"It's a real privilege," says Vongai Shava, "to feel like a representative of your race. Particularly with a background like mine." She says this in reference to her upcoming work at the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina. "I certainly don't want skin color to be the only thing that defines me," she goes on, "but it's as much a part of my identity as everything else. It'd be foolish not to acknowledge it."
"Think the movie '300', except it's an African Tribe of all female warriors…"
The play she is acting in is called Black Sparta. It will run in Winston-Salem, NC, in August after a Manhattan run in July. "It's pretty badass. Think the movie 300, except it's an African Tribe of all female warriors, and they're fighting off the colonial French army in 1894," she adds, "I didn't know about them before auditioning, now I'm proud to bring these hidden figures to light." Penned by Layon Gray (NAACP/Broadway League Fellowship/NY AUDELCO Award Winner), Black Sparta is about the Dahomey Warriors, an all-female military regiment of the Fon peopleof the Kingdom of Dahomey (Present day Republic of Benin). They are the only documented all-female official front-line combat arms military unit in modern history. "It's hard to believe that this story isn't better known," Vongai continues, "but we're changing that." The Dahomey will also be the subject of an upcoming TV series produced by NCIS's Charles F. Johnson.
Vongai's journey to this point has been a roundabout one. Her background is profoundly international. "I was born in Zimbabwe, and raised in the United Kingdom and China," she details, "I grew up in international schools that taught me to be a citizen of the world. It's part of what made me want to be an actor, the opportunity to share people's stories. I got my bachelors at Brunel University in London, then came to New York to train at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts." An impressive resume, AADA is oldest English-speaking acting school in the world, and has produced stars such as Robert Redford, Jessica Chastain, and Adrien Brody. "It was an honor to walk through those doors everyday," she says of her time at the Academy, "I loved it. But at some point you do have to starting working."
Photo by: Mark Wyville
And work she does. Her projects have included ongoing work with Torrent Theatre Company, developing a play called Soraya's Eyes. "The play brings to light the issue of genital mutilation and female abuse in Eastern Africa," she explains, "we're all about networking and development at Torrent, and I would love to work on the play in its next stages." In addition, she worked on the viral video Time Well Spent which saw renowned poet Max Stossel lamenting the impersonality of technology.
Further credits include her work in The Real Page Turner a series screened at the Tribeca Screening Room, (currently in post production awaiting shopping to networks), and The Refugee Plays (as part of the FRIGID NYC Festival). "Refugee Plays was quite the project," she says, "it was a collection of shorts based on real-life refugees. They started writing it during the election last year, and… well… it feels even more relevant now." Hyena, the play Shava was in, explored rape as the oldest weapon of war. "I played Asja, a young Congolese refugee who had been brutally raped, in a processing center, awaiting transfer to a refugee camp," she goes on, "It was the most non-naturalistic of the plays. All the plays explored themes of identity, statelessness, basic needs and, desperation. These are such important issues, and I feel blessed to help shed some light on them." One review described Vongai as "engrossing in [her]ability to portray both fragility and strength on stage." She also recently completed work on short film An American Assault, in which she co-starred with Ariana DeBose (Hamilton, A Bronx Tale) and Tad Wilson (Les Miserables).
Photo by: Jody Christopherson
But back to the festival at hand, what can we expect to see? "An ensemble of powerful warrior women. It's the first time I've been cast in such a physically strong and demanding role. It's great to be challenged in so many new ways," she nods, then laughs, "I don't want to give too much away, otherwise you won't come and see it! I mean, all the spoilers are there in the history books, but it's the experience you come for, right? And the actors too… hopefully." She laughs again.
Held biennially, the National Black Theatre Festival is now in its fifteenth season. Hosted every year by the North Carolina Black Repertory Company (NCBRC), the festival was founded by Larry Leon Hamlin in 1989. Their declared goal is to unite black theatre companies from around the world, and bring them together to ensure their visibility. "It's a magical opportunity to honor the past of black theatre and welcome in its future. It's amazing to have the platform to share and celebrate black stories. I get to follow in the footsteps of those before me like Phylicia Rashad and Denzel Washington. I can't wait to go and be a part of that community for a few days." The festival runs July 31st to August 5th, and it's extensive programming list can be found on its website.
"We are living in such an amazing time for representation in storytelling"
"I think our duties, if that's the right word, as artists, have evolved lately," Vongai ponders aloud, "We are living in such an amazing time for representation in storytelling. The world of streaming has also gifted us with more ways to showcase ourselves the way we want to be seen. I respect Scandal, Black-Ish and Master of None for giving voices to minorities, the ignored, and people with disabilities. Now is the time for us to assert our truths. That is the direction we need to go in." She thinks a little more, then adds, "As Viola Davis said in her Oscar speech: 'I became an artist, and thank God I did because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.' She's right and that's why I'm grateful to be an artist and creator."
Vongai is certainly not short of work. As soon as she's done playing a warrior in North Carolina, she will be returning to New York to work on a film about blended families and immigration. "More than anything, it's about the concept of home. Which is complicated for me, given my childhood." She is also planning on developing projects of her own, using her own life, faith and spirituality as inspiration. "It's still in the pipeline," she admits, "You probably won't see anything staged until 2018. But I love that long gestatory process. It's my first time producing which is both exciting and terrifying. I'm collaborating with some of the badass goddesses in my life, and we're drawing inspiration from the Women's March, Eve Ensler's work with the V-Day Movement and, one of my favorite books, Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic." Exciting stuff indeed. Be sure to catch Vongai Shava in Black Sparta this Summer.