Justin Amankwah always knew he wanted to be an actor. His parents? Not so sure.
“Coming from an African family, there’s the expectation that working in entertainment, you’re not going to get very far,” he smiles. “They wanted me to do something a little more stable and solid, with a title, like ‘Doctor’.”
Amankwah, 20, is preparing to make his theatrical debut in The Flick, US playwright Annie Baker’s piercing observational drama set in a run-down Massachusetts movie theatre. He’s playing Avery, a troubled middle-class Afro-American movie buff who has taken time out from college to earn peanuts serving (and sweeping up) popcorn.
“I remember watching a movie when I was very young, an African movie, I think it was my first, and that’s when I knew I wanted to be an actor,” Amankwah says. “I had a dream about being in that film. I was acting.”
Sixth in a family of seven siblings living in Berekum, a small town in West Ghana, Amankwah was always the talkative one. “I was always a little cheeky, a little too mature,” he says. “In my culture there’s an expression, ‘his mouth is heard’. That was me! I was always talking about things I’d heard adults say without really knowing what they meant.”
Amankwah came to Australia aged nine and has lived in the western suburbs of Sydney ever since. He’s currently studying for a Bachelor in Dramatic Arts.
For a while, he thought about being a dancer, he says. But relentless bullying at school got him down.
“There was a lot of bullying around that, even though I was doing hip-hop. It’s not like I was doing ballet or anything. But at my school I was taking part in an all-girl competition so I used to get so much hassle. Plus one of the numbers I did was All the Single Ladies, so that didn’t help at all.”
Dancing’s loss is theatre’s gain, says Jeremy Waters, who co-stars in the production.
“It’s been interesting working with Justin because this is a learning process for him,” Waters says. “Most of the time you work with people who’ve been doing this for a long time and they’re not here to learn. They’re invested but it’s not part of a learning curve. Whereas Justin’s been soaking this up like a sponge and that’s really refreshing for us jaded old bastards.”
Avery is very close to home, Amankwah adds. “He’s learning a lot from the people he’s working with, just like I am as an actor.”
The Flick is Waters’ second Annie Baker play with his company Outhouse Theatre. He co-starred in the Sydney premiere of Baker’s The Aliens at the Old Fitzroy in 2015.
It’s a similar play in some ways, Waters explains. “Essentially it depicts three very ordinary lives and a workplace, and how life and work intertwine. The amazing thing she does as a writer is put people on stage you don’t normally see. We’re used to seeing hyper-articulate people, dramatically-vivid characters. But these are ordinary people living ordinary lives – people you wouldn’t look at twice, people who tear your tickets at the movies, pour your popcorn. But she makes them extraordinary.”
The Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre is being turned into a meticulous image of a failing fleapit cinema for the production. The audience, positioned as if they are the movie screen, will be looking at a bank of seats. The floor will be strewn with popcorn and sweet wrappers, just like your local Hoyts. It will probably smell similar, too.
“In Baker’s script, the cinema is one of the last using a 35mm projector and you can’t fake something like that, so we’ve built a real projection booth with a 35mm cinema from Alan Butterfield, who’s one of the few old school projectionists still working in New South Wales. You can’t fudge anything when you do a Baker play. You have to completely subscribe to her world.”
That subscription even extends to the movies being projected at the audience, Waters adds. “Annie chose them specifically for content and colour. Everything is so specific.”
Don’t be tempted to try the popcorn though, Waters warns. “It’s getting a bit old.”