In 2018, Kayi Ushe joined the first UK Tour of Kinky Boots as lead character Lola/Simon, where he performed to packed out theatres around the country and stayed in the role until the tour closed at the end of last year. Since starting his career, Kayi has appeared in many shows which have included playing Marvin Gaye in Motown the Musical at Shaftesbury Theatre, spending four years in the original West End cast of The Book of the Mormon, and some of his early productions were Fame and Avenue Q. On the 9th December, Kayi will be part of the Kings of Broadway concert at the Palace Theatre and will be playing Joe Gillis in the Sunset Boulevard concert at Alexandra Palace on 7th February 2021. Recently speaking with us, Kayi tells us about playing Lola in Kinky Boots, his time in The Book of Mormon and his upcoming concerts – Kings of Broadway and Sunset Boulevard.
You played Lola on the Kinky Boots UK Tour, can you tell us what it was like performing in the role?
I absolutely loved playing the role of Lola. It was such a joy and such a learning curve! I had never worn heels or a corset or quite so much makeup before in my life. I remember constantly saying “I take my hat off to women and drag queens everywhere!”.
My journey with the costumes really aided my character development. All the costumes I felt exposed and uncomfortable in were the clothes that made Lola feel liberated and come alive in and all the clothes that made Lola feel small, diminished and uncomfortable were the clothes in which I felt completely comfortable. It really was a shock to my system.
The character of Lola/Simon goes on such a journey in the show. One minute you are a fierce drag queen in your club calling the shots and the next you are on the factory floor in brogues and a suit feeling stripped bare. It really allowed me to explore a range of emotions, engage with people who actually live the struggles represented in the show and spread a message of joy up and down the UK and Ireland.
What was the production like to be part of and what are some of your favourite memories from your time in the cast?
I have so many fond memories of touring with this show. When you are on tour, you become a kind of family as you are the only constant in every town you go to. You really share the highs and the lows. One minute you’re on stage belting out a Whitney Houston-esque ballad composed by Cyndi Lauper whilst giving it Jerry Mitchell choreography, and the next, as you have a Sunday off in Glasgow, you’re driving to Loch Lomond laughing and singing the whole way there. There are just too many memories to choose from it really was a gift of a job.
How was it joining the show and how did you prepare for the role?
So, I had seen the show in London when it was on at the Adelphi Theatre and I remember watching Matt Henry thinking “I could never do that, wow!”. Cut to a few years later and I am at rehearsals walking around in six-inch stilettos thinking “never say never”.
I said to myself I should learn all the routines in my most painful shoes – the blue Sex is in the Heel shoes – as nothing will ever be as intense as learning all the routines in succession in my highest stilettos.
This was a brave choice.
I have never felt pain like it.
Bless dear Darren Vinsen-Carnall teaching me all the choreography, assisting me out of my shoes and watching me limp out of the studio – I must have been a sight. My reasoning though was Lola/Simon says from such a young age the world seemed brighter six inches off the ground, and I (Kayi) like my world firmly planted in a simple brogue so, for me, it was a fundamental shift that needed to occur in me that was at the core of the character.
Can you tell us about your time appearing in A Little Night Music and The Crucible at Storyhouse Chester?
Dream job. Dream company. Dream. Since graduating I had not done anything like it. Boujie 1900s Sweden to destitute 1600s Massachusetts. Count to Tailor/Court Officer. It was so challenging and so rewarding. In both shows we really worked as a company to bring out our characters and create the worlds we would inhabit for both shows. The people I met on that job have turned out to be friends for life. We still talk quite frequently and support each other in all our ventures, creative or otherwise.
How was your experience portraying Marvin Gaye in Motown the Musical at Shaftesbury Theatre in the West End?
Marvin Gaye was like no other role I have played. To creatively embody a well-known incredible musician and sex symbol was both daunting and exciting. Singing anthems I grew up listening to (thankfully not knowing what the songs meant in my youth) gave me goosebumps. Also, getting to hear the rest of the company sing the music of Motown legends every night was so special. Motown has always held a special place in my heart for me and my family, so getting to be even a small part of that legacy is a real treasure.
What was it like performing as Marvin for the first and last time?
The first show was a bit of a blur as most first shows are. It was invigorating and surreal. Most of my scenes were with Cedric Neal, who played Berry Gordy, and I just remember feeling so comfortable opposite him. He always said to us before the show, “Tell the story!”, which, especially on my first night, served as a reminder that as much as you want to give your best performance, know that you will if you just tell the story.
My last show was bittersweet. The audience reaction during I Heard It Through the Grapevine was electric. The fun we were having backstage and onstage was something I did not want to end. But that is the nature of our jobs, we form such intense bonds with people over a contract and then that contract ends. I have many a fond memory from that job, and one of those was definitely my last day.
I’d be remiss to not mention my dresser Sophie, the Marvin track on Motown can be a lonely one and she really looked after me to the point we’re still friends to this day.
What did you enjoy most about being in The Book of Mormon and can you tell us about playing the roles of Ghali, Mutumbo and Midala?
Oh Lord, how long have you got? The Book of Mormon is the only job I have stayed on for four years. It was the gift that kept on giving. Opening the show, performing at the Olivier Awards, playing every role available to me bar one (I will play Gotswana one day, mark my words!), the creatives… I could go on. It is a show that holds a truly special place in my heart. Every day I would find something else to laugh about and explore.
I started the show in the Ghali track and played him for two years, then in my third year played Mutumbo and covered the General and Mafala, then in my fourth year played Afolabi/Midala with the same covers.
Having covered the roles of General and Mafala, what was this like?
Getting to play the village elder Mafala was great. He leads the rest of the Ugandan company in singing Hasa Diga Eebowai, who could ask for anything more? His relationship with Nabulungi is so special and was so rewarding to explore. Along with the tough love he must dole out to his daughter and to the village to keep everyone safe.
Safe from the General who is in stark contrast to everyone else in the show. But again, he was a truly four-dimensional character. A lot of fun to play but dark when you learn he was based on a real person! I come from a very Catholic Zimbabwean family and my mum saw the show when I was on as the General. When I asked what she thought of my portrayal, she remarked, “you played Satan!” and we laughed the whole way home.
Can you tell us about some of your earlier roles?
My first role was playing Tyrone in Fame touring Italy. I love Italy, the language, the food, the sights! And I love what I do for a living. Win win.
After that I came back to the UK and the first musical I did was Avenue Q as a swing to both the ensemble and the ASMs (it was a different time) and also as first cover Gary Coleman, played by Matt Henry. I was so grateful for the holistic approach to shows that this job gave me. I got to work with all the puppets and swing the stage management tracks and be on cans! Which is something I miss.
I think, in a large way, the jobs I did to begin with really helped to ease me into the industry, coming from a university background, there were holes in my understanding of theatre and I’ve coloured them in more with every job I’ve had.
How is it doing voiceover work such as World of Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed?
Voiceover work is a dream come true for me. One of my favourite actors while growing up was Robin Williams, God rest his soul. The voices, creativity and talent he displayed in all the roles he played are what inspired me while growing up. So, to work on World of Warcraft, Assassin’s Creed and many other video games and audiobooks etc., doing multiple voices and creating multiple characters is perfect.
Working with Andrea Toyias and her team at Blizzard to create King Rastakhan was and has been a real highlight of my career so far.
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you get into it?
I grew up with what was then categorised as photo-sensitive epilepsy (in recent years the science has changed), and so many career options, including this one, were not viable options for me. My childhood dream was actually to be a waiter, I loved the fact they had to dress in suits, and I have many a childhood photo dressed in a suit. In my early teens, my illness started to subside and more became open to me but still I did not think I would do this for a job. It wasn’t until I was sat watching a show, and as corny as it sounds, I felt really uncomfortable because I realised I was jealous of the performers and that brought me to the realisation of “oh man, I really want to do this”.
I went to university because I was too shy to audition for drama schools. While at university, I joined almost every music/musical extra-curricular I could, not pointedly I should point out but because I just loved it. Which lead me to the Arts Centre at Brunel where we put on concerts and musicals. After university, I decided to start auditioning for shows to see what I needed to target if I were to audition for drama school, and long story long, I started working and it’s now been eleven years since I graduated.
Do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch?
I loved watching a lot of shows I have been in. The Book of Mormon show watches were really tough because you’d be crying with laughter and trying to make sure you remained focused enough to see what number the character you were tracking was standing on through your tears.
Of the shows I have not been in, I have loved so many. Notably recently Cyrano de Bergerac with James McAvoy, an excellent reimagined revival, Octagon which ran at the Arcola was also a favourite of mine, Matilda the Musical is a soundtrack I listen to quite a lot and a show I was brought to tears by the sheer brilliance of it. It is quite a lengthy list.
What are you looking forward to for getting back to live theatre with the Kings of Broadway concert?
Singing with people in front of a live audience! That is what I love about theatre and miss about it. That buzz in the air, anticipation, admiration, adulation, trust, appreciation. From all angles. Alex Parker has put together a phenomenal group of performers and I cannot wait to sing with/hear them all. There will be tears. We all need this.
What can you tell us about the Sunset Boulevard concert you have been announced to be part of?
I can tell you we had one day at Dance Attic as a full company and I had goosebumps all day. The cast is phenomenal and we’ve yet to put it all together with the band. It is going to be something special and I cannot wait!
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