Ruvarashe Ngwenya’s journey to the leading role in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical has been about learning to advocate for herself. By Santilla Chingaipe.
Musical theatre performer Ruvarashe Ngwenya
Ruvarashe Ngwenya is euphoric after watching the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Fences by acclaimed African–American playwright August Wilson the night before we talk. “It was so good,” she tells me.
Ngwenya is on a bus on her way to rehearsals for her star turn in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. She’s been going through gruelling six-day-a-week rehearsals with the cast since March but sounds upbeat.
While she’s known to most audiences as Ruva, I ask if she’d like me to use her full name, Ruvarashe, in this profile. She hesitates before responding: “Ruva is alright.”
Why the hesitation?
“I don’t know. I just feel like Ruva is getting used everywhere and I feel like people won’t know who Ruvarashe is.”
She pauses. “Actually, no. Ruvarashe, please.”
Ruvarashe, she tells me, means “the Lord’s flower” in Shona, a Zimbabwean language. Ngwenya loves her name but says many Australians “just butcher it” and it’s easier to just shorten it to Ruva – a sentiment to which many with non-anglicised names can relate. She pronounces her full name, enunciating the Rs as she goes along. “It’s not Ruva-ra-she,” she tells me. “It’s actually Ruva-rar-sheh.”
I first met Ngwenya a few years ago when I interviewed her about her role in the musical Moulin Rouge! Casting a Black woman of African descent in a musical that wasn’t The Lion King felt like a pivotal moment. Musical theatre, as with many industries in this country, has a diversity problem.
While there’s little analysis of the representation of performers and crew from backgrounds historically excluded in the sector, in 2020 one of the country’s most prestigious musical theatre awards came under fire on social media for the lack of diversity in its semi-finalist selections.
The Rob Guest Endowment selected 30 white finalists for its $50,000 prize. The program later cancelled the prize amid the backlash, saying in part: “Due to the lack of racial diversity of the semi-finalists, we received criticism for not doing enough to attract Black, Indigenous and people of colour applicants … We heard this message and agreed that we should have done more to ensure there was a greater BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of colour] representation.”
Since then, shows such as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton have landed on Australian shores, centring on cast and crew from culturally diverse backgrounds. The hit American musical was lauded for setting a precedent when it opened in 2021. Before Hamilton, leading roles for actors of African descent were few and far between.
I recall the first time I saw Ngwenya on stage in 2018, when she performed in Madiba the Musical, a sanitised retelling of the life of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela. While the show was unremarkable, Ngwenya, who played Winnie Mandela, stood out – not only because of her incredible vocals but also her ability to own the stage in a supporting role. It was also the first time I’d seen a musical theatre show in Australia that featured a predominantly Black African cast. I found myself chatting to strangers after the show, keen to discuss what that moment meant for so many of us who are used to not seeing ourselves reflected across the arts. For Ngwenya, though, it was just the beginning.
Born and raised in Melbourne, Ruvarashe Ngwenya grew up in Ivanhoe in the city’s north. Although she sang as a child, it wasn’t until a high school drama teacher suggested she consider a career in the arts that she decided to pursue music professionally. The role she played in high school would come full circle years later.
“It was Tina Turner,” she says. “And I sang ‘River Deep, Mountain High’.”
Ngwenya went on to study musical performance at the Victorian College of the Arts. It was while at VCA she serendipitously “got a message on Facebook from a casting director asking me to come in and sing for The Lion King musical. And I thought, ‘Oh, okay.’ ”
Ngwenya has also been a finalist in the TV singing competition The Voice, in 2017. In one of the short clips, she belts out Adele’s hit “Hello”. It’s a commanding performance and it’s evident that she is a natural on the stage.
Ngwenya describes herself as a musician, and writes and performs her own music. “I’m lucky that I get to explore my art through so many different mediums,” she says.
Her casting in The Lion King eventually opened the door to more roles, including the one as La Chocolat in Moulin Rouge! At the time I first interviewed her, Ngwenya said being cast in the show, based on Baz Luhrmann’s film of the same name, was a “pleasant surprise”. She told me she found it refreshing being cast in a role that wasn’t centred on her race.
“Usually in Australia, with a lot of opportunities for Black women, usually it’s very specific. You’re a Black person on stage, being a Black character,” she said then. Although she loves playing Black characters, she did relish the opportunity to perform in an unexpected role as one of the Lady Ms.
A lot has changed in Ngwenya’s life since her time working on Moulin Rouge! For one, the 30-year-old has parted ways with her agent, whom she’d been with for eight years, after realising the relationship had “run its course”.
“I’ve grown as an artist,” she says of the split. “I’m a lot more confident and sure of myself and what I want and what I’m not willing to tolerate in the industry.”
She tells me that as a Black woman in the industry, she didn’t think her white, male agent fully understood her experience within the sector.
“I ended up representing myself with issues at work dealing with discrimination,” she says, adding there were a few incidents during her time performing in Moulin Rouge!
“As a Black person, I felt like I was experiencing stereotypes and discrimination because of me being Black,” she says. On one occasion, during a publicity shoot for the show, she recalls being sent to a hair salon with three white female castmates for “blow waves with blonde hair and stuff”.
“I have an afro,” Ngwenya recalls thinking. “These girls won’t know how to do my hair.”
Ngwenya says that, although the production claimed to be “inclusive”, there wasn’t much effort made to accommodate her. That experience signalled a shift in her own understanding of racial equity and inclusivity within the performing arts.
“I realised that there’s a difference between casting diversely and performing [for] the public and ticking a box and coming across as progressive,” she says.
Behind the scenes, she says, things were not as advanced as they seemed on the surface. “The thought processes are the same, but now you’ve got Black people in the building. But you haven’t actually created spaces that actually include them.”
Being able to advocate for herself has now paid off for Ngwenya, with “the biggest gig” of her career in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.
Playing the legendary African–American singer is unlike anything she’s experienced as a professional artist. “I saw the brief and I reached out to the casting director directly,” she says proudly. “It is built with Black people, for Black people … I’m in the majority. That changes things.”
Listening to Ngwenya, it’s unsurprising she landed the coveted role. Like Turner’s, her journey has been filled with challenges and she’s had to learn to stand up for herself along the way. She says those obstacles prepared her for this moment. The musical, written by Tony Award nominee and Pulitzer Prize winner Katori Hall, with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, celebrates the life of the 12-time Grammy-winning artist. Featuring music spanning Turner’s decades-long career, the show tells the story from her upbringing as Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee, to becoming Tina Turner, the queen of rock’n’roll.
Tina premiered in London in 2018 before moving to Broadway in 2019. Next month, it’s Sydney’s turn.
I ask Ngwenya, who grew up listening to Turner’s music, if she can believe she landed the lead role.
“No! Literally no!” she exclaims.
The resident director, Leah Howard, says Ngwenya’s audition left her emotional.
“Tears rolled down my face because this is her time,” she says. “And she has proved that … it couldn’t be anyone else.”
Ngwenya has been preparing for the role since October last year with a schedule that included voice, music, dance and acting lessons, as well as personal training and intensive sessions in London.
“I flew business class. That was a first in my whole life,” she says, with a laugh. She met the cast of Tina and watched the show a few times. “By the time we got to ‘The Best’ I was crying because I realised oh my goodness, this is going to be me!”
In true Millennial fashion, Ngwenya vlogged the experience and shared the news about landing the role on her YouTube channel. Her excitement is as palpable today – months later – as it was in that clip.
Turner, now 83, has retired from music and rarely makes public appearances. She did make an exception for the 2018 London premiere of Tina, where she said she was “very excited to be a part of this. This took me out of retirement.”
While it’s unlikely she’ll make an appearance at the Australian opening, she did send the Australian cast and crew a message of support. To Ngwenya’s delight, it singled her out: “And she said, ‘I’m so excited for the Australian cast and I’m sure Ruva is going to bring her soul to Tina and I can’t wait for her to do that.’ ”
Ngwenya reassures me the show is not a tribute show. “Tina’s made that abundantly clear: she says, ‘I love my Tinas across the world.’ ” The Australian lead adds that it’s more than just stepping into Turner’s shoes. She says the challenge is “not to mimic Tina, but to find that essence, that energy, that star power”.
There is no doubt that Ngwenya deserves this moment but she’s also aware of its significance. “I hope it sets a tone and precedent for having a lot more Black women in lead roles with a lot more than two lines saying ‘gurl’,” she says. “For more complex characters – more roles, not just for me but for all the Black girls coming.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2023 as "Simply the best".
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