The Liquid Plain runs until March 29th at the Signature Theatre. Set on the docks of late 18th century Rhode Island and based on the tales of true events, the narrative centers around runaway slaves Adjua and Dembi. Winner of the 2012 Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play, The Liquid Plain brings to life a group of people whose stories have been erased from history. Ito Aghayere portrays one of those people, Dembi, in this play.
Ito is absolutely brilliant in the role of Dembi. Her portrayal of the cross dressing runaway slave is truly transcendent. Aghayere delivers a star turning performance in this very difficult play. After performing opposite Ito in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Classical Theatre of Harlem, I can certainly attest to the range on this young actress and I expect we will all be seeing much more from her in the future! I was very excited to ask Ito a few questions about her process and the production. Take a look:
AIC: Who is Dembi?
Ito: Dembi is an outsider. Dembi is more romantic than Adjua, but it’s not a soft or poetic romanticism. He’s tough and so are his dreams. He’s also almost as sexy as he is smart, and he’s very smart, don’t let the southern accent fool you. His past weighs heavily on him, but even when he’s tormented by it, he prides himself on carrying it lightly.
AIC: What was the casting process like?
Ito: It’s strange that of all the auditions I’ve fretted about in the past, this role was so far outside my scope that there was nothing I could worry about. I had to bring my full interpretation of who this man/woman was and simply let that be enough. This meant being off book, dressing the part and connecting to the one thing that Dembi and I had in common. What connected me to this role was his “otherness” – the reality of him existing outside of the mold predetermined for his identity. I know what it is to struggle with where to fit and what that fit is, we all have in some way or another. The casting process for me was the exploration of this idea…delving into what it means to be something that others would say you are not.
AIC: What do you do to prepare for the rehearsal process?
Ito: I read a lot. The wealth of knowledge and the sheer amount of research in the area of the transatlantic slave trade is overwhelming. Thank God for dramaturgs!
AIC: What are the biggest similarities and differences between you and your character Dembi?
Ito: Biggest similarities I find between me and Dembi is our resilience, strength and survival instincts. Biggest difference…I like dresses. It’s safe to say Dembi does not.
AIC: What has surprised you the most about working with the director, Kwame Kwei-Armah?
Ito: After a hard rehearsal one night, Kwame told me that after this play, I’d be afraid of nothing. He was right. Under his direction, this play has taught me how to be brave.
AIC: What has it been like to work directly with the playwright, Naomi Wallace?
Ito: Naomi’s generosity is unmatched. It was an artist’s dream getting to work with her in the room, investigating the text with her insight and research to aid us in the search for truth in each and every moment of her play.
AIC: Your background is sort of nontraditional as an actor. You used to work in the White House! When did you first decide to become a professional actor?
Ito: Politics and acting are not mutually exclusive occupations…I love the nature of choice: why people vote or don’t, why they remain engaged or claim indifference. It comes back to the nature of storytelling. Working with politicians taught me a lot about the power of stories that challenge, persuade and incite people to action. I’ve always loved the theatre and being on stage telling stories became a way for me to challenge the status quo. It became official after graduating from Duke University. After 4 years, with degrees in political science and theater studies, I decided to skip law school and pursue a career as a professional actor with a scholarship at Columbia University School of the Arts. Best decision I’ve ever made.
AIC: In addition to theatre, you’ve been featured on television several times. Do you hope to do more TV/film?
Ito: Absolutely! I love theatre for its immediacy and the intimacy of engaging an audience with a story that is unfolding in the moment. However, there’s a beauty to television and film that allows for subtlety and nuance in a performance to be magnified 100-fold. It’s yet another expression of storytelling that I love because it exercises creative muscles in me that are different from those used in the art of telling stories on stage.
AIC: How has your background as a Nigerian affected your work in and your understanding of The Liquid Plain?
Ito: It’s been enlightening to learn about how the history of Nigeria at the time of the transatlantic slave trade connects to the history of my family. I don’t have all the answers in terms of who in my family was there at the time and why we remained in Africa and escaped the worst parts of the middle passage, however asking these questions has led on an interesting journey into the history of my family, heritage and origin.
AIC: What advice do you have for aspiring actors, particularly artists of color?
Ito: Don’t stop doing. Be kind to yourself and others. Read plays and playwrights that inspire you.
AIC: Our blog is called “Arts in Color.” What does it mean to you to be an artist of color?
Ito: It means I’m a part of an amazing group of men and women who are changing the demographic, style, and stories coming out of the creative industry.
AIC: What is next for Ito Aghayere? How can our readers stay up to date with you? Please include website information, social media links, etc.