Heather Agyepong: ‘A black love story that doesn’t centre trauma? Refreshing’

Published in The i on February 26, 2024

“Love is messy, right?” Heather Agyepong asks, from deep within the run of rehearsals for Shifters, a new show in which she plays one half in a tender, funny, and, yes, pretty messy romantic relationship.

“For a long time we’ve been given [stories about] idealistic love, and a tiny imperfection that gets overcome,” Agyepong continues. In many romcoms, she points out, the only flaw women seemed to be allowed was to be a bit clumsy or scatty. Thankfully, we live in an era where even the most romantic narratives now allow more honesty.

“These stories that are about the complexities and the difficulties and the challenges of love are more relatable, and that’s what I loved about this script: these two characters are so flipping nuanced, man. They’re flawed – but so endearing.”

They certainly are. Beautifully crafted by Benedict Lombe, Shifters skips back and forth across time, as Agyepong’s character Des and her childhood friend Dre – played by Tosin Cole – reconnect after years apart.

Meeting Agyepong, even via video, it’s obvious why she was cast in this production at the Bush Theatre. The British-Ghanaian actor has her own endearing vulnerability, a quality found in her performances in the stage version of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, the TV adaptation of The Power, and in last year’s theatre hit, School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.

But acting is only half her story. And while terms like “model-actor” or “writer-performer” roll easily off the tongue, Agyepong’s combination of actor and visual artist is less familiar. But she’s had serious acclaim as a photographer; her work can currently be seen in the prestigious Taylor Wessing Photo Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery, and in the Aesthetica Art Prize at York Art Gallery.

Still, there are overlaps between the two career strands – Agyepong uses herself as the subject of her portraiture. If acting is about exploring another person, her artwork is an excavation of the self. “I’m more vulnerable and more honest than I am with anyone else when I’m in front of a camera,” she says. “And that feeds into the authenticity of the characters I inhabit [as an actor] too – it allows me to do deeper character work.”

With its depiction of a profound friendship that tips into romantic love, revealed in scenes from many different years, it’s hard to resist the urge to compare Shifters to Netflix’s current megahit, One Day. It has a similar blend of sparky dialogue, lovably real characters, and heartbreaking loss.

Yet it still feels unusual to see a love story where both leads are black; the character of Des has Congolese heritage (like Lombe), while Dre’s family are from Nigeria.

Agyepong suggests that the progression in telling stories centring black love has been “kind of incredible” in recent years, yet still adds that this is the first time she’s been in a project with two dark-skinned leads.

“But what I love about this story is it doesn’t centre racial trauma,” Agyepong points out. “It’s just really about their love. It’s not about race being an obstacle. That’s refreshing.”

As a black woman, it’s important to her that roles feel authentic – something she has found is not always the case. Still, she has only praise for The Power, the juggernaut TV adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel about girls who develop electricity in their fingertips. Agyepong played Ndudi, a Nigerian journalist in the Prime Video series.

“It was my first big TV job, but it was also strangely collaborative,” she recalls. “The writers were like, ‘how does it feel to be a black woman, in this West African context?’ I felt really blessed to have a voice in that show. I think I was a bit spoilt, actually…”

But Agyepong is not someone afraid to use her voice: last year a video she shared about being thrown out of an exhibition at MoMA in New York went viral. The show, Black Power Naps, was intended as a restful space for black visitors; when Agyepong addressed a white woman she had heard laughing loudly there, the woman complained to museum staff, who then asked Agyepong to leave.

The bitter irony of this was not lost on Agyepong or online commentators, and MoMa apologised. Agyepong doesn’t have anything more to say on the incident – but how seriously institutions take their commitment to inclusion is a topic she is, inevitably, highly attuned to.

In 2020, Agyepong released a portrait series called Wish You Were Here, inspired by postcards from the turn of the 20th century of Aida Overton Walker – a truly inspirational black performer. “She reimagined this dance called the cakewalk,” says Agyepong. “The cakewalk was historically a dance that enslaved African Americans would perform to mock slave owners. But after emancipation, it became this dance which mocked black bodies – it was in minstrel shows and people made fun out of it. But Overton reimagined the dance, and filled it with grace.

“I just found her story absolutely mind-blowing,” continues Agyepong. “There was something about having this sense of ownership and pride about yourself as a black performer, and this idea of reclamation, about taking power back. It’s just wonderful to know that women in history have been making subversive work for so long.”

While Agyepong’s tributes to Walker were made before the murder of George Floyd, they were released in that moment when many arts institutions were suddenly making great, sometimes panicky, claims about their commitment to anti-racism. The interest in Agyepong’s work became “overwhelming”, she says – even if she was pleased about the exposure of Walker’s remarkable story.

“I’m trying to be positive and think that people are still holding on to the promises that they made in 2020,” she reflects, four years on. “I’ve got to be hopeful, man – at that time, a lot of us felt hope was gone. But Toni Morrison said some beautiful thing like: these are the times when artists go to work. The idea that you need to create stuff to galvanise hope and change – that’s what I’m holding on to.”

Her latest photographic series turns inwards for inspiration. Agyepong’s first degree was in applied psychology, and her art often has a psychoanalytic impulse. ego death is a series of fragmentary, ink-blue self-portraits, inspired by Carl Jung’s ideas of the repressed “shadow self”.

“There were parts of myself that I was ashamed or embarrassed about, and Jung’s belief is that the more you shine a light on this part of yourself – this shadow – the more you come to self-acceptance,” explains Agyepong.

Making art is an act of self-healing for her; she usually works with a therapist, to make sure she feels safe when exposing her innermost vulnerabilities. “The reason I picked up the camera was that I just wanted to understand myself better – it was very much a therapeutic tool. That’s really why I make art: it’s for myself, and then I’m hoping that my honesty enables other people to be honest about themselves.”

While Shifters is taking up her headspace at the moment – “theatre is just such hard graft! Having that live audience, it challenges you to always keep the ball up” – Agyepong already knows what her next art project will be about: the act of rest. Let’s hope MoMA is taking note.

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