For her debut at Book-It Repertory Theatre, Anjelica McMillan plays Neni Jonga, a recent immigrant to the United States, in Behold the Dreamers.
Seattle audiences know McMillan from her work at Theater Schmeater, Annex Theatre and The Horse in Motion, among others. We talked to her about what it was like to portray both the character and the text of Imbolo Mbue’s award-winning novel.
Rosemary Jones: How would you describe Book-It’s style?
Anjelica McMillan: I’ve seen a lot of Book-It plays and always really enjoyed them. I thought they did good work and especially work that addresses controversial topics. It’s important for a theatre to open new perspectives. I saw the recited narrative as a Brechtian device*, not to take you out of the play but to remind you that you are watching a piece of theatre and that what is happening isn’t necessarily happening. That can be a comfort if something is intense.
Has acting in a Book-It show changed your perspective?
Now that I’ve been working with Myra [Platt, the director and adapter for Behold the Dreamers], I know that she thinks of the narrative as an inner monologue. That’s new for me—to be speaking my inner monologue out loud. Also having to find a specific object to give that narrative to, not necessarily talking to [the] audience and breaking the fourth wall for them.
This novel seems like it addresses issues that we’re all discussing now.
It is very timely because of the immigration issues in our country right now. I think back to Welcome to Braggsville (2017). That was the show that made me want to work with Book-It. Because that dealt with the controversy of racism in such an interesting way.
Does the characters’ race or status as immigrants matter the most in this story?
I think the piece speaks more to immigration than it does about race. The big question is whether or not Jende will achieve his green card and they will be able to stay. There are some interesting parallels to some black experience in this country—they end up working for a wealthy white family, which could happen to any black family. Beyond those parallels, you do see some micro-aggressions from the white characters.
How would you describe your character?
Neni is fearless. She is somebody who sees the world as her oyster. She sees anything is possible because she is no longer living under the burden of her family telling [her] what she can do. She’s also changed by what happens. She gets to the States with this innocence and that changes. She also gains an inner strength.
Would you describe yourself as a similar person or different from Neni?
I am kind of a shy, reserved person. I would be much more likely to see myself as not qualified for a job. I can shortchange myself. Neni never does that! She doesn’t have any sense of why couldn’t she do that. She’s exuberant and full of life and energy. In preparation for playing someone like that, I obviously re-read the book and continue to re-read and highlight certain passages. I’m learning to be more free in my body, to embody that youth and exuberance that she has. I’m having a lot of fun playing her and being able channel that energy.
What do you want the audience to understand about Neni?
That Neni is a strong woman, and that she wants to be an independent, strong, interesting African woman. To have a glimpse of what people in Cameroon are like. People assume that everyone in Africa is poor and think of Africa as one nation. There is so much more to Africa. Also to see that certain truths are universal. As they see the characters, they will find something in common with these people. It’s important to consider issues of immigration and how we treat immigrants in this country.
What’s your favorite moment as Neni?
I really enjoy playing her right after Jende gets hired. She is so excited about him starting a new job and just peppers him—she showers him with questions like confetti. It’s a fun scene to play. They’re just recently married so there’s this joy that comes from being in a new marriage and living a dream—it’s fun to play that scene with Sylvester [Foday Kamara, actor who plays Jende Jonga].
*A Brechtian device is a technique to distance the audience from emotional involvement in the play through reminders of the artificiality of the performance. Coined by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht. Also called the alienation effect or distancing effect.
Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish Magazine, Capitol Hill Times, Encore, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.