Black Woman Creator: Cherrelle Skeete

Black Woman Creator: Cherrelle Skeete

Cherrelle Skeete is an actress, singer, activist, and writer. She was born and raised in Birmingham England. She graduated from the Royal  Central School of Speech & Drama in 2011 with a BA (Hons) in Acting, specialising in Collaborative and Devised Theatre.

Before graduating, Cherrelle played Young Jamie in Naomi Wallace’s World Premiere of And I And Silence at the Finborough Theatre. She made her West End debut in 2012 in The Lion King as Shenzi cover and swing, and played Sister Sally in The Amen Corner at the Royal National Theatre, directed by Rufus Norris, in 2013. Cherrelle is most known on stage for being part of the original caste of award-winning Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, originating the role of Rose Granger Weasley at the Palace Theatre 2016

Cherrelle's screen debut was in series four, episode two of BBC period drama, Call the Midwife playing Abigail Bissette. One of the first storylines showing the experience of a West Indian couple from the windrush era in 1960 Britain. She is a cofounder of Blacktress UK, a support network for black women actors.

Black Girls Create: What do you create?

Cherrelle Skeete: I create stories, characters, and safe spaces for Black women because we need that extra support for our magic to be extra magic.

BGC: How did you get into acting?

I got into acting through dance. My vision included crip-walking and Harlem shaking in a Missy Elliott video and wearing a black girl flesh coloured unitard, barefoot with a beautiful pointe and looking like an Alvin Ailey Angel performing African contemporary fusion. I started a hip-hop dance trio with some friends when I was 16 and we modeled ourselves on the Powerpuff Girls (I was black Buttercup in green) we went from making up routines in our bedrooms to teaching classes to the young people of inner city Birmingham over a summer. After the summer of 2006, our little group went from 3 to 23 and we were a troupe. I was a young person organising, creative directing, and choreographing other young people over the course of 6 years, we performed all over the UK and called ourselves CRC (Creating Real Change) and we are so proud of our alumni, music artists Jacob Banks, Lady Leshurr, The Vulnerable podcast and cofounder Rochelle Roberts, and Life Coach Queen and cofounder Chantel Sachanna. We have had around 100 young people come to train with us over the years. Inner city Birmingham can be a difficult environment because of gun and knife crime with young people and their families at risk, so staying creative has saved lives and given kids a real focus and direction to express themselves. Birmingham is thriving with so much talent but due to lack of government funding the young working-class miss out if they are not wealthy enough to pay for private and often expensive stage school fees.  Grassroots projects and the African Caribbean community of Birmingham gave me my first safe space to create and entrusted me with their young people to keep them safe through dance and I will always honour that.

I watched more music videos and went to the ballet and as many dance shows as I could including the Breaking Convention where I was introduced to physical theatre. It was something I was naturally doing within my dance company, and I started to read more about Pina Bausch and other physical theatre legends. By this point, I had finished my A Levels (SAT ll) and wasn’t sure whether to apply for a dance degree or to go the acting route and head to drama school. I found a course that had the perfect combination of movement classes and opportunities to create my own work next to learning classical theatre, plus all the extras I'd need to feel equipped as a professional actor. I applied and was offered a place after my 2nd year auditioning (A teaspoon of wee from excitement and nerves). So I moved to the big smoke of London because I was going to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (Judi Dench went there). I would say I have grown into an actress but creativity manifests in so many ways so I enjoy saying I’m an artist most days, plus it stops non-actors telling me how rubbish and competitive acting is.

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BGC: Why do you create?

I create because it’s what I know, it’s play. It's a part of being a well-rounded human. Being creative allows me to make sense of all the emotions bubbling inside. It’s been a bridge to open dialogue and taking away that isolated feeling. It’s a great way to channel rage.

BGC: How did you handle the attention and pressure of joining the Harry Potter franchise, especially when your race and identity became a topic of debate?

I didn’t realise it was a thing until I saw the response when Noma [Dumezweni] was announced. It hadn’t dawned on me that people would have been so surprised by Noma playing Hermione because she is a phenomenal actress and perfect for the part. She handled it all with such grace and strength. It was only when the pictures of the family were released that I felt that same pressure and decided to take a step away from social media for a few weeks. Within a few hours my Twitter followers had gone up by around 3,000 people and that was enough for me to log out. I’m a Black woman artist from a working-class background with Caribbean parents. Imposter Syndrome struck hard. You can't plan for how to feel when people are interested in you -- or the idea of you -- overnight. All you can do is ride out those first tidal waves and trust that all those years of grounding was enough to keep you holding on to some tree root and not drown by caring about the negative, ignorant, racist opinions. Let it wash over and when the seas get calmer or you get the hang of riding the waves use that soapbox for something positive. I’m thankful for those racist comments because it gave me the opportunity to see strangers I had never met from all over the world clap back with love and support. The caring, intelligent, forthright, witty, unapologetic Rose Granger Weasley forced me into my big girl panties. This is the first time the whole world would see the daughter of Ron and Hermione, a little Black girl at Hogwarts. A young Black girl with actual spoken lines at Hogwarts, not just an extra, is now canon. I was entrusted by JK Rowling, Jack Thorne, John Tiffany, and the whole creative team to breathe life into her. We experience fear and we can choose to push through and I realised by honouring this really important responsibility that it would uplift Black girls and anyone else who had grown up reading these books and felt on the outside to be their unapologetic fabulous selves. It makes it doable when you see the bigger picture, it’s not just about me, it’s for the other young actors who will play the part long after me, this is history!

BGC: What is it about your unique identity as a Black woman that you bring to other people’s characters, especially to characters that are written without an explicit identity?

As Black women, we have a deeper and wider humanity because of how we have been socialised. Black rights have far too often excluded Black women and Women’s rights have left out Black women. Black women’s survival strategies are incredible, we have learnt to navigate spaces and thrive in spaces that were not created for us or by us. To create requires you to ask questions, to have a sensitivity to the world and I will always ask how does this Black woman exist in this world? How does she survive? How does she navigate? Because I grew up in a hair salon I always imagine her hair. I knew Rose was always going to have two Afro puffs, I knew her Mom would want her to be proud of her hair texture and who she is all around. Hermione always felt as though she had to prove herself, Rose is not sorry and knows she IS Magic. With any character, I will always work with my own truth first if I am given little about the identity of the character and then create my own backstory, the messier the character the more fun.

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BGC: Who is your audience?

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My audience has ranged from my folks back home in Birmingham, to gamers as I voice a robot called Orisa in Overwatch, to Potterheads who adore Harry Potter, to anyone that has bought a ticket to watch me in a play or tuned in to watch me on TV. I’m not going to be everyone’s cup of tea but I’m okay with that.

BGC: Who/what inspired you to do what you do? Who/what continues to inspire you?

I get a bit teary when I think of the experiences Black women would have had first coming to England from the Caribbean and Africa and how hard it would have been for them coming to rebuild in a land that didn’t want them there. Struggling to feed themselves, raise children, and carving spaces to just be. I represent them, myself and hundreds of other Black British actresses get to remind them that they matter. Because of the face I have, their voices will be heard. The storytellers get to hold the mirror up at society and inspire change. You cannot be creating art in 2018 and remain indifferent about issues. That time is done. When all of that feels too heavy to carry, I do it because it's fun and it makes me happy and that alone is enough. I know the ancestors would want that.

BGC: Why is it important as a Black person to create?

We have continuously heard one side of a narrative because of who is telling it. Black people need to have 100% ownership over their narrative -- that’s as authentic as it's going to get. It builds bridges having many stories that are different. Our differences are our personal superpowers that allow us to see into and have a clearer view of ourselves and the world we live in.

BGC: How do you balance creating with the rest of your life, or do you?

I’m a millennial, we are the generation that struggles with fighting the good fight, staying in touch with family and friends, aiming for a gorgeous career, traveling across continents, saving money, creating work, creating other people’s work and..... oh and self-care.

It’s a balancing act but because self-care is such a hot topic, women are speaking openly about mental health and our collective consciousness is shifting. We can name the thing that’s harming us and name the thing we need more of. Then act. So yeah I just got back from Thailand and I plan to include more sleep and less social media.

I’m Buddhist so I chant every day and make time for dancing and a good epsom salts bath.

BGC: Advice for young creators/ones just starting?

You’re different, that’s okay! Don’t apologise, celebrate it and you will find your tribe who are different too and they will support you on your journey. Make the time for the things that make you feel good because that is you looking after your artist self. Watch out for self-sabotage, you have to know you deserve success first before you actualise. Don’t leave your worth in the hands of another. Find some mentors whose opinion you value and ask for help and help others along the way.

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BGC: Future projects we should look out for?

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I run a Black women’s support network and group called Blacktress UK. It's for Black actresses and it’s intergenerational, so women who are just starting out in their careers as teenagers or stepping into acting later in life to our pioneering black actresses who were some of the firsts on stage and screen can meet and learn from each other. Black actresses can feel isolated having more barriers in their way, so we run workshops to open dialogue but also equip the actresses with tools, we host dinners as a meet and greet and celebrate each other at one table. This year we will be launching officially with a very exciting partnership in which Blacktress UK will begin producing our own work. If you guys have BBC 1, watch Silent Witness ,”Duty of Candour” series 21 it aired in the UK in January.

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