She’s a doyenne of British theatre and a star of the hotly anticipated Netflix drama Bridgerton. With a long and vibrant career spanning over 30 years, including a starring role opposite Morgan Freeman in the feature film Invictus, the Ghanaian-British actor Adjoa Andoh is really coming into her own. Interview by Juanne H. Fuller.
Bridgerton is the first Netflix show from the African-American Hollywood powerhouse Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder). How excited are you to be working on this project?
It’s fantastic! Obviously, I’ve admired her work since the first days of Grey’s Anatomy and so it’s a real honour to be working on this show.
Bridgerton is based on Julia Quinn’s best-selling novels set in Regency London, however unlike the books, this production will see black actors playing Lords and Ladies alongside their white counterparts. How significant is this?
Queen Charlotte, the wife of George lll, was the descendant of an African woman and Alphonso lll of Portugal. She was mixed-race. So it’s very exciting that we have a mixed-race actress, Golda Rosheuvel, playing the queen in Bridgerton. In Britain we had the abolitionist and activist Ottobah Cugoano, who came from the Gold Coast, what we now know as Ghana. He wrote a book, published in 1787, opposing slavery. There was the amazing 18th- century writer Ignatius Sancho, who was a composer and abolitionist. I could go on, but for me the importance of the way the show has been cast, is to put back into people’s understanding that there was an African presence at all levels of society in Britain at that time.
What does this tell us about how Africans were living?
It tells us many extraordinary things. Our presence initially came through colonisation and slavery. Yet African people thrived and found ways to have significance, in spite of their terrible experiences, and carve out a life for themselves. As a person of African heritage, I am thrilled to be celebrating them in fabulous fiction.
You play a character called Lady Danbury. How would you describe her?
So, Lady Danbury is a dowager duchess. She was widowed after marrying a Duke. She has no children, so in the society of that time, she was as free as any woman could be. She has money, power and influence, so there is a great swagger about her; a great energy and curiosity and delight at life and I love that.
Although she’s terribly English, did you manage to inject traces of the African matriarch?!
As a Ghanaian, I come from a long matriarchal lineage, it’s a very strong tradition in Ghana. I have enjoyed marrying the social circumstances of Lady Danbury, with my love of history, and my knowledge of matriarchal influence in my own life.
What do you hope the audience will get from this particular portrait of Regency London?
I hope they’ll be alerted to the idea that the history we were taught, isn’t necessarily history as it was experienced. I hope they’ll enjoy the stories and performances, as well as the variety of acting talent being celebrated so brilliantly on-screen.
Your costumes in the show are amazing. Did you have any input into how your character would be styled?
Yes! Shout-out to our fantastic series costume design team, Ellen Mirojnick, John Glasar and John Norster. Also, Chris Van Dusen, the show runner, had a vision for each of the characters based on Julia Quinn’s amazing books and they were all incredibly generous in allowing me to have an input into the details for my character. We would discuss fabrics, colour palette and styling. Lady Danbury has a walking cane with her at all times. If you look at Regency men of that period, they would always have a cane and a hat. For me, the fact that she’s a widow meant that I wanted her to embody some of the masculine within her feminine. In a way to reflect the particular position of wealth and power that she had within a society that didn’t allow a woman a huge amount of freedom. So, I requested a hat, I love a hat!
The global pandemic has had a massive impact on the arts and those who work within it. How has it affected you and your work?
I think the biggest effect has been our inability to be together; be it in rehearsal, on a stage, in a theatre, or big radio productions. Slowly we’re finding ways to film, but the biggest sorrow has been theatre. I’m really fearful for my wider artistic community. I’ve been pretty lucky and have worked solidly throughout the pandemic, but for friends who run theatres, from security and catering, to costume and set design, it’s been really painful. The future is quite frightening.
Another defining moment of 2020 was the killing of the African-American George Floyd. How much of a racial reckoning has there been within your industry?
I think it’s been across all industries, be it sport, broadcasting, education or entertainment. People of colour have been franker when speaking out about racial injustice. I think that theatres, production companies and boardrooms in all industries should be looking at their senior leadership teams and asking if they reflect the population around them. It’s appalling that it’s taken yet another death to make people pause. Now is the time to make demands and have clarity about how we want to live and be equal in our treatment of each other.
You’re passionate about social justice. What do you hope this extraordinary year will bring for Africa’s youth, who are impatient for change?
I’m a Fairtrade ambassador and hugely supportive of any initiatives that work to bring about equality of opportunity for people; be that because of their religion, race, gender, sexuality or different ability – whatever barrier society creates, that stops people moving forward to fulfil the potential they are uniquely blessed with.
Africa is the most amazing continent. It has so many academic, intellectual, creative, cultural and historical resources. It has a sense of community and history and I am so proud to have a Ghanaian heritage and carry a Ghanaian name. We need to celebrate our sense of possibility and brilliance. I hope this year will bring a renewed sense of vigour and optimism in Africa’s youth, that they have the potential to do anything. It’s a thrilling time to be young and African, but we also need social justice. People need to be rewarded for their hard work. They need access to markets, running water, clean water, electricity, education and the internet. Access to opportunity is the most important thing.
Last year was designated the Year of Return in Ghana and saw a huge number of the African diaspora visiting the country. Now we are ‘Beyond the Return’, have you made any plans to do something artistic in Ghana?
There are amazing playwrights whose work I‘ve loved for many years and have produced on a small level in the past. I would love to produce their work on a much greater scale. Look at the number of Ghanaian creative people in all walks of life; from architects to museum curators, novelists and composers. I go to Ghana pretty much every year to visit family and friends. Recently I have been in talks with other Ghanaians about future projects, so watch this space.
Bridgerton launched on Netflix on 25 December.