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Cherrelle Skeete on bringing American politics to the British stage in 'The 47th'

Skeete portrays Tina Flournoy in Mike Bartlett's play.

Ayanna Prescod
Ayanna Prescod

Cherrelle Skeete is playing one of the most important people in the American White House. The British actress, currently starring in Mike Bartlett’s The 47th at the Old Vic, has transformed into Tina Flournoy — Vice President Kamala Harris’s trusty Chief of Staff. The play is set in the future and imagines Harris going head-to-head with former President Donald Trump in the 2024 presidential election.

Skeete, who made her West End debut in The Lion King, makes her return to the famous theatre 11 years after she first played there in The 24 Hour Plays. London Theatre caught up with her to discuss her new show, American politics, and what she hopes audiences take away.

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How did you land the role of Tina?

I taped for it, had a recall, and then I got the job. It’s as simple as that. I think they literally had two weeks to cast the whole thing. It was pulled together very quickly. We assembled and put this show together in six weeks, and pre-production was very intense.

I didn't know much about Tina Flournoy at all. I had to Google her, and there isn't much about her personally on the Internet. I know that is best by choice, I suppose. She’s purely about the work. She is purely about serving and being of service to the state. That is literally what she does.

She's not interested in sharing her personality out there, but she's an incredible force. She's the person that's been around for decades. People didn't know that she was around presidents who have come and gone at the White House, doing what she needs to do. She’s really fascinating, actually.

How were you able to effectively transform into a person you couldn’t find information on?

I've watched a few bits of her talking, like when she's in debates. As an artist, I'm imagining those private moments that she might have had with Kamala or, as two Black women, how they would reason with each other. Then she's very good at the face. Her professional face is really, really important.

I think taking what I could from images, trying to connect the dots in knowing that she is from the South and she's got this incredible career as someone who's been in the White House for a very long time. She's there for support, but also as someone who is a very respected advisor within the White House. So just taking that in terms of her internal status and building on that.

I am not of the same age as Tina. There was very much artistic license there, but I'm imagining in this universe how she might be. It's just trying to take the essence of just being this really important, high-status, incredible, powerful woman who does a lot behind the scenes, but she's really confident and comfortable in that position, and running with that.

How have British audiences reacted to the staging of American politics?

Because we know who Trump is, who [Vice President] Kamala Harris is, and who [President] Biden is, there's this curiosity and fascination. We’re able to reflect on how it impacts us as the UK, but also examine the similarities as well. There is a lot to compare to what we have going on over here at the same time, so that has really pulled people in.

What is your favorite moment on stage?

There is a moment in the piece where we are depicting the storming of the Capitol, and that's pretty exhilarating. We are rushing Kamala off the stage and it's just chaos on stage. To be able to depict some of that in a theatre is pretty cool. I'm not even in the full extent of that; I'm just watching part of it on the screen. But there's a fire extinguisher and people running; it's just anarchy!

What is the camaraderie like with your fellow cast members?

It's amazing! We support each other. When we were coming up to tech, we're grabbing each other to run lines, we're having as many little conversations as we can in terms of building character and character relationships. The hope is that you can build those strong bonds with the rest of your company, because it means that the work is just going to be 10 times better because you have that level of trust on stage.

I'm smiling because it's the first time I've stepped on stage since Covid, and just being able to have that experience is really special. Having live performance is so special and we feel it, we feel the nuance and the difference of every single audience member, we can feel them.

What do you hope audiences take from this show?

This show feels more like a comment. I don't feel like it's a show that has to be liked. I think it's an opportunity to reflect on the past couple of years that we've gone through and how that might impact the very near future. I hope that it allows people to reflect and to go out and vote and to really question the things that we consume, because there's an interesting storyline about how there are different types of Republicans and how one can get caught into getting down a certain path.

It highlights how people who are disenfranchised or people who feel like they're left behind, where they can go. I want this show to give them the courage to speak out about the things that are important.

Photo credit: Cherrelle Skeete as Tina Flournoy in The 47th. (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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