Jacqueline Lawton: Give us a little background on where you’re from originally, where you grew up, and how you ended up where you are now…
Akiba Abaka: I was born in Kingston, Jamaica. My family moved to Boston, Massachusetts when I was nine years old. So, I grew up in southern Jamaica (because we lived between Kingston and St. Catherine) and Boston. I came to the theatre as an actor with dreams of someday writing and directing like Spike Lee and Steven Spielberg. The idea was that I would learn how to act in the theatre and then move to Hollywood and be a big movie star, then once I had made enough money I would start my entertainment empire and “revolutionize the industry”. At least this is what I wrote in my sixth grade career development essay. Back then revolutionize meant provide more movies for artists and audiences of color. Today I would have to say the revolution has begun?? And I am a part of it, though not in film, because I am the founder of a small professional theatre in Boston called Up, You Mighty Race. Inspired by my experience working for August Wilson on a production of Jitney at the Huntington Theatre, I decided to start a theatre troupe that would “go back into the annals of literature and revive classic black plays and present them to our community, thereby resurrecting a new pride, self-esteem and hope for the people in our community”. That was the original mission statement, written by a very optimistic me at 20 years old—and I am still optimistic, though the work is much harder these days.
JL: Why did you decide to get into theater? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
AA: Well, I decided that theatre would be my profession rather early in life. I was a high school intern at a theater in my neighborhood called the Strand Theater, and the big road shows and gospel musicals would come to town. I would stand in the back of the orchestra and watch them and wish that I was either on stage or the producer—because I thought that those were the people who made it all happen—and the producer always wore the best suits. In 1997 or 98 Tyler Perry came to my neighborhood theater for the first time with one of his early plays—a musical called I Know I’ve Been Changed. It was one of the most complete and powerful pieces of theatre I had ever seen at the time—and in my opinion among his best work—but what struck me was the way he would walk from backstage to the theatre lobby. He walked slowly and humbly like he was a servant of the theater—and when I found out that he was the director And the producer, I said when I open my entertainment empire, I want to walk like that. So, while I was inspired by many great people and many great plays, that first image of Tyler Perry and his play I Know I’ve Been Changed really let me know that I could be all that I had dreamed of.
JL: What is unique about being an artist where you live?
AA: The unique thing about Boston for me as a theatre artist is that there is not a tremendous amount of theatre here. The ground is still very, very fertile and a diverse section of the audience market is still untapped. It’s like sitting on an immense oil reserve here and we are all just scratching the surface. So while I am struggling to build capacity at Up, You Mighty Race and find the money to do the level of artistry that I desire, I am still in the game because I know the audience is there.
JL: You are a director and the Founder of Up, You Mighty Race. It isn’t easy to start a theatre company! What inspired you and what do you hope to achieve?
AA: Well, my inspirations for Up, You Mighty Race is my whole life, my entire upbringing inspired this theatre. Lynn Nottage has a play called Crumbs from the Table of Joy and when I think about my raison d'etre that title pretty much sums it up.
JL: What was the first show you directed and what lesson did you learn that remains with you today?
AA: The first show I directed was a 10 minute play I wrote called Somebody. It was about a girl in 10th grade that stands up to guy in her class who is bullying her—it was really about me. What I learned from that experience is that I must never shy away from conflict.
JL: Who nominated you to be a Young Leaders of Color Award Recipient?
AA: I was nominated by Adele Traub a theatre colleague I worked with on the Host Committee of the TCG Conference.
JL: What excited you most about taking part in the conference and the program?
AA: Everything excited me! Showing off Boston to the industry excited me. I love my town, it fits me like a glove. Where the YLC program is concerned meeting the fellow cohort and learning from Emilya Cachapero and Teresa Eyring excited me, gave me butterflies in my stomach all the way till the first session. I am so happy that there is people like Emilya and Teresa in this industry—they are special.
JL: What was the most valuable lesson you learned from the conference?
AA: Shun the non-believers—thank you Seth Godin.
JL: What are some of the challenges you have faced as an artist of color? What have you learned from these experiences?
AA: I think the biggest challenge I have faced as an artist of color is that phantom belief that our work shouldn’t be funded or properly cultivated unless it serves a larger, and often times commercially coopting mission. There have been other challenges I am sure but that for me is the most debilitating one. What I have learned from experiencing these challenges is that I will only accept yes for an answer, that I should trust my gut, and listen to my ancestors because it is they who originally lead me here.
JL: What advice do you have for other young artists of color in the theatre?
AA: Invest in yourself. Invest in your dream. Build your network and your name by serving the underserved, not all that glitters is gold, so look for big things in small packages.
JL: What’s up next for you and where can keep up with your amazing work?
AA:The next play I will direct and produce is the US premiere of Coups and Calypsos by M. Nourbese Philip, a Trinidadian-Canadian playwright. Stay in touch by liking the company on Facebook: Up You Mighty Race Company and follow me on Twitter @Ms. Abaka.
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!