
Is there any particular favourite medium of acting for you? Do you prefer film, or theatre or even TV?
I went to university in America and if I wanted to stay in TV I would have stayed in the States but I came to England to study at RADA and do classical theatre as I’ve always loved English literature and poetry. I loved that about RADA as it really gave me a chance to enjoy speaking poetry. I did expect to focus on classical theatre when I left but you don’t always choose your work as an actor until maybe you get to a certain stage in your career and reputation. So I had always hoped to play a lot of classical roles but instead I think because of what I look like and what casting is I played a lot of ethnic characters. I played a Ugandan, a Palestinian, even an Uzbekistani. Sci-fi has always been a major genre in terms of my castings and my first big part in television I was under a load of prosthetic and it was like can people not just look at me.
Do I always have to be some exotic thing?
I played an alien in Dr Who and I remember when I played the voice of Icarus in the Danny Boyle film Sunshine thinking this time the audience could hear me but not even see me. I get it, casting wise, as I’m half Zimbabwean and half Chinese so I’m sort of not quite black enough to play the really African characters and then I’m too dark to play the Asian characters so I think casting for me was always tricky and where I found myself and my groove was in Sci-fi. My mix of races is futuristic and/or fantasy. People found it difficult to consider me to play Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, or Portia in Merchant of Venice because then they’d have to make it about the fact that I’m ‘exotic’ because we (the audience) can’t always get away from that. So I’m glad they have finally found a character in classical theatre that is exotic through Dido.
How do you deal with being placed in a box when you’re more than capable of playing any character? How do you mentally move forward and not get discouraged?
I think that you have to differentiate between talent and casting and not let the fact that you’re not cast for something make that mean a judgment on your talent because it isn’t. You have to separate them. I recently had the tables turned on me when I was in the caster seat and doing a casting for a play. The girl at this casting read it absolutely right but in my mind the girl in the play looks like she’s 13 and this girl doing the reading although she sounds right and her face looks 13 she was too tall and her boobs were too big and so I couldn’t cast her even though I know she had the talent she just did not look right for the role. Which was funny to see how there are different things that happen in a casting. There will be limits to certain roles whether it is your height, your weight, your shade, even the colour of your hair. There are so many different things that are all encompassing in the final casting decision. Acting is the only profession where equal opportunities do not count and where discrimination is part of the process of getting the job. It is completely subjective but I am very grateful for all of the campaigns that have happened in the last decade that have made directors, casting directors and even critics think differently.
Outside of acting you do a lot of work in Africa with charities, can you tell us more about Safe Kenya which I believe you co-founded?
I’ve actually stood down from Safe Kenya. I worked with them in a variety of capacities over the last 12 years as a volunteer, administrator and then I was a director of the London branch of the charity, then I was a trustee for many years and that was a large part of my life for 12 years. Now I have stood down but I loved the work that they do and I think as an African who came to London to be an actress if you come from a developing country you will always have a consciousness that people are living a very privileged life and I was able to commit so much time and energy to Safe as they were Kenyan actors who were just as talented as I was but they had stayed in their country and communities were doing work that wasn’t about being on the cover of a magazine or being famous or even being entertaining, even though their performances are very entertaining, but more importantly they were passing on life saving information about HIV.
I think you have to differentiate between talent and casting and not let the fact that you’re not cast for something make that mean a judgment on your talent because it isn’t. You have to separate them.
One of the projects that I’m really proud to have been a part of was about FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and trying to open up the dialogue within the community about moving towards a non-violent rite of passage for young ladies and Safe Kenya has done a great job at starting that much needed conversation and keeping the work going at finding alternative rites of passage. Right now they are working on distributing a film that we made several years ago called ‘Watatu’ which is about interfaith relationships, Muslim and Christian interfaith relationships which is so necessary right now as all over Africa and the world these relationships are a real issue. Safe Kenya is such an inspiration to me. Theatre used to be intrinsic to community as it was integral to many African cultures; the performance aspect was so integral to how we communicated and connected whereas now we all can be zombies and just binge watch series on our iPads. But hey, readers do go and watch Badlands. (We laugh).
Safe Kenya is about returning to theatre that is essential, its safe and its funny and its entertaining and people get it, it’s cool but it’s also about your neighbour and what you can do as he’s being discriminated against because of his HIV Positive status, or how you can think differently about the issue of FGM, or about the fights that will occur at general election times. It makes you feel that theatre is something vital and important and bigger than ourselves and I think that was why I committed so much to the organisation as I had to look at myself as an actor and think who am I doing all of this for?
You sound so humble and so human, how do you stay so motivated and real when other people who have found just a modicum of fame can become so diva and forget where they came from? You have still maintained such a sense of African-ness and your identity and humanity.
I think it comes from being an African, especially as I come from Zimbabwe a country which has gone through a lot of distress and in many ways it is an ‘unliveable’ place. As people we have to recognise that we can’t walk around like zombies, we have to recognise that if we have never experienced homelessness, displacement or hunger and violence on such levels that we are exceptionally privileged. I think that does come from my upbringing as I think if you’ve never witnessed such things first-hand perhaps it’s more difficult to understand or relate. Watching something on TV or reading about in the news there is a distance, you know it’s something happening far away that is not affecting your life and television can have that deadening affect. Also my mother was a political activist as well so when you see someone give so much and make such a massive impact of good for so many people you do have to question your own life and say what am I going to give? What would be the point in all of this ‘fame’ otherwise?