Sunday, January 23, 2022

Inside Broadway with Ito Aghayere: Former White House Intern Talks About Her Two Roles This Season in ‘Mlima’s Tale’ and ‘Junk’

Ito Aghayere (Photo: James Lee Wall)

*Canadian-born Nigerian actress Ito Aghayere currently stars in “Mlima’s Tale,” the new play written by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage and directed by Jo Bonney. The play is inspired by and based on an article, “The Ivory Highway,” about the international ivory trade in Africa that was written by Damon Tabor and published in Men’s Journal magazine. The 80-minute production also features JoJo Gonzalez, Kevin Mambo, and Sahr Ngaujah, and musician Justin Hicks.

Top: Matthew Saldivar, Bottom: Ito Aghayere as Jacqueline Blount in “Junk” (Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson)

This is Aghayere’s second critically-acclaimed show this season; the 30-year-old also co-starred as Jacqueline Blount in Ayah Akhtar’s “Junk” which ended its run on January 7 at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. Directed by Doug Hughes, “Junk” is the story of the explosion of junk bonds in Wall Street’s financial industry in the 1980s.

Raised in Rochester, New York, Aghayere previously worked in the Obama Administration as a White House intern before shifting to a full-time career as an actress.

Ito Aghayere at Opening Night of “Mlima’s Tale” at the Public Theater (Photo Credit: Simon Luethi)

Gwendolyn Quinn: When did you fall in love with the craft of acting and theater?

Ito Aghayere: When I was in middle school. It started with my love of libraries. When I was a little kid, I would get bags and bags of books from the library and go through them in a matter of weeks. All of the stories that I would read about I would act them out in the privacy of my room where no one could see me. I think that’s when I fell in love with storytelling. Before acting, I fell in love with stories, that’s where it started for me.

GQ: You studied political science as an undergraduate at Duke University. What attracted you to a career in politics?

IA: It’s tied to storytelling. The idea that good politicians—the ones that do the things that they say they will—the only way politicians can convince you of that is to tell you the story of why and how and when they will do the thing they promise. That’s the thing I love the most about politicians and thinkers that I would read about, whether it was [Henry David] Thoreau or [Barack] Obama, there was always something to the story they would tell. The story of people who were marginalized, or ignored, or left behind. They would tell the masses, and their ability to bring those stories to people who would otherwise never hear about those people or groups made them incredible thinkers and decision makers.

Now, there are a lot of seedy and seedier aspects of politics, but I think political science is the study of choices, the choices that we make. I think those choices become easier and more clear when it’s based on something that is true, a story about something that you didn’t know about or couldn’t see in that particular way before, whether it’s about immigration or women’s rights.

Ito Aghayere (Photo Credit: Ito Aghayere’s Facebook Page)

GQ: What was the trigger point for you to switch from a career in politics to a career in acting?

IA: I interned at the White House while I was in grad school [Columbia University] for acting. I’ve never let those two things go. To be an informed citizen, I must be civic-minded in some way. Whether that means volunteering with kids or making sure I’m voting in the midterms. That’s not something you let go of because you have another job. It just so happens that my work on the day to day is acting, whether it’s on Broadway or off. Regarding the work that I do as a civic-minded citizen, it still involves my politics, and the things that I believe are important, whether its childhood literacy, which is one of the things that I love to support and telling stories as a black woman that are generally not told.

GQ: Tell us about your volunteer work.

IA: I volunteer with a group of kids at Young Authors [New York City]. I teach them how to write stories and document their lives by journaling, learning how to use a camera, or learning how to write. I also teach them about the different mediums including poetry or prose.

Sahr Ngaujah as Mlima of “Mlima’s Tale” (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)

GQ: Talk with us about your current play, “Mlima’s Tale.”

IA: “Mlima’s Tale” is a story about a savannah elephant in Africa who finds himself dying because of a poisoned arrow. It’s an elephant who is talking to people in his family, people he has known over the course of his life, in some ways he is giving his eulogy at the top of the play.

Over the course of the play, you see what happens to Mlima, and in some ways he becomes a witness to the crimes of his death and the different hands that become a part of the crime, whether voluntary or involuntary, and the various people and agents who take part in it whether they know it or not, they are connected to the life and death of this elephant.

Left to Right: Ito Aghayere, Sahr Ngaujah, Kevin Mambo of “Mlima’s Tale” (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)

GQ: How does the story “Mlima’s Tale” personally impact you?

IA: It makes me more aware of the things that I take for granted. It’s very easy in this society to forget the true cost of things. It’s easy to replace items that perhaps should be fixed rather than depending on the infinite amount of products that are available to us on Amazon that are mostly sourced from China and other countries where the labor laws are loose.

Workers are being paid unsupportable amounts of money a day, a week, a month to make fast items for a consumer based society that doesn’t think it’s wrong or inhuman or unethical to pay people cents on the dollar to lower the price. For me, it’s made me more aware of the things that I don’t think about, like walking into an H&M, I don’t do anymore, or I try not to do anymore.

Left to Right: Ito Aghayere, Sahr Ngaujah, and Kevin Mambo of “Mlima’s Tale” (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)

The idea of fast fashion, or wanting a diamond ring for your engagement, these are things that we want, but to be a civic-minded person you have to understand the cost. It doesn’t mean you don’t want these things, or you don’t get these things, but it does mean that I need to be a better and more informed consumer. If it’s a shirt that I want for $4.99, then maybe I need to be more aware of the hands that made it. Were they hands that were paid a living wage or weren’t they? Those are questions that I’m confronted with now.

As Mlima finds himself a ghost for most of the play, for me it’s about realizing that there’s a lot of ghosts that we live with, in our everyday life. There are a lot of people who have slaved over the things that we surrounded ourselves with, whether it’s our cheap TVs or our cheap clothing or our expensive rings. These are things that people have died, sweated, and bled for, and it’s not about not having the things that money buys, but it is about not being blissfully ignorant of the cost of them, the human cost.

Left to Right: Jojo Gonzalez and Ito Aghayere of “Mlima’s Tale (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)

GQ: As Americans, why should we be concerned about the international ivory trade in Africa?

IA: The reason we have to be concerned about it is that we are a huge market. Americans are a massive consumer base. What we want directs the economies of tens and tens of nations, because of that there is some responsibility when it comes to the things we want, understanding the cost of the things that we want.

Elephants are being killed on an astronomical level and we cannot be blissfully ignorant that we have a hand in that if we are not shoring up that loophole, which allows for the black market to thrive because our consumer base is large enough and has enough power to do something, and to have impact where it comes to whole species dying or not.

That’s why the story that Lynn [Nottage] is trying to tell is that these decisions that we make as a country, and on an individual level, all matter because it’s all connected. What a consumer’s decision is when they walk into a store and want [to purchase] something pretty, it’s tied to the initial cost of a child who has to leave school and work in a factory to make that item. It’s all connected, that’s the story she’s trying to tell about trafficked things, illicit things, sometimes imaginary things that are hard to conceive of because we are so far removed from the blood, sweat, and tears that went into the initial cost.

Left to Right: Kevin Mambo, Ito Aghayere, Sahr Ngaujah, and Jojo Gonzalez (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)

GQ: How many characters do you portray in “Mlima’s Tale”?

IA: I played nine characters; different genders and ethnicities. It’s one of the most challenging plays I’ve been a part of.

GQ: Why?

IA: It’s challenging to have to find a level of depth for every one of the characters you play and continue to investigate that when you only have two minutes, maybe five minutes if you’re lucky, to be in the world and the body of that character. There was a lot of work involved to deepen every story and to deepen the gesture, vocabulary, language, and expression of each character so that each character has room to grow.

There’s also an element of digging that you have to do every time you get into these characters because you don’t have a lot of time to explore. Some of my characters have five lines, some of them have one line, and some of them have twenty-five lines. To that degree, you have to continue deepening the story of where they come from and where they’ve been. It’s easier when you have one character to do over the course of a play. With “Mlima’s Tale,” you have thirteen seconds to go between one character and another character, and they’re vastly different from one another and vastly different parts of the world, that in and of itself was a form of gymnastics.

Left to Right: Sahr Ngaujah, Jojo Gonzalez, Ito Aghayere, Lynn Nottage, Kevin Mambo, Jo Bonney, and Justin Hicks (Photo Credit: Simon Luethi)

GQ: Lynn Nottage is one of the leading voices in American theater. How has her work impacted you as an artist?

IA: As an artist, Lynn looks at the human condition. In many ways, her work takes an issue that is difficult to look at, like the rust belts in “Sweat” or trafficking in “Ruined.” Lynn looks at these hard issues to grapple with, and she digs into the tissue, she digs into the muscularity in the human choices involved. From all sides, from different agents and the “whys” and the “hows” and she’s adept at doing that. As an artist, on every level, she speaks to me and my love for stories.

What I love about Lynn’s writing is that it speaks to my love of the convoluted nature of storytelling, the convoluted nature of human beings. It’s not about one layer of choices, but it’s about multiple levels of choices that are built and packed in on top of each other over time. Her work does that for me, and it speaks to the complication of all that.

GQ: During the latter part of last year, I saw you in “Junk,” which is now closed. Please share the story of “Junk” and your role as Jacqueline Blount.

IA: “Junk” is a play by Ayad Akhtar, and it’s a story of how America came to this point at which we equate money with power. It’s synonymous, and we equate money in some ways with magic, a kind of invisible force that people hold within themselves and within that the ability to save us all.

The nature of that, the system that we’re in, is one that Ayad wanted to illuminate. It started in the ‘80s with junk bonds and the nature of imaginary money being more valuable than real money.

The ‘80s was the Wild West for the financial industries, that’s when the financial sector began to infiltrate other parts of our society: education, healthcare, you name it. Money became more important than consumer rights, human rights, and child rights. The play is about when one corporation is buying another corporation, and it’s a fight between the old world and new world.

Ito Aghayere (Photo Credit: Ito Aghayere’s Facebook Page)

My character [Jacqueline Blount] played a lawyer who was working both sides of the deal and trying to find her way in as a black woman in the financial industry. Essentially going about it unethically, and having no remorse whatsoever because she had to deal with all of the negatives with being a minority, not only as a woman but as a black woman. For me that was one of the most salient points as a black woman in 2018, thinking about what it meant for a black woman in 1986 to be able to find power. The only way she could do it was through the system which was to mass money and get power.

The play wasn’t a polemic; it didn’t cast certain people in a bad light or a good light, it illuminated the system for what it was, for what it would become. At the end of the play, there’s this moment where the main character prophesied that this is how you can make money from the housing market. You tell people they can be lent the money that they need to buy a house and all of a sudden you have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people owning homes. From his perspective, he sees it as a nirvana moment where all of a sudden the American dream is available to everybody. But we all know, we sit on the side of history that is post the 2008 housing collapse. We understand that at the end of the day the only people who will make money are the corporations.

I’m biased, but I think it’s one of the most brilliant plays written last year. Partly because it’s difficult to look in the mirror where it comes to our desire for more and the religion of money that we don’t like to acknowledge that we subscribe to.

Ito Aghayere (Photo Credit: Ito Aghayere’s Facebook Page)

GQ: How did “Junk” impact you from a personal financial standpoint?

IA: It didn’t change any of my views regarding my finances. My immigrant parents raised me [that] if money is a religion to some, in my household being frugal is a religion to us. Excess is not something I learned growing up with my parents.

Regarding research for the role, I read several excellent books. “The Unwinding” by George Packer, that’s a great book and so many others about the nature of the working middle class and how they got left behind.

GQ: As a millennial, what are some of the 21st-century issues facing your generation?

IA: At the forefront, what comes to mind is apathy. I think apathy will kill more people in our lifetime than any other issue. I won’t cruise into or prescribe for my generation why people are apathetic about certain things. However, it is one thing to be informed or seemingly informed about something, and it’s another thing entirely to do something with that information. I think that is where the missing link is, and our ability to know that things are going wrong, and then our ability to take action, and to do something with that information.

That’s not something unique to my generation. I think that’s the cost of being in an information era; there is an endless supply of information out there that you become fatigued and want to turn it off. The desire to turn it off leads to apathy, which is, “There is nothing I can do anyway. Therefore I’m going to take care of mine and take care of me.” That is what I think is dangerous, that is how dictators take over, that is how democracy dies, and you forget that you have an impact.

GQ: What’s next?

IA: I hope to be on Broadway this fall; we are working on that now.

gwendolyn quinn (hair)
Gwendolyn Quinn

Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media strategist and consultant with a career spanning more than 25 years. She covers entertainment, travel, and lifestyle news. Quinn is a voting member of the Drama Desk. She is a contributor to NBCNews.com/NBCBLK.com, BlackEnterprise.com, HuffPost, and Medium.com, among others.

Gwendolyn Quinn
Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media consultant with a career spanning over 25 years. She is the founder and creator of the African American Public Relations Collective (AAPRC) and the Global Communicator. Her weekly columns, “Inside Broadway,” “The Living Legends Series,” and “My Person of the Week” are published with EURWEB.com. She is also a contributor to BE.com, BE Pulse (via Medium.com) and the Huffington Post. Quinn is also a contributor to "Souls Revealed" and "Handle Your Entertainment Business." She is the curator of The Living Legends Foundation’s “The State of Black Music and Beyond” essay series published on the Huffington Post. Contact her at [email protected]

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