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Actor finds inspiration in Shakespeare's tormented characters

Adjoa Andoh of 'Bridgerton' fame tells ASU audience: 'Art gave me a voice'

Actor Adjoa Andoh raises her hands as she speaks at ASU

Renowned Shakespearean actor Adjoa Andoh, now popular for her role as Lady Danbury on "Bridgerton," was the keynote speaker for “Rising: A RaceB4Race Symposium,” sponsored by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at ASU and Shakespeare Centre London. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

January 30, 2024

The actor and director Adjoa Andoh grew up as a Black child in an almost wholly white village in the rural south of England.

That sense of “otherness” inspired some of the greatest successes in her acclaimed career — co-directing a production of Shakespeare’s “Richard II” with a cast entirely of women of color in 2019, and, in 2023, directing and starring in “Richard III” as the only Black actress in the cast.

Andoh described her production to an Arizona State University audience on Jan. 26:

“In Richard II, I wanted to address who owns the narrative of the creation of England. … Hence we told Shakespeare's iconic love letter to England through the mouths and traditions of the colonized nations who were obliged to contribute to its flourishing,” she said.

“For me, the broad theatricality of Shakespeare for the people was my friend.”

Her talk, “An Evening with Adjoa Andoh,” was the keynote event for “Rising: A RaceB4Race Symposium,” sponsored by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at ASU and Shakespeare Centre London. 

RaceB4Race is an ongoing conference series and professional network community by and for scholars of color working on issues of race in premodern literature, history and culture.

Andoh is one of Britain’s leading actors and is currently enormously popular for her role as Lady Danbury in the Netflix show “Bridgerton.”

She is an associate artist at the Royal Shakespeare Company and senior associate artist at The Bush Theatre. A BBC radio actor for over 30 years, she is also has performed in more than 150 audiobooks.

Andoh told the crowd that the job of artists is the spiritual work of healing.

“Every text investigated, every design agreed upon, every score composed, every eyebrow arched, every joke delivered — all are working toward the healed soul,” she said.

The daughter of an English mother and a Ghanaian father, Andoh initially went to law school, but dropped out to pursue acting.

“I joined a Black women's group in 1982, discovered that Black women wrote books, packed in my law degree, joined an acting class run by an African American woman in the group, got a job on a play of hers and moved directly to London to Black people in Brixton. … Heaven.

“Art opened my eyes. Art gave me a voice. Art gave me a purpose to tell the stories.”

Of Richard III, she said: “Shakespeare gives us a person, if you care to look for it, who is, in his opening conversation with the audience, making a plea to be seen for who he is and not what he looks like. He's broken by the prejudices and indignities heaped upon him.

“His first instinct is to be a lover. And when that is denied him, he becomes what everyone expects of someone who looks like him — he becomes a villain.

“It's a funny play, a gory play, a tender play full of love and betrayal and a longing to be seen and heard. That's what I leaned into.”

During the Q&A session, an audience member asked Andoh how she stayed motivated when the work was hard.

“I have a bird song app. You know why? Because there's a whole other world going on on another level out there,” she said.

“Your life is supposed to be joy. All this other stuff is putting food on the table. But your life is supposed to be joy.”

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