IT’S fair to say that playing the lead role of Tina Turner in the musical Soul Sister is a labour of love for young actress Emi Wokoma.
She created the role last year and has been in it ever since, moving from London’s Hackney Empire to the West End and now on tour around the country. The show tells the story of how the teenage Anna Mae Bullock met musician Ike Turner in the racially-segregated US Deep South of the 1950s and how they together became a powerful force in R&B music. It also looks at their famously turbulent personal relationship.
Emi said she was already a fan when she took on the role: “She is amazing, she was the original. It isn’t about looking pretty or being safe. She was a performer on the edge and that isn’t pretty. That’s what makes her beautiful.
“I think she epitomises sensuality with talent. Everybody loves Beyonce. When she came out with her first music video, her image was Tina Turner. I really felt that from her.”
She added: “I’m trying not to do an impersonation but to give a performance and create an experience that we try to deliver to the audience. I’m an actor telling a story.”
Emi was working as a fitness instructor when she auditioned for the role, finishing teaching a class and going straight to the theatre. That has stood her in good stead: “It’s helped me to sustain my performances. She was fit!”
Emi said she was until recently going to the gym from the theatre but now the producers have banned her to make sure she doesn’t overdo it.
Soul Sister looks at how Ike and Tina had trouble in getting a big break: “Before River Deep Mountain High their music didn’t easily fall into the categories of black or white music. It was really difficult, then Phil Spector picked up on Tina to do the track. It opened up new possibilities.” She said that the show tries to give a context to the violence that Ike meted out to Tina that finally forced her to leave him: “He saw his dad beaten to death by racists when he was five or six. When he was trying to get his band off the ground there was racial segregation and racism that he was meeting and trying to keep the show together. Then the girl he brings to the stage gets all the attention, so he flips out. We don’t apologise for his behaviour but we give an insight as to how he was the way he was. Without Ike meeting Tina we wouldn’t have known her now. His and her lives came together when she was aged 16. The violence that everybody knows about just comes from that whole story. She was 40 when she left him and realised herself as a solo artist aged 45 in the mid-1980s.”
Emi was born in Nigeria but her family moved to London when she was a baby. She said that she hasn’t really encountered racism living in such a diverse area but has spoken to her mother-in-law, who is mixed race, about how tough it was for her growing up in the 1960s.
So it’s a gritty story in places but the part isn’t without glamour: Emi has lost count of how many quick changes she has to do into different costumes, there are so many. “It’s fun. My job is dressing up in short skirts and wearing false lashes! It’s a dream role.”
She added: “People should come to see the show to celebrate the music of Ike and Tina Turner. We have a brilliant band on the stage and the action is non-stop and high paced. We are an original British cast which is important when there are far too many shows with a cast from the US. We’re all really proud of it and it is a feel-good show essentially.”
Soul Sister is at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield next week from Monday (February 25) to Saturday.