Emi Wokoma has burst into the front ranks of London leading ladies with her performance as Tina Turner in the jukebox musical Soul Sister, which has transferred for a commercial run to the Savoy Theatre. An alumna of Hairspray and Porgy and Bess on the West End and the John Tiffany-directed touring production of The Bacchae, which had a New York run in 2008, the delightful 28-year-old chatted with Broadway.com about rocking out on stage, juggling two careers and receiving reviews that would warm any parent’s heart.
You’re reaching the West End flush with fabulous reviews. The Guardian wrote of your performance as Tina Turner, “Stardom surely awaits.”
It’s lovely to hear things like that, but I can’t let it define me. I feel like I still have a lot to learn and a lot to do, and I don’t want to rest on my laurels. What has been great is for my parents to hear things like that, so they’re not thinking, “What has Emi been doing all these years? What was she doing in drama school?”
Your bio says that you have dedicated this performance “in loving memory” of your father.
He passed away on May 31 and my birthday was June 1. It was very quick, but it also meant that he was able to see the show [in its pre-West End run] and he absolutely loved it; he was going around telling all of his friends and giving me advice. He would be thrilled to know that we have taken [the musical] on.
Had you always thought to yourself, “I could play Tina Turner”?
I thought I’d love to play her, but I didn’t think I could! I’d known guys in bands who said, “You remind me of Tina Turner,” which I took as a nice compliment, but she’s a female black icon so there’s always that thing that’s in the back of your mind. She's such a mighty presence.
How, then, did you come to the part?
It was one of those things: I just rocked up to a normal audition, having come from a shift in the gym in Canary Wharf where I work as a fitness instructor. I was literally moonlighting when I went along for the job. I didn’t think they would call me back, and here we are.
But you’re not actually a Tina lookalike.
I’m 5’9”, whereas Tina is quite petite. Her presence is gi-normous so she looks much taller, especially with that massive hair, but in fact she’s quite dainty.
The story of her relationship with Ike has been well-chronicled, including in a major Hollywood film [What’s Love Got To Do With It?]. What did you think Soul Sister could add?
Well, as far as the film goes, I tried not to look at Angela Bassett. I absolutely love her and knew that if I got her in my head, I wouldn’t go on stage! And the thing about Soul Sister is that even though there are loads of jukebox musicals, essentially this is a black show that touches on the African-American story and the history of civil rights, so that’s where we’re a little bit different. All that is worth exploring on a West End stage. And the story of Tina herself and in relationship with Ike is worth being told again and again.
Have you ever seen Tina in concert, or met her?
I've not had that pleasure.
So, how do you capture Tina’s signature movement—that singular swagger and strut she made her own?
It’s not easy for me, actually. I kind of want to be elegant and ladylike, but she’s very sexy and also masculine so I have to think about leading with my lower hip and getting into the groove that way. I have to move from my pelvis.
Your own fitness level must help hugely.
I go out running to “Proud Mary.” I know that sounds cheesy, but you have to do it! Tina was so energetic and so fit—she was a force of nature on that stage, so my husband is always saying to me, “Make sure you have your Tina Turner playlist.” And because of my day job, I know when something’s not right and I can trace it back. It’s like, “That muscle hurt, but I’m doing it for Tina!”
What effect has the show had on your body?
Because I’m a fitness instructor, I’m used to muscles as part of my physicality, and I like that. But at [the show's] Hackney [premiere], I found I was losing weight as well as losing muscle, so I’m going to try and tone, because when you’re doing a job like this, weight loss is inevitable. Before, I was eating just pure carbs but I’m now going to try and incorporate some electrolytes.
Maybe you could start a new workout regimen: Keeping Fit with Tina.
I’d love to, but I’d have to give Tina her dues; I’d have to give her a nice cut of the profits [laughs].
Tell me a bit about your background.
I was born in Nigeria and came here when I was one. My dad wanted to educate himself, so he brought me and my mum to Britain, and my brother and three sisters were born here. I graduated from the Guildford School of acting in 2006, and my first West End job was as a dancer in Porgy and Bess at the Savoy, followed by my first speaking part in Hairspray. And on from there.
Were your parents supportive of your theater ambitions?
Absolutely. Initially they might have preferred me to do something more academic, but once they saw the responses I was getting, I think they thought, “Well, as long as she does it properly,” and they knew that I had my other career.
I love the name Emi, which must be useful for a singer—one thinks of the record label, for one thing!
I used to say that when I would spell it for people: “E-M-I: just like the record company.” My first name in full is Tamunoemi, which means “God is here,” but I’ve always been called Emi. No one calls me Tamunoemi, though I like throwing it out there as well!