Photographer: Marcelle Adriana
Stylist: Mariam Taiwo Sonekan
Set Designer: Tabitha Odutayo
Interview: Ines Shubshizky
Cherrelle looks super cozy in her colourful dressing gown when I meet her via Zoom on a Saturday morning. She tells me she didn’t get much sleep, but her energetic personality doesn’t show any sign of that. She’s truly a pleasure to talk to, and the conversation with her is equally deep and hilarious.
Hi Cherrelle, it’s so exciting to see you as part of The 47th ensemble. If you had to decide on one, would you choose stage or screen acting?
It’s so hard to choose because they are so different. Stage is kind of my craft and that’s where I learned everything I know. Screen is a completely different kind of acting. I think the beauty of stage acting is the sense of community. As a cast you have so many weeks together, you build this world with fellow creatives and with the other actors. It’s the conversations in the greenroom, in the rehearsal room, and the really beautiful moments when you’re on your lunch break. As terrible as we humans can certainly be sometimes, it shows me that at the same time we can be absolutely fantastic. When you’re working on screen, you have this sense of community too. You really have to really trust your team because you have to get it right in a few takes. I believe there’s something very powerful about just showing up and being ready to go like a coiled spring.
I imagine it to be very nerve-wracking to know that you only have one take.
It’s scary and exciting at the same time. It’s the same feeling as when you go on a roller coaster ride. You get excited when you reach the top of the ride and then you wait for the drop to happen. Feeling the energy of the audience is the most amazing thing. When there’s a heckler or someone with a really interesting laugh in the audience, it has an effect on us on stage. And I think, especially in this day and age where our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, it’s really special to have that sense of presence.
“When I dance as if no one is watching I’m not even on the music – I’m literally in the music.”
Was there a particular moment that made you want to become an actress?
I like this question a lot because then I get to share that I actually wanted to be a dancer before I became an actress. Dance was my foundation that showed me that I wanted to perform. One day I saw a performance of A Raisin in the Sun when I was in college, and I was so blown away. I had never been so touched before, and it just felt like magic. The actors were literally a few feet away from me, but I believed they were in Chicago. I was so deeply moved by this production that I wanted to tell these kinds of stories that had such a deep connection to the culture we are creating. The play basically felt like a special kind of storytelling, and I really wanted to learn that.
What do you think our world needs right now?
Love, all the way! And understanding and compassion. It may sound corny, but those qualities are worth gold right now. I think courage is the foundation for everything else. If you have courage and compassion for yourself, then you can have empathy and understanding for others. That’s what we need: the courage to have difficult conversations, and the courage and compassion to speak up, especially when someone else can’t. To have the courage and compassion to simply listen to the other person. To be patient, because sometimes it’s about taking up space, and sometimes it’s about sharing space. Sometimes it’s about giving up your own space because it’s time to give it to someone else. It’s a combination of those and it’s a constant movement. Life is not fixed in this way, but love is the backbone for every form of us as human beings, whether we move forward or not.
Are you optimistic there will be a change in this direction in the near future?
I have to be optimistic because otherwise what’s the point? Patrisse Cullors, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, said that the foundation of any social activist movement is love. Love and joy are the things we lack right now. First for ourselves, and then we create and allow that space for others. I really want to use my stories, my art and my voice simply as a support to heal myself, because I believe that art literally saves lives. I’ve seen it do that for others, and it’s been a vehicle for me to express my grief, my anger, my happiness, my joy. It is a space where I have found lifelong chosen family members, friends and colleagues whose work I can support and complement. Art can be healing as well as entertaining, but I think especially now that we have gone through the collective trauma of so many lockdowns, we need to use it as therapy to recalibrate ourselves.
“I think if you have courage and compassion for yourself, then you can have empathy and understanding for others”
What do you usually do when you are going through a tough time?
I have a very strong Buddhist faith and try to chant every day, which helps me a lot. It’s always important for me to remember that the voice in your head telling you that you are alone is not real. When we get to the bottom, we always think that we will feel that way forever. But that always passes. It helps to take it one step at a time and see every little progress as a victory. Essentially, I guess it’s not necessarily about overcoming negative feelings, but about facing them.
What has made you happy this week?
I went dancing last night. Do you know the saying ‘dancing as if no one is watching’? Last night I danced as if no one was watching. At some point I even got down low and ripped my pants.
What does it mean when you dance as if no one is watching?
It means that I throw my hands in the air, have my eyes closed, and every part of me is moving and sweating. It’s when I’m not even on the music – it’s when I’m literally in the music.
Do you consider yourself trendy?
I consider myself expressive in terms of what I wear, but I wouldn’t say I follow trends in that regard. I just do me. At the moment I’m seeing a big ’90s trend, and to be honest I think a lot of those clothes are horrible. I’ve always loved thrifting and always found the clothes I found in vintage stores much more interesting than the ones from big brands. My beloved jumpsuit that I tore up last night, for example, I got from a vintage store. These pieces have a history and are timeless. I just pick them out and wear them as if they were brand new. Many of them I have had for years. I follow what I want to wear and I encourage everyone to do the same.
“When you eventually get to a state where you are without fear, that’s what freedom is all about.”
Do you believe that less in life is usually more?
I come from a family of hoarders and have definitely inherited this inclination. I attribute it to having a migrant background where you just stock up on things. I’m definitely aware of it, though, and I’m working on overcoming it. It’s difficult because I feel like everything has an emotional memory. I blame my ancestors for being forcibly relocated and feeling like they had to carry everything with them. So now that we do actually have things, I feel like I have to hold on to them (laughs).
What qualities do you admire in others?
I admire when people have the courage to be themselves. To me, that means they can just be their raw, authentic selves. Every part of them is just their pure being or the work they produce. I admire when people explore that plunge into a feeling that they know is scary, but they’re doing it anyway. When you do that, you eventually get to a state where you are without fear. That is what freedom is all about. Courage is not just about brute strength. Having courage also means being soft and allowing room for vulnerability.
Cherrelle is currently on stage at The Old Vic in ‘The 47th’, which runs until the 28th of May.