‘It Helps Create Safer Spaces’: Ruva Ngwenya On The Importance Of Diversity In Theatre & Amongst Critics

Photo by Daniel Boud
When musical theatre star Ruva Ngwenya casts her mind back to her childhood, she recalls growing up in Melbourne between two cultures. When she was at home or at family gatherings surrounded by her Zimbabwean relatives, she spoke the native tongue, Shona. But when she was at school, she spoke English with her teachers and peers.
"I was always aware that I had a different culture at home and we did things a bit differently," Ngwenya tells Refinery29 Australia. "But I always liked that about me."
The 30-year-old describes her younger years as a "really fun and vibrant childhood", but what was lacking were role models who looked like her in the arts. Having a keen interest in performance from a young age, Ngwenya immediately embraced seeing another Black woman, Marcia Hines, on her screens during Australian Idol's initial run between 2003 and 2009.
"I vividly remember seeing Marcia Hines as a judge on Idol. I was just enamoured by her — watching her on-screen and thinking, "I really love that, it's cool and I want to do that."
Now, more than a decade later, Ngwenya has landed her own dream role in the public eye, portraying real-life musical sensation, Tina Turner, in Australia's version of Broadway's Tina Tina Turner The Musical. In an industry that's still working towards greater cultural diversity, Ngwenya acknowledges how monumental her new gig is.
"It's exciting to be able to provide that to another generation — to hopefully be what Marcia was for me to the upcoming theatre kids coming out to watch the show," she says.
But representation is not merely about seeing diverse faces on stage or in front of the camera. With recent conversations in Aussie media about the importance of having more people of colour (POC) critics reviewing theatre productions, Ngwenya agrees this diversity is imperative. She adds that this should also extend to behind-the-scenes roles such as directors, writers, makeup artists and other crew members.
"I think it's extraordinarily important to get people of colour in all of these positions of influence and power, because it helps create safer spaces and helps to maintain the authenticity of the stories we're trying to tell," she says.
"[It's important to] let these writers and all these people into the room and give them a voice, because they've got the talent and they've got the goods."
Like many other women of colour in the entertainment industry, Ngwenya has searched for hair and makeup professionals that actually know how to work with her skin tone and hair type.
"For me personally, I went on a quest and I found makeup artists and hair stylists to get me ready for my media [engagements]," she explains, adding it's equally important for her to uplift other WOC businesses at the same time. "I support their businesses and post about these women to share their incredible work because they're all out there," she says. "The businesses just need to be made visible."
Speaking of successful women in business, Ngwenya also stands out from the crowd in a very competitive industry as a self-represented artist. While many people in musical theatre have an agent or manager representing them, Ngwenya looks after the majority of her auditions and publicity. After landing a role in Moulin Rouge The Musical in Australia last year, the actor developed the confidence to "speak up" and "advocate" for herself.
The decision to do so comes down to the fact that the biz doesn't have that many people who can relate to her lived experience as a Zimbabwean Australian woman, and then help her navigate her career in a way that's authentic to her identity.
"I felt it was becoming important that I do that to set an example for other minority groups coming through, to appreciate that you can advocate and speak up for yourself and take up space. Because, to be quite honest, your story and your needs and your views are very nuanced and they're very unique," says Ngwenya.
She advocates for people to try and speak up and use their own voice until they find the representation or the mouthpiece that is suitable for their diverse needs. And in encouraging others to "take a leap of faith", Ngwenya says that ultimately, "for me it was to take the leap and represent myself, because I didn't feel like anyone could do a better job than me."
No doubt, her next big job playing Tina Turner is one that will have all eyes on her. With only three months until the musical opens in Sydney, Ngwenya's thrust herself into "Tina Turner boot camp", as she describes it, where she's nailing the choreography, stamina and vocal elements to do the role justice.
Turner herself has already given the Aussie star her blessing, describing her as "a beautiful performer who I know will bring her own joy and her soul to this role". With that star approval under her belt, Ngwenya continues to pinch herself, more determined than ever to deliver an outstanding performance. "I'm just one of the luckiest girls in the world, and I just honestly can't believe it."
Tina – The Tina Turner Musical opens at Theatre Royal Sydney in May. Tickets go on sale Thursday, February 9 here.
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