Faith Bennett Russell was hesitant when she first got the call from Village Theatre to put on a production of “Mamma Mia!,” a show about a young woman, Sophie, who invites three men to her wedding to figure out who her father is. She loves the music — “Mamma Mia!” is set to the tunes of Swedish pop group ABBA — but the story seemed fluffy. Russell focuses her productions on social justice, race and equity in a field that hasn’t traditionally centered people of color.
“But then I thought, if you let me put my own spin on it, I think that would be interesting. And they said, well, that’s what they had in mind,” she said.
Russell’s vision translated onto the stage as a vibrant, engaging production that features a cast of talented, diverse artists. She centers the Ghanaian concept of Sankofa, which means to remember and to find what is lost.
Her production reminds the audience, too, of what has been lost in stage performances that centered whiteness over excellence, keeping actors of color relegated to specific roles rather than letting them shine.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RC: A lot of people are really familiar with “Mamma Mia!” How do you approach working with something that so many people are deeply familiar with?
FBR: So, I wanted to honor the script. It is loved. Very well known. When people hear the title, the show almost sells itself. They’re just like, “I’m there because I love ABBA. I love this story.” So, I wanted to honor the story. ... I don’t want to do what’s always been done. I want to take what’s loved, and how do I enhance it? How do I add some depth to this story, which actually has depth to it, because it’s not always played.
Not knowing your father is crap, and [Sophie] calls her mom out. This is a weight she’s been carrying. And when she finally gets to a big life event, she says, “I can’t take it anymore. I cannot go forward with my big life event not knowing who I am. I see how I’m like my mother. I have other qualities that are not like my mother. It has to be like my father.” So my approach was to center that story. One of the best compliments I got from a patron was, “I didn’t even know there was a story to ‘Mamma Mia!’ until I saw this ‘Mamma Mia!’”
That means I did my job. And then when you have — and you’re going to ask me about this later — but we have a woman of color whose community, stereotypically, is a one-parent household where, stereotypically, the father is missing, that question now becomes deeper and important, where in the traditional “Mamma Mia!” where it’s usually a mostly Caucasian cast, that wouldn’t even be a big issue. So my approach really was to find out how I could take what’s loved and then give it an anchor to ground it so it becomes so much more meaningful and rich.
That’s such a fascinating point, that even changing the type of person who plays Sophie would change the overall feel of the show by grounding it in that kind of reality.
Well, it comes with the lens. When you hire an African American director, I’m bringing my whole self to the project. I’m not just regurgitating what’s traditionally done. Now you’ve got a different lens. So I brought myself, my culture, my experience to this show.
How often in your career do you feel that you’ve been given the leeway to bring your whole self to projects?
Not very much, honestly. I think it depends on the institution. But as an actor first, definitely not. I’ve been a theater professional for just about 40 years. I’m in my 39th year right now. And in those three, almost four, decades, as a person of color, when you’re not in the majority, the ask is usually to blend in or ask to be a stereotypical version of yourself, not your authentic self. But what does a stereotypical Black person sound like?
When I’ve done roles, I would bring my take, and I’ve had a director say, “I need more sassy. You need to have more attitude with this.” And I know what that means. Today I would call it out. In those days, in your 20s and 30s, you wanted a job, so you just got it. But since George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and all that happened to really highlight what’s been happening… like Sophie, everything came to a crossroads where a lot of us just said, “No more. We can’t.”
Obviously, our lives are too short to live anything but our authentic selves for while we can. And thankfully, many theaters have also partnered and said, “Enough. We need to do the right thing, change practices that have caused harm and do something different.” And because Village Theatre was one of those theaters that said, “No, we know where we’ve fallen. In short, we need to do something different.”
It felt like a bit of a reckoning with local theaters here … really looking at themselves and saying, “We’ve been so white,” essentially, and not treating people of color and actors of color and directors of color well. Do you feel like things have changed?
I think there are signs of change, and it’s in process. I see the effort. I see where the work has been done. The work is being done. ... And you’re right about the reckoning, and I do applaud the theaters that are really striving. There’s deep, deep roots of systemic practices. It takes time for those roots to get pulled up. Sometimes we think you have it all, and you don’t.
Part of the challenge is, on the highest level, it’s still very white. There aren’t enough people of color in those higher level positions. So even though the work is being done in the process and they’re trying, and it’s uncomfortable and hard, and they’re sitting in the discomfort, and I applaud them, when you don’t have people at the top saying, “Uh, uh, uh, no, we’re not doing that. No, that’s a red flag,” it trickles down to the actors or the directors to be like, “Thank you. That’s a great change. However, this thing is still not working. That thing. No, that’s not good.” We’re still happy to do the work, to partner with them, and that’s so hard. So, I think now that the reckoning has happened, mission statements have changed.
So, yes, the efforts are there, I have to say. I have to just call out and applaud Jay Markham, who’s the production manager there. He worked hard in situations that came up that were really difficult, and we had to lean into discomfort. And he never backed away. He always facilitated change between where it needed to happen. He, in particular, I have to call out and applaud. If I have to say there was a person that amplified this change, it was him. And I told him often that he led well and I appreciated him.
How do you go about finding a diverse cast in a super white city? Are there specific schools that you work with? How do you make this vision happen?
Well, there’s no schools. I mean, Seattle is filled with talented, diverse actors. We’ve been here for decades. We don’t get cast unless it’s a “Big River” or “Ragtime” or when they want to have a quota and say, oh, we need diversity, so let’s have two out of the 20 people cast. We’ve been here. So the fact that your question is, do we have to go to schools and such to find us?
It was low-key offensive, but I understand why you would ask that, because you don’t see it often, which is a shame, which is why the reckoning happened. There hasn’t been, to my knowledge, an African American Donna, ever. So the fact that it’s revolutionary is sad. I want it to be the norm.
Many people come through those audition halls, and the casting directors get their resume and headshot and put it in the book. So that’s where we began, when [Jes Spencer], the casting director… she had a binder filled with Seattle artists of color. Some of the roles were cast already from the 2020 project. So, some we kept and others we recast. They had alternatives when they cast in the books already, and they went with somebody else. So we said, let’s cast these people of color that you were thinking about before.
And when we ran into some roadblocks, we partnered with Michael Cassara out of New York, a casting director in New York, and he did open calls for us. And, oh, my goodness, Ashley. There were so many that answered that call — so many that were excited about this “Mamma Mia!” There were tears during their slate, because it was a video audition — [people] that said they never thought they’d be called in for a Donna. They never thought they’d be called in for a Sam, and they were so excited to possibly be a part of this cast.
How did that feel for you?
I cried, and it’s not my first time. When I directed “Pride & Prejudice,” I said, as I always say to the team, I need a diverse “Pride & Prejudice.” We ended up with an African American Elizabeth and an Asian, Chinese American Mr. Darcy. He cried when he was cast. He said he was told for many roles he was not the right type; they weren’t looking for someone that looks like him.
I can’t tell you how much representation matters. It’s a game changer. When you have a profession and there’s so few that look like you, you wonder: Does your existence matter? Is it taken into account? Do my stories matter? And there are deep wounds that go with that. So I’m thankful for the reckoning.
It’s late, it’s very late, and there’s a lot of harm that’s been done. One actress told me she wanted to audition for a show which was told, “We don’t need any little Black girls; this is not your show.”
So this show we’re doing at Village, I want excellence first. Diversity aside, right? I’m a professional. It’s got to look good, sound good, be good, be excellent. That’s my first priority, then hiring specialists that can do that work. And that goes from scenic design, costume design, everything. And then how do we tell a different kind of story with a different kind of lens? So it’s got to be framed in excellence. I’m not just hiring folks willy nilly because they have a certain look. I’m not doing that. I’m about excellence. And so the fact that we’ve got this group of actors who are specialists in their field and do great work, who are also diverse? That’s everything. And I’m hoping [for] the day where it becomes the norm for us.
Do you like ABBA’s music? What does living with it for this long do to your relationship with music like this? Do you ever want to listen to these songs again?
Absolutely. I love the ABBA music. I grew up with it.
I used to have a Raggedy Ann and Andy radio that had a microphone on it. So, it was even before karaoke — you could sing along with the radio, and your voice was amplified through the speaker. And anytime ABBA came on the radio — “Dancing Queen,” especially — was my jam. I was a member of ABBA. I would dance around my room singing into my little microphone. So “Dancing Queen” still moves me. To me, that song is a song of liberation for anybody. And, I also use that song for the journey of Donna and Sophie that they had to go through all they went through to get to the end so that they could really dance, really jive, really have the time of their lives, because they’ve let go of all of the things that were holding them back and all the secrets. So it still moves me, because it’s a dance of liberation. Know who you are, get your crown on straight, put your shoulders back and dance of freedom. So I love the music, honestly. It was just the theater piece I didn’t like. I thought the theater piece was like, “Oh, I have to sit through the story to hear this music that I love,” because I didn’t dig it.
Probably because it was, for me, it was tapioca, it was just cotton candy and just didn’t have the depth for me. But having some autonomy with how to tell that story made me really fall in love with the piece because I got to dissect some of that dialogue and, like I said, kind of anchor things and deepen. It didn’t take away any of the fun, but just gave some more weight to some of the more important questions that can come up.
And can you talk to me a little bit about Sankofa and how you introduced that concept to the cast?
I am Jamaican African American, but as an African American, I know that I have deeper roots than my Jamaican roots. Right? We all come from Africa. So I actually did my ancestry and found out that I’m part Ghanaian West African, among other things. And so I’ve been sort of searching my Ghanaian roots, my West African roots, and I, a couple of years ago now, came across the word “Sankofa” ... and it means “to remember.” It means go back and retrieve what has been lost. It means, in the simpler terms, go back and get it. And there’s a Sankofa symbol, which is a Sankofa Bird. And its head is looking back, and it’s got gems in its mouth. And, breaking it down even more, it talks about gems of the past that you’ve forgotten that have contributed to who you are today. Go back and get those, retrieve those, remember those which will help you in your present and take you to your future.
So, when I discovered that for myself, I sort of went on my own Sankofa journey. When I got offered “Mamma Mia!” and was researching — okay, what am I going to do with this? How am I going to take some of the swing out of this jukebox musical? I thought, you know what? Sophie is on a Sankofa journey. She is daring to go back into the past, her mother’s past, and find out where she comes from. And so I thought, I’m going to ground this in Sankofa and introduce that to the cast and then ask them, for each character, to go on their own Sankofa journey. I got them a Sankofa journal and had them write down any epiphanies they got along the way. In the show, there’s a Sankofa Bird drawn on Donna’s wall in her bedroom. At the taverna that she works in, there’s a Sankofa tile. So, I’ve sprinkled it all through the show, and it really deepens the journey for the actors.
Is there anything that I’ve missed? Is there anything that you want to say or emphasize or that you hope people see?
I think there’s two things, and we’ve touched on both. I hope the experience of “Mamma Mia!” is fun, sure, and entertaining, but I also hope it’s a release and an escape, and it’s a visual nourishment and an opportunity to take their own Sankofa journey, just to remember. Remember the gems of life that brought joy and satisfaction and peace and grounding. That is my hope.
The second thing is, I want this to be the continuation of change, where this kind of cast telling this story is the norm, and that it would encourage theaters to be challenged, to continue to dare to change old systemic ways that brought harm and examine daily. Doing the work and then moving forward is not enough. It has to be daily work, daily challenges, daily examinations. How do we do today? How can we do better tomorrow? Because it’s going to take time. A lot of harm has been done, and it’s going to take intentional eyes to say, “We need to do better. We need to try to make amends for the harm.” There cannot be assumption of, well, we’ve made it, we’re there, we’ve done it.
That work, honestly, is never going to be done.
‘Mamma Mia,’ directed by Faith Bennett Russell and produced by Village Theatre, will be staged at the Frances J. Gaudette Theatre in Issaquah through July 10 and at the Everett Performing Arts Center July 15 though August 7. More information can be found at VillageTheatre.org.
Read more of the July 6-12, 2022 issue.