Artist, Immigrant: Abraham J. Amkpa

by Marcy Arlin

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,Global Citizenship,Interviews

Post image for Artist, Immigrant: Abraham J. Amkpa

(To learn more about Marcy Arlin’s Artist, Immigrant blog series, click here.)

What do you love about theatre in the U.S. for yourself and in general?
I love theatre because it gives me the opportunity to flex a different kind of acting muscle. I love live performance because it bends and morphs reality in the way relationships, setting, and character are perceived. Working in the U.S. is great for me because it gives me credibility back in Africa and also validates/holds my work to a higher standard, because to the “developing world”, anyone who has left and has worked abroad is considered and viewed as accomplished.

Live theatre forces me to think on my feet and when done right I’m able to sustain character throughout a piece. It’s a true endurance test of stamina, mental focus, and commitment. In film, you get multiple takes on the sound stage. In theatre, you feed off the audience’s energy and use it to propel you into “doing”.

In the developing world, at least where I’m from, it’s more of a grassroots production that takes place. Open air, proscenium seating, and a sand stage. The audience participates more as well and voices their opinion out loud, where as in Western Theatre, it’s more of a quiet digestive process with a Q & A evaluating opinions afterwards.

What do you miss about working in your homeland?
The only training I received in Niger was at The American School of Niger, where we would put up school productions of A Christmas Carol or The Wiz. However traditional formal training I did not receive. Since I’m only 25, I have not yet gotten the chance to exhibit my acting skills on stage in Niger or Nigeria. I have, however, been seen on screen on “Law and Order” and other variety shows, but not yet theatre. Looking forward to it!

 How have your combined, in your work, both countries’ theatre training and culture?
I’ve combined my training to my culture by the way I channel my characters and how I tap into their pathos. I approach it in a very physical ritual, almost like being “mounted” by a spirit. That way anything that comes forth is in character. It’s a very West African traditional religious way of performance. Much like how in the new world you see the African influences of trances in Vodu (Haiti), Santeria (Cuba), and Candomble (Brazil), where spirits are invoked in the process. In my opinion, that’s where you need to be at when your playing an evil sadist, or a saint.

How do you see yourself/identify yourself as an artist in terms of being an immigrant? Does it matter to you?
Being an immigrant for me has been an advantage. I don’t see any real disadvantages because I’ve gone back and forth to the Western world since I was a child and even when I lived in Africa, I attended International schools. So I was already pre-acclimatized. I was lucky. I know it’s a harder transition for many older artists because of accents and just pure culture shock, but I got a lot of that out of the way early on and can turn it on only when needed.

How does it affect your getting work? (accent, ethnicity, etc.)
I find that sometimes my build, race, and type makes it hard for me to get mainstream work in commercials and prime-time television. I view myself as a
versatile, educated, 6-foot African male who is often lumped into a
category. It bothers me because then I’m expected to live up to certain
stereotypes, stigma, and reality for African-Americans that’s not
necessarily mine. It can be very frustrating sometimes and feels like a
constant uphill battle, but ultimately that’s life and the repercussions of
Slavery and Colonialism.

What are you doing now? Here and/or abroad?
Right now I just finished a play called Outcry at the Horse Trade Theater by Thais Francis, NYU 2012 Alumni. It’s her first produced play.
It was an original piece based on Amadou Diallo, Emmet Till, Sean Bell, and Trayvon Martin. I played the Guinean-born Amadou Diallo who was wrongfully shot 41 times by NYPD back in 1996. I’m also on an HBO webseries called “The Boring Life of Jacqueline” which is a dark comedy about a wayward actress who is also obsessed with my character, Abraham. Currently I’m in the process of trying to get involved in a South African soap opera. More details soon to come…

What is your residency/citizenship/visa status? How does it affect your life as an artist?
I am a Green Card holder on the cusp of citizenship. It affects me because I constantly have to get Visas and make sure my papers are in order. But other than that, I look forward to becoming a citizen so I can take pride in acknowledging that after 12 years, I’m an American. A true African-American. I’ll also be able to travel to places like Europe hassle free . I’ll also try to keep my African passport because with so much global disdain and jealousy/admiration of American “wealth”, I find it could be safer sometimes to not travel with a USA passport. I know for a fact that in my country, and other sometimes corrupt places, it attracts a lot of attention when you’re trying to cross the border and consequently you end up having to bribe officials.

Abraham J. Amkpa: I was born in Niamey, Niger and lived for six years in Africa followed by seven in Southampton, England. My exposure and conditioning to the art of Acting began thanks to my father’s vocation; he is an actor, playwright, filmmaker, and Pan- African activist whom has always taught Drama courses both in England and at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. From my mother’s compassion and service as a Kindergarten owner in a socially challenged Niamey, Niger, I have learned to appreciate the nuances and myriad of human life globally. More than becoming a successful actor, I would like to advocate diversity and range in Film & Television by becoming an addition to the many faces we see in entertainment.

Marcy Arlin is Artistic Director of the OBIE-winning Immigrants’ Theatre Project. Member: Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, Theatre without Borders, League of Professional Theatre Women, No Passport, and Fulbright Scholar to Romania and the Czech Republic. She curates Eastern European Playwrights: Women Write the New. Her project East/West/East: Vietnam Immigrants Out of War, is a binational, Vietnamese/Czech/English theatre project based on interviews with American and Czech Vietnamese. She created Journey Theatre with survivors of war and torture. Directing venues: 59E59, QTIP, LaMama, MESTC, Vineyard, Oddfellows Playhouse, Artheater/Köln, Nat’l Theatre of Romania. Co-Editor Czech Plays: 7 New Works. Teaches theatre at CUNY, community-based theatre at Yale, Immigrant Theatre at University of Chicago (her alma mater) and Prague Quadrennial, Brown, and NYU.