Noma Dumezweni Casts a Spell on Broadway
Noma Dumezweni is a little bit magical. Sure, she’s playing Hermione Granger, that type-A witch who is the literary heroine of women everywhere, in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” but Dumezweni herself possesses a certain je ne sais quoi. Her co-star Jamie Parker, who plays the titular boy who lived, likens her to a Patronus (that positive projection of a person’s inner hope and love). When asked what type of magic she’d love to wield, Dumezweni says she simply wants the power to calm everyone she encounters.
“Sometimes when I meet people, I want to put my hand on them and just go, ‘And breathe,’” she says. “That’s all I want you to do. Just breathe.”
But Dumezweni surely already has this ability. Standing outside the Lyric Theatre on her cigarette break under a soon-to-be-stormy sky, she immediately makes you feel like you’ve known her forever. We’ve just wrapped a photoshoot at the stunningly redesigned and remodeled Lyric Theatre, where the play is running, and when we sit down to chat, our meeting feels like part-therapy session, part-motivational talk. Although an interview is defined as a one-sided exchange, Dumezweni doesn’t hesitate to ask questions, offer encouragement, and be affectionate. It’s instantly disarming — no Expelliarmus required.
Her infectious positivity and immense talent no doubt brought her to where she is today, and she’s not taking any of her success for granted. She joined “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” in early developmental stages, and when the producers first brought her in for the project, she had no idea what it was. All she knew was that it was a new play by Jack Thorne with John Tiffany at the helm. Upon hearing that she would be reading for Hermione in a brand-new Harry Potter story, she was stunned.
The play picks up at the epilogue of the seventh book and follows the wizarding trio as they navigate parenthood and a new generation at Hogwarts. Dumezweni did not think she would continue with the show beyond the workshops – she was just happy to be in the room – but on the last day of the final workshop, Tiffany and producer Sonia Friedman came up to her and asked her to be in the West End production.
“I just gotta trust my life more,” she says with a sigh. “I did not think it was going to happen at all. Loads of questions were popping into my head and the biggest one was, ‘Can I do a show for a year?’”
The answer: yes. She opened the show at the Palace Theatre in London in summer 2016 and won an Olivier Award for her performance. Now, she’s earned a Tony Award nomination for her Broadway debut in the play, and she’s signed on for another year in the wizarding world.
Her success is a long time coming. At age 8, she arrived in England with her mother and sister, fleeing the South African apartheid, and she still remembers that young girl who struggled in school and found acting as a form of play and escape from the academia that bogged her down in the classroom.
“I’m slowly getting over my issues of feeling over lack of education, ’cause I used to think I was very stupid,” she says. “What I’ve learned is I’m an intelligent person, but intelligence works in different ways.”
She gravitated toward drama classes in school, and when she was 13, she joined a youth theatre, The Wosley Theatre, where she found her people and her passion. “I didn’t think I was going to be an actor at that point. It was just something to do every week,” she says. “
After high school, she auditioned for drama school twice and was rejected both times, so she took a job as a public relations assistant and thought her future was in PR. However, she was laid off three months later and back to square one.
“This is another thing I try to impart to people: It’s okay. I mean, it’s shit in the moment. It’s really horrible,” she says. “Then you go, I’ve got to rethink what I wanted to do.”
While she was on unemployment for a few months, she revisited her love of acting. She joined an improv class on Monday nights, and she took gigs reading scripts for theater companies. She met the man who would become her mentor and biggest champion, Antony Singleton, when she signed up for a workshop called The Casting Couch, where actors would perform a monologue for an audience of agents, managers, casting directors, and other industry members. She worked on a monologue from “The Colored Museum” with Singleton, and from there, he became her go-to friend and acting coach. (She had a mini freak out over meeting the play’s author and her fellow nominee George C. Wolfe at recent Tony events.)
She can relate to Hermione’s story of being an outsider. As a child of muggle parents, the character enters the wizarding world with no connections, and Dumezweni looks at it both from her perspective as coming to acting without an official drama school training and as a refugee.
“It’s the immigration story,” she says. “I did feel very lacking in a lot of things. That little thing in your heart that goes, I know I’m worth something. I’m worth something in the sense that Hermione was lucky that she found something, but she worked her tits off because she was an outsider. She wasn’t part of this world and she had to learn really quickly.”
Dumezweni admires Hermione’s perseverance and work ethic, and although the character can get a bad rap sometimes, she thinks there’s a reason women everywhere can see themselves in her.
“She may be in people’s noses and going, ‘No, no you can do better, but she’s doing it.’ I think that’s what we all tapped into when we read that,” she says. “And as people know, she’s the one who got them out of trouble, each and every time.”
Dumezweni can also relate to Hermione as a mother, as she has an 11-year-old daughter. Her daughter loves the “Harry Potter” movies, but Dumezweni is thrilled by the theatrical form of the story which allows a different glimpse into the world and the characters.
“The representation that’s given of these books as imagery becomes very, very strong. We’ve grown with Daniel. We’ve grown with Rupert, and we’ve grown with Emma. That’s who we’ve seen in the part,” she says, noting that she adores Emma Watson, who played Hermione in the films.
“My joy is that it’s a theatrical form. We can take risks,” she continues. “We can experiment with that, but I am also aware that I know I can deliver on the part. It’s not colorblind casting. That phrase irritates me.”
When Dumezweni’s casting was announced, there was a bit of a social media stir, which author J.K. Rowling stopped in its tracks with the powerful tweet: “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione.”
Dumezweni emphasizes the importance of representation onstage, and countless fans have come up to her saying, “Thank you for being my Hermione.”
As she gears up for the next year in New York (she’s settled in Tribeca), she’s enjoying observing the city’s differences from London.
“I know I’m here for a year on an adventure. I’m loving it,” she says. “I get sad because the poverty is huge and I see the homelessness; it feels like a different kind of homelessness. Mental health is huge here and it’s predominately black men. That, I find fascinating. If you just have one major demographic as one thing, you have to question that. In the same way you can say all the white males, there’s a percentage there who are in charge of a lot of things. That’s what I mean. The world is so shifting at the moment with the conversation we’re having.”
And she’s excited about the direction the world is moving in, particularly as the next generation of women are making their voices heard and spearheading intersectional change across industries.
“Don’t you feel it in the world now? Your generation, especially your generation of women, there is something for me, watching it in my late forties that I’m so excited for you lot,” she says. “I am so excited for you lot because the conversations you’re having within yourselves. There is a curiosity there. People are scared of young people speaking the truth, because you’ve been watching, you’ve been aware. Please keep enjoying that. Keep questioning. Keep meeting others who are different to you.”
As she talks, she gets excited and grabs my arm and I’m immediately enraptured in her energy. She wants me to help her change the world, and yes is the only correct answer. After all, she’s cast a spell.