London theatregoers have been able to follow the stage career of Noma Dumezweni for a long time now: She’s been seen in work as varied as Royal Shakespeare Company’s cycle of Shakespeare’s History plays, in the West End in work by Pirandello (with Ian McDiarmid) and at the Royal Court, where last December she valiantly and triumphantly stepped into the title role of a play called Linda just four days before the first preview—when its original star Kim Cattrall suddenly had to withdraw. Earlier this year, she made her directorial debut at the Royal Court with a play called I See You, co-produced with Johannesburg’s Market Theatre.
The powerhouse actress is also now in previews for the biggest London theatre show of this (or any) year: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The new play continues the Harry Potter story by bringing it to the theatre for the first official time and tells a brand-new eighth chapter in the saga. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling collaborated with playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany to bring the story directly to the stage.
“These last six months have been extraordinary, and I have to enjoy it,” the warm and modest Dumezweni says as she eats a salad dinner before a preview performance. “The possibilities [of life] are endless, and I’ve been so lucky. This is the one job in which I see every walk of life in—what a privilege. And I’m so lucky to be able to speak to it and talk to it, and find myself pushed out of my comfort zone.” That’s partly a reflection of the diverse casting and different backgrounds of the company itself.
The film versions, and, in particular, Emma Watson in the role of Hermione, provided a visual reference for many fans. So there was consternation in some quarters when producers announced Dumezweni as the inheritor to originate the role of adult Hermione onstage. In a story that resumes 19 years later from the final book, Rowling tweeted her public support of her casting when announced last December.
Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione �� https://t.co/5fKX4InjTH
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 21, 2015
And more recently:
We found the best actress and she's black. Bye bye, now. https://t.co/1fGmP5znHP
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 10, 2016
Dumezweni’s new role points to a new kind of refreshing diversity in the theatre: “You’ve got a beard and I’ve got Afro hair—we have different features, but we’re human,” she says simply.
My blessing, which I’ve finally acknowledged, is that I’m black.
“I’ve over all that now in the loveliest way,” says Dumezweni. “I’m the one who has the job and I’m owning it. We’re storytellers—and if the story is told well, you go with the form. My form is theatre, and I’m truly part of an ensemble. I’m working with theatre-makers who are the top of their game, and it’s extraordinary.
She’s warmly appreciative of the fact that there’s been no emphasis on star casting. “John [Tiffany] and the casting department just wanted people to tell the story. It wouldn’t work with names people knew already.”
But she’s delighted, for one thing, to be working again with Jamie Parker, who plays Harry Potter and with whom she previously appeared in Chichester in a play called The Coffee House, alongside Paul Bentall who is also in Harry Potter. “We’re all theatre animals!” she exclaims.
”When we came into the theatre for the five-week tech and watched it all coming together … I saw that something beautiful was cooking.”
She knows, of course, that the interest in her now is specifically because of Harry Potter. “Why we are sitting here now is because of this story,” she says. “I’m pleased you know about Linda and the other work I’ve done, but a lot of other people who have interviewed me don’t! We’re theatre creatures, and that’s the world we’re in.”
And that’s more appropriate than ever in talking about a theatrical appropriation of the story. Of course Harry Potter lived first on the page, where Dumezweni first came to it when she spotted lots of adults reading it. “I got curious,” she admits. “The only [blockbuster book] I’ve not rushed to read is Fifty Shades of Grey! But I grew up reading Roald Dahl and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and they’re parables for living. I’ve always been curious about the other worlds we can shift into in our imaginations.”
The world of witchcraft and wizardry recruited Dumezweni earlier last year, when she was was part of two workshops, first working with John Tiffany and Jack Thorne on the script and participating in a reading for J.K. Rowling. Later, she worked on a three-week workshop staging in September, before she was officially cast.
“At the end of that workshop John came up to me and said, ‘I want you to do it.’” The December announcement, however, moved her into a different gear: She was in the midst of her previously unscheduled appearance in Linda at the time, a play that she says shifted everything for her.
“I got the call from Michael [Longhurst, Linda’s director] on Wednesday, and I met the company and blocked the show on Friday and Saturday. Monday we did the first day of tech! On Tuesday it hit me, ‘What the f*ck have I done?’” But life and theatre is about taking risks, and she’s fearless onstage and off.
One of the fears of the show’s creators is keeping the details of the production under wraps. Audiences have been implored to keep the secrets about the play’s twists and revelations, and Dumezweni must, too. “The audience comes in knowing the characters to the marrow. But there’s one particular line I love hearing—because there are audible gasps after it is said!”
The writer of that line, Rowling, has been “beautifully supportive,” says Dumezwni. “I’m so humbled by that. She’s one of the people who are a true and natural leader. She’s someone who sparks life, and Harry Potter did that for so many people. She came to talk to the company after the first preview and said … she was overwhelmed—it reminded her of why she wrote this book, this story of family.”