You've heard about Lenny Henry's outstanding star turn as the embittered father in Fences at the Duchess Theatre. But the hit revival of August Wilson's potent family drama is anything but a one-man show.
A key player in Fences' superb ensemble, 26-year-old Brit Ashley Zhangazha plays Cory, the rebellious teenage son of Henry's character Troy Maxson. It's a performance that's as intelligent, nuanced and forceful as you’d expect from a young actor who won this year's Ian Charleson Award for his role as Ross in the Crucible, Sheffield production of Macbeth.
Messrs Henry and Zhangazha have butted heads on stage every night since Fences began its initial run at the Theatre Royal, Bath in February. But, as Ashley explains, sharing the fictional Henry gene pool hasn't always been such an emotionally demanding business.
THEATREPEOPLE.COM: You once played Lenny as a boy on TV. Had you and he kept in touch over the years, and was he instrumental in recommending you for the part of Cory?
ASHLEY ZHANGAZHA: I did an episode of Lenny’s show Lenny Henry In Pieces when I was 11. When we met on the first day [of Fences] it was quite strange - I had to remind him who I was. He was completely shocked. We reminisced about that time, but it's pure coincidence this has happened, and we've re-engaged and become friends.
TP: Did the two of you get on well back then?
AZ: I remember being quite in awe of him. We got on very well, but I was very young and it was all a bit strange. It was my first-ever TV experience; being in front of a camera and being with Lenny Henry, and directors and stuff like that. It's nice now, being an adult and being able to be friends with Lenny. He’s doing such great work in this play, and it's a real joy to be working with him on it.
TP: How was it that you were acting at such a tender age? You attended Guildhall later, but you weren't a stage school kid.
AZ: I was a very shy child, as I think a lot of actors are. My mum thought it might be good for me to go and join the weekend youth theatre and do some acting on a Sunday. The agency attached to this youth theatre put me up for a few outside roles, and that job with Lenny was one of the first.
I also did a few West End musicals when I was young. I was in Oliver!, Hey Mr Producer and Whistle Down The Wind, then I put the acting to bed and went to University to study Economics and Politics in Manchester. When I was there I decided that, actually, no, I want to do [acting] properly.
TP: Fences has a brilliantly cohesive cast. Each performance not only compliments Lenny’s but, on its own terms, equals it.
AZ: The person to thank for that is our director Paulette Randall, because she cast the play so well. Rehearsals were full of us telling stories about our lives, and Paulette had an anecdote about seemingly every moment in the play.
Because of her style and attention to detail we were able to form a really close bond, and everyone in the cast is fantastic. Colin [McFarlane] has the best voice in showbiz (laughs) and is fantastic to work with. Tanya [Moodie] was at the RSC for years and years, and is putting in one of the best performances I've ever been privileged to watch, every night on stage. Peter Bankole plays my brother, Ako Mitchell plays Gabe…it really is just a fantastic unit.
We were very lucky to have been able to tour this play before coming into the West End. We were able to fine-tune it and get to know each other. We all genuinely get along as friends, which helps when you're up there having to go through some of the emotions we have to go through.
TP: How significant is it for you that Fences features an all-black ensemble of players?
AZ: Extremely significant - and important, I think. For a long time there was an argument about putting all-black plays on, or plays with black actors in. Certain people would say, there’s just not the talent pool out there. That always seemed really strange to me, because I’ve done plays at the Royal Court with all-black casts, I’ve seen plays at the National with black casts, and there’s an incredible pool of talent out there, waiting for opportunities.
So the fact that this play is on – and particularly in the West End – is fantastic for visibility, and to show people that there’s a wealth of talent and experience, and plays that need to be put on. It’s really exciting.
What’s great about it is that, having said that the cast is all black, it's a universal story with fully fleshed-out characters, and that’s why so many people have been able to relate to it so far. And it’s been brilliant that they’ve been able to relate to it with an all-black cast.
TP: Troy and Cory’s relationship in Fences is explosive, and Lenny is a big man - if I was being faced down by an angry Lenny Henry, I’d be terrified. What were those scenes like to rehearse?
AZ: Lenny is a very big guy. I have a good relationship with my dad. Lenny, however, has gone on record saying that he sees elements of his father in Troy. So it was interesting talking about the scenes with Lenny in rehearsal, and we both decided that we just had to go for it.
The situation that the two guys find themselves in is one a lot of people have gone through in life - where the son has just got too big for his home. You’ve got two alpha males facing off, and there’s only ever going to be one winner. Me and Lenny decided that we were just going to have to go hell for leather and both fight for what we wanted, which was to be top dog. And in the end, without giving too much away, Troy prevails and Cory has to go down a different road.
TP: Does it get fatiguing emotionally?
AZ: It does. It is emotionally draining. If you don’t give it 100 per cent, the piece doesn’t quite stand up. It's one of those plays where you have to wash it off at the end of the show. Lenny says that when he finishes the show he likes to have a shower and brush it all off of him and listen to some nice happy music. We all have to do that, because it's pretty intense.
But there's a lot of humour in the company. We meet before the show onstage and have a sing-song and a laugh, and then we're all together before we go on stage and start tearing at each other.
TP:Your talent has been deservedly acknowledged with an Ian Charleson Award, but which actors have inspired your work the most?
AZ: Ken Branagh, Adrian Lester and Chiwetel Ejiofor are three actors who I hugely admire, and if I can achieve even a little bit of what they’ve achieved, I'll be a happy man.