Sharon D Clarke is an award-winning British actor and singer whose CV embraces Holby City and Doctor Who, mega-hit West End musicals such as We Will Rock You and blue-chip theatre roles. She won a best supporting actress Olivier in 2014 for James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner at the National Theatre and another this year for playing the lead in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s civil rights musical Caroline, Or Change at Chichester, Hampstead and in the West End. Most recently, she received rave reviews for her Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, which transfers to the West End this autumn. From Thursday she plays The Lady in Sheldon Epps’s Blues in the Night at London’s Kiln theatre until 7 September.
How do you feel about singing the blues over the summer?
I am really looking forward to it. Caroline and Linda were great roles, but they’re both quite angsty, they’re not joyous, carefree characters. So it’s nice putting on something that feels a bit lighter with the wonderful music of Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith. It’s fantastic jazz and blues music with superb close harmonies, and I adore singing in harmony.
How does it feel being directed by your wife, Susie McKenna?
It feels fabulous. People ask me all the time: “Is it weird working together?” But we fell in love working together at the Hackney Empire, so it’s a situation we’re very used to – and love. Also, it’s a chance to see her. When we’re both doing different shows we see each other very rarely, just on Sundays and Saturday mornings. So it’s actually lovely to be having a laugh during the day and working together.
In the past year you’ve had two huge back-to-back theatrical successes with Caroline, or Change and Death of a Salesman. Do you feel your time has come?
I have been at it a long time – since 1988 – and it does feel like at last things have come together. I’m a 30-year overnight sensation! It’s nice to be at the point where people call me and say, “Listen do you want to meet and have a chat about doing this show?”, rather than me continually auditioning, having to go in there and say: “OK, this is my piece, now do you want to hear me sing Killing Me Softly?”
Do you think the acting industry is becoming more diverse?
The minute someone asks me that question, I think we’re not there yet.
But do you see a change in the kind of parts you are offered?
I’ve been lucky. Because I do musical theatre as well as acting, I’m not sitting around waiting for straight parts I can be shoehorned into. I’ve seen change, but it is very slow. I attended my first Olivier awards in 1995, and at that point as black people, it was me and Adrian Lester in the room. Just the two of us. So to go to the Oliviers now and look around and see an array of creeds and colours, that warms my heart. But when people ask me what do we do about speeding up change, I say I’m just an actor trying to get a job, trying to keep food on my table, a roof over my head. We need to be looking at producers, casting directors, writers. We need these people to be thinking outside of the box. We need producers and directors to tell casting directors, your list is all white, bring me some people of colour. It’s up to the people in the industry, who actually have the power to do it, to make the change.
What’s been your favourite part ever?
It would have to be Caroline, my first lead in the West End. It’s such an amazing role; a wonderful singing role, but also there’s the depth of the character. I think it made quite a few people see me in a different light. People go, “Yes she sings,” but now they look at me as an actor, too.
Do you have a dream role?
My dream role was always Effy in Dreamgirls. That’s the only part I have ever really had my eye on. But when Dreamgirls did finally come to the West End, I was too old to play the part. There you go – as my mum has always said, what is for you, is for you. As for roles at the moment, I am quite happy to wait and see what comes my way. Everything up to now in my career has been a joy. If Quincy Jones wants to write a musical and put me in it, I’d be extra happy.
When did you first realise you wanted to be a performer?
When I first went with a friend to a local dance school in Clapton where a little Jewish lady called Ivy taught us ballet and tap. My first panto was Babes in the Woods when I was six, and that was it – I was absolutely hooked. The only other thing I’m actually trained in is social work. That was something my mum and dad wanted me to do, so I’d have something to fall back on, in case acting and singing didn’t work out. And, you know, there is a social worker in me. I just really love talking to people. Before Holby City, which was when people started to recognise me, I’d be on the bus and I’d be the person people start telling their troubles to. I’d be the one telling kids, no, you can’t talk to your mum like that. I still counsel my mates. It’s what I love to do.
What advice would you give to a young, black person wanting to become an actor today?
I would advise them to get out there and see as much theatre as they possibly can. Go to drama school if you have the wherewithal, but also get out and see the craft in action. I always say to young people that they should usher: put yourself in a theatrical situation, in the building where you see actors coming in and out. You get some pocket money and you are privileged to watch a show each night which you can use as a masterclass.
What makes you happy?
My people. My family, my good friends. Spending time with them, laughing, cooking; I love to cook, love to eat. I love to have people around the table, chatting. That’s great joy for me. Ultimate happiness.
What about what makes you angry?
Injustice and some of the madness I see happening in the world. I don’t know what to do with it, and I know that as a gay, black female I’ll have to fight for my rights at some point. I look at what’s happening across the pond with women’s rights and abortion rights and think, OK, if the Brexit thing happens, and we don’t have a body overseeing us, what’s going to happen to all the rights we fought hard for, over the years? They are slowly being taken away from us. The world just seems so topsy-turvy at the moment. It makes me very afraid.
Have you felt threatened recently?
Susie and I went on the anti-Trump march last month and we were walking back up Whitehall past a pub and there were a couple of guys outside who started shouting racist, homophobic stuff at us. We let it pass and they continued, so we started to answer back. A policeman turned around and said: “All right, ladies, keep it down.” And I thought, hang on, these guys have been going off at us and you’ve said nothing to them. Another time, I was working in Caroline at the Playhouse and I walked through Trafalgar Square when Tommy Robinson’s Brexit rally was on. I was just trying to get into work and I felt this hatred coming towards me. These people did not agree with me being on the street. I’ve never felt hatred in London up to now. I don’t want to be living in a city where I don’t feel safe to walk around. That saddens me.
Does anything give you hope?
Young people, like the young girl who talks about climate change…
Yes, young people like her are fabulous. Long may they reign. To those young people I say, I will uplift you and support you. And I thank God for them, because without them, we are lost.