Emmanuel, Alphonsia 1956–
Alphonsia Emmanuel 1956–
British actress Alphonsia Emmanuel is a classically trained stage actress known for her work in British theater, television, and film, especially the 1992 film Peter’s Friends. One of the most accomplished and highly regarded black actresses in Britain today, Emmanuel has faced a number of career obstacles in an industry with a history of institutional prejudice against black performers.
Emmanuel was born on November 7, 1956, in Pointe Michel, a small village on the south western coast of Dominica, a Leeward island in the Caribbean. When she was a small child, her parents, Lewis and Portia Williams, moved to Britain to find work, part of a large wave of post-war migrants from the colonies of the former British Empire. Emmanuel stayed in Dominica with her grandparents until the family reunited in London when she was two years old.
Known by her nicknames of Phonse or Mannie, Emmanuel grew up a Londoner, but one always conscious of her Caribbean roots. “My mother spoke to us in half sentences of English and French Patois,” she said in a 2002 interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). “I learned both languages at the same time. It was always frowned upon by my mother’s peers and my uncles and aunts. Teach her to speak English,’ they would scold.”
She attended two schools in north west London, the all-girls Carlton Vale School and then Ayleston High School, where she gained A level qualifications in law and English. Her interest in drama began at an early age, attending dance classes and taking part in school theater productions. “I was obsessed with television,” she told CBB, because it “was the only place that I witnessed acting.” Emmanuel considered a theatrical career, but was deterred by a career guidance counselor “to whom I confessed my secret for the first time. She smiled indulgently and said that acting was not for people like us.”
Although the guidance counselor also warned Emmanuel against higher education, “because if I attended university and was not able to get through, I would be a failure,” Emmanuel began degree studies at Kingston University in London in 1977. She completed a Bachelor of Education, majoring in English and drama, in 1980, and embarked on a career as a teacher. But after only eighteen months, Emmanuel realized she still yearned for a career in the theater. Helping her pupils stage a play, she had an epiphany. “They didn’t need me,” she told CBB. “They were flying beneath the stage lights and I was Miss Emmanuel at the back of the hall. I made up my mind then, in the dark, that I had to try for my dream. If I failed, then I would fail at least having tried.”
There were no other actors in her family. “My mother always encourages dreams,” Emmanuel told CBB, but worried “about how they can be achieved …. My father is a rock and never believed in dreams. He’s always filled with doubts. However, that bred a determination and defiance in me.”
At a Glance…
Born Alphonsia Pamela Williams on November 7, 1956, in Pointe Michel, Dominica; married Marc Rosenfeld, 1999. Education: Kingston University, Bachelor of Education, 1980; Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London, post-graduate qualification in theater techniques, 1983.
Career: School teacher in London, 1980-81; became an actress; performed in pantomime and toured with Temba Theatre Company; member of Royal Shakespeare Company, 1983-84, appearing in new and classic plays, including Golden Girls with Kenneth Branagh; worked in television drama and comedy from 1985, including recurring roles in Rockliffe’s Babies and Desmond’s; active in London theater throughout 1980s and early 1990s, including important roles in This Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker and Murmuring Judges by David Hare; appeared in several films, including Peter’s Friends and Under Suspicion, 1992; author of script, The Tulip Queen.
Memberships: National Union of Teachers; Actors Equity
Awards: Evening Standard Award for Ensemble playing in a Comedy Film, for Peter’s Friends, 1993.
Addresses: Home —Antigua and London. Agents —Gordon and French, 12-13 Poland Street, London W1F 8QB, UK.
In 1982 Emmanuel embarked on a post-graduate qualification in theater techniques at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London. “The experience was extraordinary,” she told CEE. “Imagine… to be told not to dream and then to find yourself in the place you dreamed, doing what you dreamed.” The classical drama course was rigorous and exhausting, including extensive reading, and lessons in acting technique, fencing, movement and dance. “I was amazed at how much physical work there was to do,” Emmanuel said, remembering her complaints that “I just want to act.”
Although Emmanuel had been spotted by an agent when she was still a university student, she still lacked the all-important Actors’ Equity card. Her first theatrical break came in 1983, when her agent managed to get her an audition for the pantomime Dick Whitting-ton. Emmanuel auditioned, “feeling that I wasn’t a good enough singer or dancer, but determined to be seen,” she told CBB. The pantomime producers, eager to cast her, had to appeal to Equity for “a special dispensation,” claiming that Emmanuel “was the only 5’ 10” black fairy in London that could be found for the panto. They said it had to be me.”
Provisional Equity card in hand, Emmanuel turned her attention to serious drama, touring in the play Bitter Milk with the all-black Temba Theatre Company. In the summer of 1983 she was invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company halfway through their season to play the Nurse, a part written for a black actress, in Ron Hutchinson’s play The Dillen. The RSC asked Emmanuel to stay in 1984 for another season, in which she appeared in Pam Gems’ new play Camille and Louise Page’s hit about a women’s relay team, Golden Girls, in which Emmanuel starred alongside two other black actresses, Cathy Tyson and Josette Simon, and soaring star of the British theater Kenneth Branagh. Emmanuel also understudied two Shakespearean roles, Mariana in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Rosalind in Measure for Measure.
Emmanuel enjoyed the move from the family home on Shakespeare Drive in London to the fabled RSC in the dramatist’s birthplace. Stratford “was an important learning place for me,” Emmanuel recalled to CBB. “Mixing with other young actors, doing what I loved to do best and recognizing that I could do it with the best of them.” Her mother, named for a Shakespearean heroine, joked that Shakespeare “was plaguing her life. But she was also thrilled. She could, to some extent, stop worrying about me.”
As her career began to take shape, it was not immediately apparent to Emmanuel that her career would not follow the trajectory of similarly talented white counterparts. Although there was little work in commercials available “for a long time,” Emmanuel told CBB, “because there were very few blacks in adverts,” she began to find steady work in the theater and on British television.
However, despite her training and RSC experience, Emmanuel was not invited to audition for classical roles, and she was stung by the complaints of one critic who “said it spoiled his fun to see a black actress in a classical piece of theater,” she recounted to CBB. Her first agent had advised her to attend drama school because “she said, ‘I don’t want to hear [the excuse] that you don’t have classical acting experience,’” Emmanuel told CEE. Being tall was already a potential problem for a stage actress, and Emmanuel realized that “possibly, being black was the real problem.”
The British theater world had been slow to accept black actors. When black theater director Yvonne Brewster arrived in Britain in 1956, she was told that she would never find work. As recently as 2000, a special report in the Observer newspaper contended that the industry was “institutionally racist to its very core.” Although a black actor, Edric Connor, first performed Shakespeare at Stratford in 1958, it was not until 2000 that a black actor, David Oyelowo, was cast by the RSC in the role of an English monarch. Black actors complained that they were rarely cast in roles not designated as black characters, often stereotypes. Oyelowo was quoted on the BBC web site saying that his black peers were only offered work as “drug dealers on The Bill, ” while black actress Jo Martin complained about “television producers who only ring with offers of ‘black prostitute.’”
Emmanuel’s talent and growing profile found her some prime theatrical roles. In 1988 she was cast as Duckling in the acclaimed Royal Court production of Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker, adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker and winner of the Laurence Olivier Play of the Year Award. Our Country’s Good told the story of the first theatrical production staged in 1789 in the penal colony of Sydney—George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, also staged by the Royal Court in 1988—with Emmanuel playing the role of Lucy. In 1991 she took the leading role in David Hare’s play Murmuring Judges, the second play in Hare’s trilogy about Britain during the Thatcher era, at London’s Olivier Theatre. Emmanuel’s part, Irina Platt, was written specifically for a black actress.
Despite stellar reviews for these performances, and for her leading role in Antony and Cleopatra at London’s Bridewell Theatre, Emmanuel received no other invitations to perform at the National Theatre or at the RSC in the 1990s. “I’ve had some tough moments in the business to do with my color,” she told CBB. “I’ve had to get very pragmatic about it. I grew to feel resentful because I had classical training but it was hard to gain classical parts.”
Like many other black actors, Emmanuel turned to television to make a living. Her first role, a non-speaking part as a bar maid on Give Us a Break, led to the role of WPC Janice Hargreaves in two seasons of popular police drama Rockcliffe’s Babies and a number of other television roles, including the lauded BBC drama House of Cards in 1990. She also appeared in three seasons of the landmark black sit-com Desmond’s. Although she was becoming a more familiar face on British television, Emmanuel noticed that her height, good looks and skin color led to a certain typecasting. “I have never played a married woman on TV,” she told CBB. “I was always cast as a sexually strong professional woman.”
This typecasting appeared to persist when Kenneth Branagh, an old friend from the RSC days, cast her in the part of Sarah in his upcoming film, Peter’s Friends. “She’s a bit of a tart, isn’t she?” Emmanuel recalled asking Branagh at the time, but he argued that she was the ideal actress to convey the complexity of the character, portraying both Sarah’s sophisticated glamour and her endearing vulnerability. The film, written by American comedian Rita Rudner and Martin Berg-mann was touted as a British version of The Big Chill, featuring a group of thirty-something friends facing a variety of life crises. The genial comedy, released in 1992, starred Branagh, his then-wife Emma Thompson and a number of well-known British actors, including Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Emmanuel was the only black member of the ensemble.
Peter’s Friends was a commercial success and Emmanuel’s biggest international exposure to date. It “launched me in films,” she told CBB, “and made people take me seriously.” Her agent predicted a new level of fame and fortune but the film’s success did not buy Emmanuel greater acceptance. At the 1993 Evening Standard Awards, the cast of Peter’s Friends was nominated for best ensemble, but Emmanuel was only invited to the ceremony at the last minute and was not shown on camera at the televised awards when the cast accepted their award onstage. “My mother and family were all at home, video machine on, ready to tape it,” she recalled to CBB. “My mother was very upset afterwards. She said, ‘they showed everyone’s face, but only your back.’”
When Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won Oscars in 2002, Marsha Prescod of Black Filmmaker Magazine, contended in a BBC web site report that “the UK has its equivalents of [Sidney] Poitier, Berry and Washington,” and cited Emmanuel as a prime example. But, said Prescod, “despite appearing in Peter’s Friends, Emmanuel has not been able to establish a UK film career.”
High on the international success of Peter’s Friends, Emmanuel discovered that her career had no real place to go. After auditioning for a leading role in a British television series, Emmanuel was about to be cast when she was told that a message “from high up” had blocked her hiring. “I was going through a real change in my feelings about the whole profession,” she told CBB. “I realized there was a glass ceiling for black actresses.”
After an appearance in the television show Dynasty, Emmanuel considered moving to the United States to explore more career opportunities, but she continued to look for interesting television work in Britain, and starred in the film Under Suspicion with Liam Neeson. In 1998 her professional and personal life took an unexpected turn when she met American lawyer Marc Rosenfeld, an environmentalist based in Antigua. Emmanuel and Rosenfeld married in 1999. She now divides her time between London and the Caribbean.
“I love acting,” she told CBB, “but I don’t want to sit around anymore being a commodity, waiting for the telephone to ring. I go to London every year to do one nice piece of work and then take off again.” Emmanuel returned to Britain frequently to read for film and television roles, and in 2002 she appeared in the high-profile BBC drama Fields of Gold.
In late 2002, she finished her first writing project, a historical drama about the first black immigrants to England. The Tulip Queen tells the story of a black woman from Dominica who travels to London in 1780 in search of her children, sold into servitude there by their white father. “Morgan Freeman said that one of the reasons he accepted the role in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood film was because the stories of black America, to some extent, have been done,” Emmanuel told CBB. “He was interested in the stories of black England, and so am I.”
Under Suspicion, 1992.
Peter’s Friends, 1992.
Still Crazy, 1998.
Give Us a Break, 1985.
West of Paradise, 1986.
Rockcliffe’s Babies: Series 1 and 2, 1987.
Making News, 1989
Colin’s Sandwich, 1990.
House of Cards, 1990.
Desmond’s: Series 2, 3 and 4, 1990-92.
The Bill, 1997.
Touching Evil II, 1997.
Fields of Gold, 2002.
Dick Whittington; Shaw Theatre, London, 1983.
Bitter Milk by David Clough & Alton Kumalo; directed by Sue Parrish; Temba Theatre Company, U.K, 1983.
The Dillen by Ron Hutchinson; directed by Barry Kyle; Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, U.K., 1983.
Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare; directed by Barry Kyle; Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, U.K., 1983.
Golden Girls by Louise Page; directed by Barry Kyle; Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, U.K., 1984.
Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare; directed by Barry Kyle; Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, U.K., 1984.
Camille by Pam Gems; directed by Ron Daniels; Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, U.K.,1984.
The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar; directed by Max Stafford Clark, Royal Court, London, 1988.
Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker; directed by Max Stafford Clark, Royal Court, London, 1988.
Murmuring Judges by David Hare; directed by Richard Eyre, Royal National Theatre, London, 1991.
Venice Preserved by Thomas Otway; directed by Ian McDairmid; Almeida Theatre, London, 1991.
Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare; Bridewell Theatre, London, 1997.
The Guardian, (Manchester/London, UK), October 18, 2000; March 26, 2002.
The Observer, (London, UK), September 10, 2000.
All Movie Guide, http://www.allmovie.com
BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/l/hi/uk/931905.stm
BBC News: Entertainment, http://news.bbc.co.uk/l/hi/in_depth/entertainment/2002/oscars_2002/1893162.stm
British Film Institute, http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/tv/100/list/prog.php3?id=84
Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com
Julian Wadham, http://home.att.net/Muwie/jw/jw-gongs.htm
Talawa Theatre, http://www.talawa.com/educat/blackstage/timeline.htm
V&A Theater Museum, http://theatremuseum.vam.ac.uk
Additional information for this profile was obtained through personal interviews with Contemporary Black Biography conducted between December 19, 2002 and January 14, 2003.
—Paula J.K. Morris
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