Monday, 8 May 2017

STANDING IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Actor Akeem Mignott makes the leap from star-on-the-rise to award-winning thespian

GAME FACE: "To see young actors being recognized shows that our work is being recognized," says Mignott, 23.

From promising up-and-comer to bonafide leading man, stage star Akeem Mignott is navigating the ins and outs of the performing arts world with finesse and aplomb. Now starring as the titular hunchback with a heart of gold in Frank the Freak, he opens up to TALLAWAH about ambition, artistic growth and keeping his eyes on the prize. 

IT’s minutes after 10pm when Akeem Mignott finally emerges from his dressing room at the Centrestage Theatre and joins me at front-of-house. Though he just turned in another rigorous, adrenaline-rush of a performance, as the titular hunchback in Jambiz’s latest musical comedy, Frank the Freak, there’s no sign of fatigue, no breathlessness. 

For Mignott, the character represents his heftiest theatrical undertaking since he burst on to the performing-arts scene almost a decade ago. “It’s a very demanding role,” he readily admits. “It stretches me, but it’s fun.” No kidding.

Appearing in more than half of the show’s scenes – swapping lines with castmates like Keisha Patterson and Glen Campbell, showing off his singing chops for the lively musical numbers – Mignott has his work cut out for him, disappearing into the role night after night. But he nails it, and in addition to critical huzzahs, he copped the 2017 Thespian Spirit Award for Most Outstanding Actor in a Lead Role. 

“I had to make sure I was physically fit to become this character. He looks a certain way and he’s a pariah, but he has a heart of gold. And so doing the role has taught me a lot. It shows us that it’s not always what’s on the outside that counts but what’s inside your heart.”

Lessons like these, culled from the art form he’s most passionate about, continues to keep Mignott amped up for the long journey ahead. Deeply perceptive, analytical and making some wised-up observations as he talks, the young actor makes it clear that there’s no substitute for experience and artistic growth. That’s why he consistently goes after roles that allow him to showcase his evolving craft.

“I think experience is always a plus. I’ve grown so much over the years, working with differentdirectors, different writers, people of different backgrounds,” shares the 23-year-old, who’s banked stage time over the years with such showrunners as Fabian Thomas, Michael Holgate and Jambiz’s power duo of Trevor Nairne and Patrick Brown. “I try to work well and have fun with everybody I work with, and it’s been such a learning process.”

A FIRM FOUNDATION

But to understand how Mignott got here, how he achieved this meteoric rise to leading-man status is to delve into his roots. Akeem grew up in Kingston in an extended family, where he wasn’t “the special one” but perhaps the one most determined to go places. 

After leaving high school, he spent crucial years at the Edna Manley College, where he studied for a Bachelor’s degree in Drama Education and starred in a slew of School of Drama productions. Small parts in mainstream plays soon followed, as well as the occasional TV commercial. Before long, he was auditioning for parts in big-screen projects like Ghett’a Life, opposite Kevoy Burton and Chris McFarlane.

“To be honest I didn’t have any great struggles growing up, but I made up my mind to go to college and graduate. I had to. It was my responsibility,” recalls Mignott, who has since brought his artistic training to the classroom at St. Catherine High and then Hillel Academy, where he’s been for the past two years, working with kids from the kindergarten level right up to Grade Six. “I’m Mr. Mignott now,” he reports, laughing. So far his talented students have copped gold, silver and bronze medals at the JCDC Festival, and under his tutelage St. Catherine High topped the National Schools Drama Festival in 2015.

MY GENERATION

One of the most memorable moments at the 2017 Actor Boy ceremony came when Mignott got up on stage to present an award and chose to preface the announcement of the nominees with kudos to his fellow new-generation thespians, but especially the other young kings like his namesake Ackeem Poyser, who had only moments earlier won Best Supporting Actor. 

Looking back on that night, Mignott says he felt compelled to testify. “It was important for me to do that because it was our Oscar night, and to see young actors being recognized shows that our work is being acknowledged. The validation is very important to us as growing artists,” he says, a hint of seriousness in his voice. “To see my fellow young thespians being awarded gives me hope.”

We can never learn enough from the forebears who paved the way. To this end, Mignott sees collaboration between theatre’s youngsters and their veteran counterparts as a great way of ushering in a successful new chapter for Jamaican theatre. 

“I want to create a theatre company where we have veterans working closely with younger thespians to sustain the theatre industry. We have to embrace the culture. But we also have to realize that the youngsters need opportunities, and I definitely want to see us creating those opportunities from now,” says the actor, who hopes film studies and more movie roles will be part of his journey ahead. “My greatest concern is how do we capitalize on what we have and create more opportunities as we move forward.” 

> REVIEW: Frank the Freak is a melodic triumph






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