A Fiendish Conversation with Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako
Feel the authentic pulse of African rhythms and take an uplifting coming of age feminine journey as the Village Theatre hosts the world premiere of the musical My Heart Is the Drum. When the parents of Efua Kuti (Claudine Mboligkpelani Nako), a 16-year-old Ghanaian village girl, pull her from school and arrange a marriage, she flees to pursue her education at an urban university and finds even more struggles facing women in her culture. Can she find happiness and bridge the gap between her two worlds through song? Probably. After all, it is a musical. My Heart Is the Drum opens in Issaquah tomorrow (March 17) and runs through April 24. The show then heads to Village Theatre's Everett location for a second run April 29–May 22.
Nako has been with the role of Efua since the musical's initial reading at Village Theatre's 2014 Festival of New Musicals. Since moving to Seattle four years ago, Nako has kept busy on a variety of stages (ArtsWest, Washington Ensemble, ACT, Seattle Public Theater, etc.), and her performance in Book-It Rep's Little Bee earned her the 2015 Gregory Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Nako about the growth of My Heart Is the Drum's characters, cynical modern playwrighting, and Seattle audiences embracing even what they hate.
How has My Heart Is the Drum transformed since that initial reading in 2014?
It’s changed a lot, actually. As with any new work the process of writing and trying to deepen the story is very much informed by an audience’s reaction. You can get very much inside the story being one of the creators, but until you present it to people, you can’t really gauge like what reads and what doesn’t read. So for example, all of the scenes have been there from the beginning. What has become more focused is how we get there and how...
[Laughs] I’m speaking so vaguely. I’m sorry. I don’t wanna give it away. There’s a lot that is surprising and comes at you from a pretty shocking place.
But yeah, I would say all of the characters have become much more three-dimensional and we see more of their flaws, as well as the things we that want to celebrate about them. So they’ve all become much more human. I felt at the first reading, Efua—who’s the central character to the play—while definitely the one you were rooting for in the play, was sort of self-righteousness about having this laser focus on her goals and going after those goals at any cost. Nothing was her fault in the end, you know? It was like all of this stuff happened to her. Now, in this latest version of the script, we see that, yes, people ultimately make choices with their best intentions in mind. Nobody in life generally sets out to hurt each other it’s not a world of…
It’s not a world of just evil characters.
Yeah, exactly. Everybody has their reasons for making the choices that they make, and they feel like that the choices are the best choice.
My director, Schele Williams, said it best the other day in rehearsal. She said the play is about consequences. I thought it was a really good way of framing it, because the choices seem like the right choice at the time, but the consequences affect so many more people than just the person that made the choice.
I also think the story does a good job of kind of breaking down some unfortunate stereotypes that we have in the western world about Africa and quote, unquote “third world” places and “third world” countries and situations. It’s set in Ghana, so we have the richness of that landscape represented on stage and the richness of the music and the culture and the dance and the movement and all of that, however the story itself, and the characters themselves, could be anywhere in the world. We’re discussing things that exist here in Seattle, things that exist all over the United States and all over Europe. It’s not a story a tragic, poor, sad, third world country. It takes on a much more universal message.
And that’s really exciting cause I’m a person of African descent. I’m a child of immigrants, and I take great pride in that. I wanted to make sure that I voiced that opinion early on in this process. I wasn’t interested in telling a story that diminishes anyone’s experience because of where they’re from.
When approaching the role of Efua, was there a key thing you locked onto in order to find the soul of the character?
There’s a really beautiful, great joy about this character. She is so hopeful. I feel like a lot of contemporary works—and maybe I shouldn’t generalize too much here—lean towards cynicism. It’s really exciting and refreshing to play a character that is just so hopeful. Not that she is, you know, hopeful to a fault. Like she realizes the situation she’s in once she gets there, and is sort of dumbstruck by how that happened. And she has to learn from the consequences of her decision. But yeah, I dunno if it’s just an American playwriting thing or a like trend we have right now in theater or what, but I feel like there’s a lot of cynicism in current writing.
What’s your favorite aspect of My Heart Is the Drum?
My favorite aspect of the story is that every single character in this play experiences growth. There is no one character that’s like, see I was right about everything. I think that this play will educate people about some world issues in a way that they’re not expecting and will certainly make them think very hard. I don’t think its possible to walk away from this show without being moved in some way. But it doesn’t have that sort of, look at how terrible the world is, now go out and just cry about it thing. [Laughs].
How do you feel like Seattle has influenced your acting?
I feel really fortunate to have been embraced early on by the theater community here once I started working. I feel that Seattle has an exciting theater community and a growing artist community. I think that people are really interested in progress here.
People come out and support new works, and that’s really exciting. It’s easy to buy a ticket to Oklahoma or… I dunno… Cinderella or like a show whose title you know and whose music you’ve heard a million times, but I’m always so pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming amount of support that Seattle gives to new works and new artists.
I’ve been influenced in the way that I am excited and encouraged to continue taking chances and doing pieces that are unconventional. The show I was in before this was at ACT Theatre and it was like a really wild new work, called Mr. Burns, a Post Electric Play. And it was like such a different piece of theater. [Laughs] It was controversial and really different than anything that I’ve ever done or seen. It was divisive in that way as well. People loved it and hated it, but so many people continued to come. And even if they did hate it, they talked about it. I think that Seattle audiences are thinkers and I just love that.
My Heart Is the Drum
Mar 17–Apr 24, Village Theatre Issaquah, $48–$68