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Tameka Empson

Published 17 April 2008

Nothing quite prepares you for meeting Tameka Empson, currently playing the audience-dwelling Mrs Aphrodite in The Big Life. Her diminutive stature belies a character big enough to envelope entire continents were it let out of control. It seems the only way to calm such an unpredictable personality is to satiate it with a comforting mug of hot chocolate topped off with a touch of cream. Even then the vivacious nature of this born star bursts at the seams, as Matthew Amer found out…

Weather does not often take human form. Clouds generally prefer remaining as masses of sky-based precipitation to donning shellsuits and wandering down the high street. Thunder is very rarely seen enjoying a pint of bitter at his local. But, if a whirlwind were to take on human guise it would not, contrary to popular belief, become a snooker player, instead it may display the exact characteristics of Tameka Empson.

The actress-cum-comedian is an irresistible force with seemingly more energy than a platoon of caffeine-enriched Duracell bunnies. I’ve barely arrived at the stage door of the Apollo, where The Big Life is currently playing, than I’m being whisked off again, through back streets, across teaming roads, and into any coffee shop but Starbucks in search of hot chocolate.

“I’m in a box, playing a 60 year old Jamaican woman! I’m not bitter.”

Empson is currently starring in The Big Life, a musical based loosely on Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. Four immigrants, coming to Britain’s shores on the Windrush, make a pact that for the first three years of their new existence they will devote their lives to bettering themselves and will refrain from betting, booze and carnal relations with women. Unsurprisingly, this is not as easy as it may seem. As Empson eloquently puts it, “one by one they fall for the ladies”. Her voice is tinged with comic resentment as she adds, “Unfortunately not me, because I’m in a box, playing a 60 year old Jamaican woman! I’m not bitter.” As she utters the final phrase, Empson takes a scowling sip of hot chocolate before breaking out in a wide smile and releasing an infectious laugh on an unsuspecting coffee shop.

In The Big Life, Empson’s performance rarely comes from the stage as her character, Mrs Aphrodite, is not actually part of the action. Instead, much like the Muppets Statler and Waldorf, she comments on the action from the auditorium, taking the viewpoint of one looking back on past events. Unlike her stage-dwelling colleagues, Empson doesn’t have the luxury of a script to refer back to. Every word uttered by Mrs Aphrodite is Empson’s own work and changes every night, determined by the reaction of the audience. “It is refreshing, because no one show is the same. The show you see is the same, but for me, no show is the same, because I’m working with the audience response.”

At the Theatre Royal Stratford East, where The Big Life started life, audiences were prepared for the interaction with the cast; they were a local audience visiting a local theatre. Empson is aware that West End audiences can be slightly different: “I thought they would be more reserved, so I changed my part a bit; certain things I explain about certain terminology, getting everyone involved.” In fact, the opportunity to improvise each night is one that Empson relishes almost as much as the cream floating atop her warming beverage like a whirling dairy cloud of refined joy. “It is something that makes me stay on my toes. It’s a learning experience Matthew darling”, she adds in a mock-luvvy voice. “I’m growing. I’m stretching. I’m stretching and growing. Excelling. Enjoying. It’s a hard job, darling. It’s sooo hard. Hahaha!”

Originally, Empson auditioned for one of the ‘onstage’ roles but, due to work commitments, she would have been unable to join rehearsals until a very late stage. Undeterred, director Clint Dyer invented the role of Mrs Aphrodite for her. “I wanted to dance and sing, but Clint said ‘No. You’re in the box. They’ll see you as a 60 year-old Jamaican woman.’ But don’t worry, I’m not bitter!” Empson finishes the phrase that turns into her comedy mantra for the interview with another sip of hot chocolate and a soon-to-be-trademark cheeky scowl.

The arrival of The Big Life in the West End, along with Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen, currently playing at the Garrick, has heralded a watershed for Black British theatre. The Big Life is the first ‘home grown’ Black British musical, and Elmina’s Kitchen is the first production by a Black British playwright, to be staged in the West End. Empson recognises how important this milestone is, she is careful not to lose track of the purpose of theatre. “I think the theatre is a night out for everybody and I know that some Black people don’t go to the theatre because they feel that there isn’t anything out there for them. But I think the point is that people – Black or White – open their minds and appreciate a piece of art.”

“It’s a hard job, darling. It’s sooo hard.”

Though The Big Life is an up-beat tale with more jollity than a Santa convention, it does broach issues which affected the first generation of Afro-Caribbean immigrants such as racism, lack of acceptance and the difficulty finding work. Balancing these issues with a musical romp of a show sounds an extremely tough task. Empson explains: “I think it is very important and I hope that more shows can follow and give more of an insight. But I think the reason we didn’t dwell on the negative side is because we’ve moved on from that now. Now it is about celebrating.”

The celebratory music in the show, which Empson enjoys each night, but is not allowed to join in with, it billed as Ska. In fact, it draws on a host of styles; a mixture, as demonstrated by Empson enthusiastically, and with just a hint of over-acting, stirring her hot chocolate, which has never seemed so versatile a drink as it is today. Although the characters meet on the Windrush, they come from a variety of backgrounds, leading to a collection of musical styles including Calypso, Tap, Ska and R&B.

The Big Life won’t be the first Ska-based musical that Empson has appeared in, surprising as that may be, as she had previously been allowed onto the stage in Madness musical Our House. As every professional musical actress does, she arrived at the audition in tight, fitted jeans and walked into a room not dissimilar to a scene from Fame. “There was a girl with her leg up in the sky… wearing leg-warmers!”

The usually over-the-top but entirely in control Empson goes missing when talking about her time in Our House. It isn’t singing and dancing on the West End stage that threatens her cool, nor the fact that she was filming her hit comedy series 3 Non-Blondes during the day before performing at night – “I would just finish, run like mad to the Cambridge theatre, do the show, go home, have a cup of tea, wind down, go to bed about 1.30/2.00 and then get up again at five or six. I was tired. I was very, very tired.” – but the fact that she missed out on the chance to meet the one man who, just by the mere mention of his name, can make Empson’s cheekbones rise inconceivably high on her face: Mr Ian Wright.

The footballer-turned-TV presenter came to Our House while filming Saturday evening game show ‘I’d Do Anything’ for BBC1. Sadly for Empson, she had fallen awkwardly and hurt her back the Thursday before filming. Fighter though she is, the company manager wouldn’t let her perform and Empson missed out on the chance to meet possibly the one person in the world who could make her blush. All was not lost though, she did get a call from Wrighty while she was relaxing in the bath; “I tell you, there were more than bubbles!” In an effort to control her rising cheekbones and glowing face, Empson takes charge of the situation: “I really hate being girly. I hate it. Change the subject.”

Which we do, to whether Empson sees herself as an actress or a comedian – “There are no labels that fit me, darling!” (Spoken with a flourish and a smirk). Empson has been seen in musicals, plays and on television. If she had had her way, she would have also been seen strutting her stuff on Strictly Come Dancing but, sadly for the nation, that delight was not to be. “They weren’t ready for me. I would have been really hot stuff. I’m not bitter because [Natasha Kaplinski] got on the show. Why would I be? I’m West End, darling. West End!”

“I’m West End, darling. West End!”

Though she may not categorise herself, she does harbour the ambition to appear in an action film and sees herself as the Bond girl who “you didn’t think could do it… but did it.” She also has some action star credentials: “I’m not being boastful here, but I’m a very good driver and I’ve got trophies at home… go-carting trophies, but they’re trophies all the same.” In fact, an all-action, feisty pocket-dynamo probably wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for Empson, though she did recently miss out at one audition for a top action flick: “I think they were a bit heightist”.

3 Non-Blondes, which started life on BBC3 before making the leap to terrestrial television, has proved a huge comic hit. The theory behind the show is quite simple, Empson, along with Ninia Benjamin and Jocelyn Jee Esien, take their own comic characters onto the streets to see how people react to them. The theory is a little daunting: “The street is your stage. There’s no lighting, there’s no nothing. It’s you and them.” Unlike other hidden camera shows, the joke is not made at the expense of the public, it is the characters that provide the butt. As Empson explains, “For me, what is funny are people’s reactions to us; that’s what is funny to me. The public don’t want to tell you to move. They play along with you, and the more that they do it, the more that you yourself want to laugh.”

Though the glamour of film is attractive – “you get picked up in the morning and get hash browns and beans” – Empson has an honest love of live stage work and a philosophical attitude to the difficulties of live performance. “You have to really appreciate actors in theatres: you could have had one hell of a day; you could have crashed your car, you could have had a whole lot of headache, but you still have to perform a real good show, because you don’t want to short change the audience.”

“If you want to be in comedy, you need to be serious about being in comedy.”

Empson is a curious character; outrageous, yet embarrassable, hilarious, yet serious. Her outward, TV-persona really is only one side of her as, when speaking to her, she constantly surprises… and not just with amusing remarks. It is no accident that the wise-cracking, wide-grinning non-blonde is becoming a force, both on stage and on screen. Behind the laughter is a performer who is extremely driven: “I think that whatever you are doing, you need to be serious about it. If you want to be in comedy, you need to be serious about being in comedy. If you want to do knitting, you’ve got to be serious about knitting. You’ve got to put the work in. Me, I would like to go into directing and producing; to have some kind of control. I’m happy as a performer, but I’d like to do more… but I know some people are heightist!”

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