Franc Ashman in The Royale 2016. Bush Theatre. Credit Helen Murray
Esteemed actress Franc Ashman reprises her role as Nina, the sister of Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson, in The Royale (see listing), following on from a successful run at the Bush Theatre last year (read our review) this play is back at The Tabernacle Theatre. I got a chance to speak to Ashman about coming back to the character of Nina and life in the theatre.
Had you heard of Jack Johnson, the real-life boxer that The Royale is based on, before this play?
Yes, I had her about this play, my older brother was a boxer back in the day and I heard his name and some of his story come up a few times in my youth, so he wasn’t a complete mystery to me.
So, would you say that you’re a fan of boxing?
No, even though my brother was a boxer I never watched him as I was the youngest of 7 and he was a lot older than me so I never got to see him box in his prime. Also, I didn’t want to see my brother get hit so I don’t think I would have wanted to watch it anyway.
What attracted you to the role of Nina?
To be honest I didn’t get it at first. When Madani sent me the play and asked me to read it I read it and didn’t see what I could bring to the role. On the page, it’s hard to see the character, to flesh her out. I didn’t want to be rude and reject the role outright, especially as Madani has such great taste when it comes to plays and I’ve always trusted his work, also there he was directly offering me a part in this play, how could I then turn around and reject the offer. To make my decision even harder he even wrote me a massive text message asking me to take on the role and described it as a ‘poignant part’.
How could I say no to that? After I agreed to take on the role and started doing research on the real Nina Jackson I got more into it and had a better understanding of her as a woman. Then in rehearsals we stared to create her character, her persona and behaviour. There wasn’t any (theatre) language or specific word for some of her actions on stage so we had to create that as well, especially when she’s in the ring with Jay.
As Nina I would pick specific people out in the audience and direct certain lines at them. Sometimes you would get an instant reaction from a one person nodding their head in agreement to another person looking uncomfortable. That was the effect that you want. The audience to react and be in that moment with you.
Through my research I found out that she may have been his grandmother or older sister, she was an older close female relative. Well the real story is that one day when a young Jack is walking home from school she sees him getting bullied and harassed by some white boys. When he got home she threatens him with a whooping if he didn’t beat those boys up and defend himself next time. That’s probably how he got into boxing and why he wanted to be able to fight anyone regardless of their race. I did more research on Jack and one of his biographies (Unforgiveable Blackness, by Geoffrey C Ward) was a great source of information. Another thing I discovered as I got into the role of Nina was that we were both from big families with confident parents who raised us to push forward regardless of race. I’m an actress not just a black actress. In the play Jay wants to be the Heavyweight Champion of the World not the Black world or the White world, just the world.
What was it like being the only female on the cast?
I didn’t think about it to be honest, I’m a bit of a tomboy, I prefer the term tomgirl, but yeah I’ve always been surrounded by men growing up since before acting. I was in a roller derby team and I used to be in a band so I was used to performing amongst men. Working on this production I was asked if I would like a separate dressing room but I refused after the guys were like no you’ll miss out on so much and they were right. If I’d separated myself I would have missed out on the energy, running through lines, and all of that vibe that you need before you go on stage. I’d like to ask the guys that same question, how did they feel having just one woman on the cast? I’m sure they cleaned up their language for me and were on better, not best, but better behaviour.
Nicholas Pinnock and Franc Ashman in The Royale 2016. Bush Theatre. Credit Helen Murray.jpg
Is it daunting being immersed with the audience as the set for this play is all on the boxing ring so you’re surrounded at all four corners of the room by eyes watching you?
I like it, as I said earlier I’ve performed with bands before and I’ve also performed on a promenade where you are in the crowd, and it allows you to connect with the audience. As Nina I would pick specific people out in the audience and direct certain lines at them. Sometimes you would get an instant reaction from a one person nodding their head in agreement to another person looking uncomfortable. That was the effect that you want. The audience to react and be in that moment with you.
What did you think of Nina? Is she justified in her fears or is she being a bit cowardly? I mean with hindsight we can see that Jay had to do this to push through and make that change, so we as a modern audience may support him for wanting to be the first black Heavyweight Champion of the world, but what did you think?
You must remember that this was the Jim Crow era. Now we might be thinking of things with our 2016 heads but back then it was different. We in the UK can’t even begin to imagine how brutal it was out there in the States. Through my research I learnt more of the darker violent, twisted ways that black people were punished before, during and after this fight. It took three years for this fight to happen, they had to get the former champion out of retirement but also there were legal implications, so that was a long time of systematic lynching, terrorising of black communities. They were going through unspeakable acts of violence so Nina’s fears are real.
We might be thinking of things with our 2016 heads but back then it was different. We in the UK can’t even begin to imagine how brutal it was out there in the States. Through my research I learnt more of the darker violent, twisted ways that black people were punished before, during and after this fight.
In the play Jay himself is naïve of the danger as he has been protected, he didn’t realise people had been coming to his matches with guns and knives. The Memphis and Kentucky incidents mentioned in the play are real. I can’t question or judge her, none of us can. She had children to protect and being his relative she would have borne the brunt not only from white people but also from scared black folk who wouldn’t have wanted to associate with her and her family. When she confronts Jay about this it’s not to hold him back in his career but she needs to bring the reality of her world into his world, where things are not so real sometimes. Life is happening outside of that boxing ring.
Franc Ashman in The Royale
Your southern belle accent for Nina was very good. Do you find accents hard, especially when performing on stage?
No I love using different accents, it’s fun and I like to use them as much as I can. I hear them like music when I’m performing and it enables me to become somebody else, I am fully that character.
What always pulls you back to the stage? You have had success in TV and film but you always find your way back to the stage.
The stage allows me to fully disappear into my characters, you can’t do that in TV as sometimes you get typecast, you can do it in film sometimes, but in the theatre you can always go back to the art form of acting. Of making somebody, creating them. The alchemy that you create in those 90, or how ever many, minutes on stage is so powerful, you can’t recreate it anywhere else. And also, you get that immediate audience reaction which gives each performance a freshness. One night people may be laughing, another night people may not, they may cry or all look so sad and you absorb that and put it into your performance whilst on stage. The stage is where I feel real joy in acting, I just love it.
What was your experience at the Bush theatre like for the play’s first run, where it sold-out?
Exciting, it was difficult to predict how successful this play was going to be so getting the news that it had sold out was amazing. The audience’s reaction to the play has been and continues to be thrilling and exciting. It’s been a magical experience, I love the guys who are part of this play and I have enjoyed playing Nina and surprising the audience with her character.