Gabrielle Brooks stars in the UK premiere of Anna Bella Eema a new and updated version of Pulitzer Prize finalist Lisa D’Amour’s wildly inventive spoken-and-sung odyssey.
Ten-year-old Annabella knows that there are scarier things than the monsters her mother sees lurking in their abandoned trailer park. There are red eviction notices through the door. There are social workers at the window. There’s the new highway looming, drawing ever-closer, threatening disaster. Frustrated, one day she builds a girl out of mud. The girl comes to life. The girl is Anna Bella Eema…
We spoke to Brooks about the role in this exciting new production..
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Gabrielle Brooks and I’m an actor. I’m a born Londoner and massively proud half Jamaican, half Guyanese. I started acting when I was about 7 when a weekend drama club teacher started an agency in my area. After that I did a few professional shows, took a much needed break for my studies and got back to it professionally after drama school.
You play ‘Anabella’ in Anna Bella Eema can you tell us about the character and what in particular struck you about the story and made you want to take on the role?
The best word to describe my character Annabella is ‘precocious‘. She’s grown up pretty isolated in a small trailer park with her mum and a few other kids and adults for company. She is youth, energy and imagination personified. Mostly I was drawn to her wit and intelligence. She is wise beyond her years, with a sense of adventure but battling the world on her shoulders. It’s refreshing to play a young girl that complex.
This play explores isolation, loneliness and the relationship between mother and daughter. How are these themes visualised through the characters?
Annabella longs for anything outside of her trailer home. In ‘walks‘ Anna Bella Eema, the embodiment of everything Annabella could have hoped for. [Although] Anna Bella Eema is very much a character we are still figuring out in the rehearsal room. It appears as though she has many functions in the play. She acts as a catalyst in some ways and a trickster in others. What we do know is that at the time of her arrival, she is adventure, friendship and a nurturer all in one. Without giving anything away, she not only helps Annabella live out her fantasies but also changes things forever for her.
The play was written by Lisa D’Amour and has had many runs since its debut in 2003, have any developments have been made to the play or the characters and has Lisa had a hand in the direction of this production?
We had adjustments made to the script pre-rehearsals and during the first week but as Lisa is understandably very busy she hasn’t been in the rehearsal room with us. She actively stays up to date with what we are doing though which is nice. What is super helpful about the rehearsal room is that everyone is able to pitch in with thoughts and ideas. It’s always great to be able to see things from many perspectives and then get to make those decisions yourself from a big pot of ideas.
What have been the best and most challenging parts in working on this production?
The show is beautiful and pacey but it is by far the most challenging production I have been a part of. It is a three hander with a lot of story telling which means massive chunks of dialogue to learn. It’s also a completely a cappella show with very close harmonies throughout. It’s honestly the most challenging music I have ever learnt. All that paired with intricate movement, Southern American accents, unpicking all the intricate meanings in the show and keeping it fast paced and snappy it makes for a pretty head spinning process but all that said it’s what makes the piece so impressive and hopefully quite magical.
What’s the best most thrilling part of being an actress in musical theatre?
There is something all too impressive about matching so many disciplines in one production. What I mostly love about being in a musical are the audiences. I think music excites people but also puts them at ease. A musical theatre audience tends to be more vocal and expressive and that’s an amazing feeling. I do love Musical Theatre.
You have previously taken on roles such as Dorothy (Wizard of Oz at Sheffield Theatre 2018) and Viola (Twelfth Night at The Young Vic, produced by Kwame Kwei-Armah 2018), stereotypically roles played by white women, how does it feel being a part of the wave of Women of Colour breaking boundaries in theatre and film?
It’s a great thing and it’s something I am very proud and happy to be a part of. Representation is very important to me and it should be to the all theatre makers. I’m a dark skinned black woman and still we are hard to come by on larger platforms and in big story lines on all platforms. Unless we are all visible theatre will continue to be for one kind of person. I’m especially grateful that it has highlighted an issue of unconscious biased that people thought no longer existed. This is a whole lot of work to be done.
What is your ultimate dream role?
I actually don’t have a dream role. I think I just want to continue to tell great stories that resonate with me in some way.
What do you hope audiences will take away from watching Anna Bella Eema and more specifically from your character?
I mostly hope we are able to open people up to a very different type of story telling. It would be nice for people leave thinking theatre should be done one way and chuck the rule book out the window with us a little by the time they leave.
Anna Bella Eema runs until October 12th 2019 at ArcolaTheatre. Find out more and book tickets here