Sunshine and laughter became the touchstones of Sophia Mackay’s life when her family moved from Hackney to Barbados.
But every now and then a darker undercurrent would surface.
“I definitely experienced racism,” said the 25-year-old. “It is undercover in Barbados but there.
“I went to a mixed private school and one lunchtime a white girl asked a black girl for her pencil and when she said no she replied ‘You should give it to me because I bought you from Africa’.”
Sophia recalled the comment drew laughter, even from the black pupils, but the confrontation escalated into a physical fight.
She will be drawing on personal experiences such as this when she takes to the Stratford stage in The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin.
The award-winning off-Broadway musical by Kirsten Childs is a coming-of-age story about an African-American girl from LA who has to face racism and sexism as she tries to learn her self-worth and follow her dreams. It is set against the backdrop of the 1963 Klu Klux Klan bombing of a black church in Alabama which killed four girls.
Sophia plays the older version of heroine Viveca who throws herself into the world of the hippies, then the civil rights movement and finally cosmopolitan New York in her quest to find herself.
The Harrow resident said: “She doesn’t want to accept who she is and the colour of her skin. So in an effort to run away from herself she tries all these different groups. But through it all she wants to be a dancer and never gives up on that dream.
“All of us have a bit of bubbly inside us and the story is really about embracing all you are, whatever that truth might be.”
It is a struggle Sophia can understand as she planned a career in business before discovering a passion for performing aged 17 and moving to England to train at WAC Arts in north London.
“When I came out of drama school I was obsessed with musicals and then I realised the kind of parts I wanted were not available to me. They would say they were open to all ethnicities but then you would see who they cast and realised that was not true.
“I remember one audition I heard a girl whisper ‘Why is she here?’.
“It made me feel really bad and quite sad that people have to judge because you are in a certain frame, a physical package, and they can’t see passed that.
“We are getting better in the UK in terms of equality but still have a long way to go.”
But in Viveca she finally has her first dream lead role in a musical, and it calls on her to act, dance and sing, with the original score fusing Motown, pop and R’n’B’.
Amazingly it is a part she almost turned down.
“I originally auditioned for a different part but then they asked me to read for Viveca. When they offered me the part I thought ‘Should I do this? I’d been concentrating more on my music and band recently and thought I had found what I wanted to do in that.
“But now I’m glad I did take the part. It requires a lot of stamina but is a great part.”
Feb 1 to Mar 11, £12-26, Theatre Royal Stratford East
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