Playbill concludes its exclusive five-part documentary series focusing on the actors who bring The Lady Ms of Moulin Rouge! The Musical to vibrant life with Holly James, who plays Arabia in the Tony-nominated musical at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.
In the video above, which was filmed in February and subsequently seven months into the pandemic, James explains that the acclaimed new musical is about "breaking free, taking chances, and loving as passionately as you can." The actor says that she and her character Arabia are the same person: both strong, sensual, and fiercely protective. James also discusses her inspirations, the joy of getting to be "who I am and what I am in this moment in time," and why the musical is like stepping onto a Japanese bullet train. Representation, change, and the healing power of music are also part of the conversation.
Below, Playbill checks in with Arabia, who made her Broadway debut in American Psycho.
What is your typical day like now?
Like most, this year has thrown any kind of daily structure out the window. If you’re lucky enough to have survived or dodged COVID, you’ve been afforded time off whether it was welcomed or not. I’ve sort of taken it day by day, but for the last few months I’ve started each day with some things that are important to me. Calling elected officials to demand justice for Black lives, checking in with my loved ones and stepping outside, regardless of the weather. Each day starts and ends with a deep breath, and anything in between is completely dependent on how I’m feeling. Some days I’m spontaneously up and out of the city by 8AM, desperate for nature. Or I’m in an apron attempting to perfect the art of a vegan Mushroom Wellington with David Attenborough feeding me information from the TV.
What book/TV show/podcast/film should everyone take the time to consume during this period?
The list stretches far beyond all I’ve listed below, but here are some of the books, podcasts, films and music I’ve read, watched, listened to, or recommended during lockdown. Books include The Yellow House (Sarah M. Broom), Hair Story (Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps), The Book of Night Women (Marlon James), Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë), Beloved (Toni Morrison), The Cross of Redemption (James Baldwin), Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Reni Eddo-Lodge), Bonjour Tristesse (Françoise Sagan), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou), Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), On Tyranny (Timothy Snyder), Normal People (Sally Rooney), and Wilding (Isabella Tree) (thanks mum). A podcast called Letter To A Black Girl (Gloria Onitiri). Some of the music I’ve listened to includes Gospel According to PJ (PJ Morton), Reset (Wallace Smith) and Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes (Live) (Ella Fitzgerald). Film and TV including Black Panther, Queen & Slim, The Handmaid's Tale, Selma, Insecure, Mudbound, LA 92, Still Bill, What Happened Miss Simone?, Fleabag, The Vow, Friends from College, Harry Potter, The Jinx, The Black Power Mixtape, The Upside, Call Me by Your Name, When They See Us, Derry Girls, I Am Not Your Negro, and Little Fires Everywhere.
During this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists and artistry, particularly in the theatre, what do you want people (those in power, fellow actors, audiences) to be aware of? What do you want them to consider further?
It’s quite possible that people reading this have wondered how we got here. Maybe even yelled and cried and had difficult conversations that left them feeling exasperated. What I do know is that Black people in the arts—your colleagues, family, and friends have had to struggle through being professional as they’ve shown up to work whilst dealing with the daily impact of systemic racism, the threat of violence and hate that has always been there but now is captured over and over for all to see and because of 24-hour news cycles, repeat viewing and social media, we experience trauma, stress, and anxiety. It is a privilege to choose when to care about racism and months before this 2020 Civil Rights movement where people were invited to be anti-racist, we were reminded of our history as we watched our Asian neighbors and colleagues subjected to discrimination and assaults.
It’s not just about being expected to riff over a song in an audition room. Not just about a company’s difficulty finding the correct color match when it comes to tights and undergarments. Not just about turning up at the first day of rehearsal and not seeing a single person who looks like you on the creative, producing, backstage, or management team. Not just about the lack of Black stories that don’t fit the racial stereotype that audiences are used to seeing and enjoying without question. It’s not just about hearing racial slurs from colleagues and smiling to keep the peace in fear of the wrath of white fragility. So, it’s not just about how Amy Cooper weaponized her privilege to threaten Christian Cooper. It’s also about Emmett Till and the time in between. Our costumes, suits, advanced degrees, talent, politeness do not protect us from racism. Whether it’s the micro-aggressions or the overt and violent. This process of unlearning and re-learning requires commitment. The road has been and will be long. We may have to be prepared to not see the change we wish for in our lifetime, but still I have to remain hopeful. The late, great James Baldwin cautioned us to “be careful what you set your heart upon—for it will surely be yours.” My heart is set on a more loving, equitable future where people of color are seated at the table they built to tell their stories so rich in history.
What advice would you give to someone who may be struggling with the isolation and/or the current unrest?
Isolation has been a testing time for so many for different reasons, especially for people prone to depression and anxiety. I’ve found that loneliness and panic has come in waves, and I’ve had to remember during these times that although it’s natural for us to want to connect and get back to what we’re used to doing, I think the real difficulty seems to be that being in solitary confinement is really just being thrown upon yourself. You’ve been running around and then suddenly you’re confronted with yourself and find that in a lot of cases you haven’t put into yourself because everything has been directed outward. I’ve found that daily check-ins with people who make you smile or songs, books, and films you know you love can help. Online hangouts have helped, too, and I know that there are a lot of support groups for people having a particularly hard time at home. Limiting screen time has been a wonderful release, too. I know we often feel the need to stay informed, but it’s important to know your limits. I got to a place two weeks in, when I was in bed with shortness of breath and fatigue from COVID. Walking across the room felt like an uphill struggle. I went on Facebook and lots of people were doing bedroom photo shoots, writing novels, and making master chef-worthy dishes. Everyone looked immaculate whilst I was scarfing two-week-old muffins and hadn’t showered for days. I felt ghastly but looking back, I needed to just hit pause, and that’s when I decided to follow accounts that I found helped with my mental health and filter out anything that wasn’t serving me. If you don’t exist on social media for a while and decide to not create content for the validation of others, you still exist in the real world. Working on yourself is real, and you’ll thank yourself for it when we come out of this. Healing and reflecting, keeping close friends on standby, asking for help and support from friends and family is love. They may actually be grateful to you for including them in your life. Most importantly, knowing that this will pass. The effects of 2020 and how much we have lost will have a significant impact on how we approach our return, but we will come back stronger. This is unlike anything most of us have or will experience in our lifetime, so be compassionate with yourself and others as we all find our new normal. One thing I’m constantly reminded of is that we have no idea what battles people are facing, and kindness is magic. I would personally like to thank everyone who has reached out to me and shown support during the course of the last seven months. I love you. Special thanks to Max Clayton, who has texted me every day for seven months.
How, if at all, are you keeping your creative juices flowing? Has that been helpful to you?
I’ve done a few things to keep my creative juices flowing. Without pressure and just for myself. I’ve been painting and sketching, and I made a weird clay bowl. I take my camera with me everywhere I go. It’s been important for me to keep a photo diary of this year and the rollercoaster of emotions. I managed to get home to London for my mum’s birthday which was sublime. Whilst there, I randomly started sewing tea towels for her, and it turned into my friend Ramses and I creating a clothing collection, which is really exciting. We’re in the process of shooting our look book, and it’s so wonderful to see something you made and created on someone’s body. I’ve mostly been revisiting artistic expressions that I either didn’t have the time to devote or had fallen out of love with. It’s been incredibly fulfilling and helpful to find an outlet in art. Singing has filled the house, too. Whether it’s sitting at the piano or writing some songs. I’ve learned to be as resourceful as I can be during this time. I now have a mindset that if I want something, I’d rather try and create it myself before jumping online to buy it.
Are you working on any theatrical projects during this time?
I haven’t worked on anything to do with theatre. I did a day in the studio with my friend Nicholas Cunningham. His choreography is superb, and his passion for classic Fosse movement and big band sounds was exactly the reintroduction to anything remotely theatrical that I needed. It was just enough to make me feel nostalgic to perform onstage again and not collapse after six months of not breaking a sweat. He has very exciting things on the horizon.
What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?
I understand it’s the hardest time to ask for donations during this terribly difficult time. Here is a list of organizations and pages that I find incredibly important. There are so many ways you can get involved in the upcoming election, which really is the only way anything will change for the better. Most of the Instagram pages below have direct links to donate in their bio. Anything you can spare will help more than you know. Here’s to the change we’re all so desperate for. Thank you for reading! Grassroots Law Project, Gary Chambers, Tamika Mallory, Until Freedom, David Attenborough, Leonardo DiCaprio, Earthling Ed, Justice for Elijah McClain, Swing from Home, Kimberly Latrice Jones, Innocence Project, and The Migrant Kitchen.