Omari Douglas’ calendar has been full of bookings since he graduated from Arts Educational Schools, London in 2015.
From performing in Clarke Peters’ iconic musical, Five Guys Named Moe, to starring as Nora in Emma Rice’s Wise Children at The Old Vic, we spoke to him following the recent release of Willi Richards’ Rush via BBC iPlayer’s Culture in Quarantine series.
Rush, which follows a gay love triangle between Man, Lad and Boy, is one of several new LGBTQ+ works added to Culture in Quarantine as a result of lockdown restrictions causing the cancellation of Pride events.
Hi Omari, since you graduated from drama school in 2015, you’ve worked on a number of projects – particularly musicals. Growing up, were you always enthralled by the world of musical theatre?
Absolutely! I’ve had a strong connection with music for as long as I can remember and I think that was probably the catalyst for my journey into theatre. It was pretty amazing to discover all these shows where music is the driving force. I took part in my first school musical when I was 11 and I remember the head of performing arts seeming a bit taken aback by how enthusiastic I was – I cringe a little bit thinking about it but I knew I loved it, ha!
What would be your dream role – in a musical or a play – to perform?
I’ve never been too definitive on this as I’ve learned to be open to whatever surprises come my way. But oh my gosh, I’d be over the moon if someone let me be in A Chorus Line. Also, I’d love to have a go at the leading player in Pippin.
Let’s talk about Rush. You first played the character ‘Boy’ in 2018 opposite Mark Gillis and Kane Surry. What was it like reprising this role opposite Rupert Everett and Daniel Boyd?
It was sort of like dipping my toe into ‘what could be‘. From the initial days of lockdown, we knew our production wouldn’t be able to go ahead at Trafalgar Studios – so mentally, I guess I kind of put it to bed. Willi and the producers told me about this new version of events and I was like ‘wow’. There was an element of the unknown involved, firstly because of the format we were playing with but also because I hadn’t worked with Daniel or Rupert (they were so good!). In turn, I think we got the essence of the first day of rehearsal – you just dive in and make the discoveries as you go.
The performance of Rush that audiences can watch on iPlayer was a first reading of the script broadcast live as a Zoom webinar with 400 people watching. How did you, as an actor, prepare for this broadcast, and was it like anything you’ve experienced before?
In terms of the format, I wasn’t really sure what I was gearing myself up for. It was weird to think that hundreds of people would be watching – you’ve got this virtual mass of spectators (who aren’t visible) whilst you’re alone in your bedroom talking to a camera… strange but exciting. Our director, Joseph Winters, calls Rush a ‘debate play’ and I think engaging with that element of it really lent itself to the format. The play leads us to a mighty exchange between Boy and Man – it’s their first encounter with each other, and the scene itself was mine and Rupert’s first encounter too, so it was super fun to revel in that dynamic.
With lockdown restrictions preventing physical contact between actors, both onstage and in the rehearsal room, how did you navigate depicting the intimate nature of your relationship with Lad?
I think it helps that Willi has written something that very much belongs to now and feels really current in terms of its sentiment. The nature of the conversations between Boy and Lad is very relatable – that paired with the fact that we are already a generation of Instagrammers, Facetime and Whats\Appers meant that the scenes ended up being pretty well suited to the format of our reading.
A key theme in Rush is the differing experiences of gay men according to their generation or race. What do you think are the key issues that the new generation of gay black men face – particularly in the world of performing arts?
I’ve felt immense solidarity within the black gay community in our industry. I think we’ve seen a cultural shift over the past few years where black gay figures (or at least culture that has been spearheaded by black gay people) have emerged to the forefront of mainstream media. The influence of our predecessors and our contemporaries is huge but for those looking in from the outside, it’s important to know that we are not defined by a singular experience. The unity stems from our uniqueness and our differences – knowing this is vital for our community to progress in navigating the world, both in fiction and reality.
You’ve also started working on Russell T Davies’ new series for Channel 4, Boys, which chronicles the lives of four friends in the ‘80s during the rise of AIDS. What drew you to this project?
I felt like the joy, the verve and the ambitions of these amazing people literally leapt off the page when I read it! Of course, it’s framed by something very real and tragic but I think it would be wrong to depict that time without honouring the brilliance of the people who lived through the thick of it. It’s a testament to Russell’s amazing observation and epic writing. He was obviously a big draw – Cucumber (2015) aired whilst I was still at drama school. Me and my flatmates made watching it a weekly event!
Boys is also your first acting gig for TV. What’s it been like switching from live theatre to TV?
Lots of things – mostly fascinating. The initial bit was kind of surreal as you adjust to the pace of production, but being on the project for four months meant that I could really sit into that rhythm of working, and also absorb and appreciate all the incredible craftsmanship that was happening around me. I fell in love with the work of all the departments. My contribution is complete but there are still people working away on it now. It’s strange going from rehearsing something in the same room for 4 weeks and having a show, to working on a project that has such a broad timeline – Russell’s had this show in development for many years.
I’m guessing filming for Boys has had to be put on hold for the time being. What’s it been like as an actor trying to navigate the current climate?
We were really fortunate to have wrapped at the end of January, so it’s very much in the hands of post-production. I’d like to think us actors are well equipped for navigating uncertainty, I’m just not sure whether I was expecting to see the day our industry was under serious threat. The fight to protect not only theatres and art institutions but also the welfare of artists working within all fields of the arts has meant that it’s definitely felt like I’ve not been navigating this current climate alone.
Do you have any other projects or plans on the horizon?
Not at all. The plan is to just keep riding this wave we’re all on and keep cheering loudly for the amazing work we’ve been treated to during this time. I hope you don’t mind me doing some singular cheers for I May Destroy You, Paul Mendez’s debut novel – Rainbow Milk and Sadlers Wells’ Dancing at Dusk. All jaw-on-the-floor-beautiful!
Rush is now available to watch via BBC iPlayer until May 2021. Find out more here.