The universe was trying to tell her something. It was August 2021, and Ronke Adekoluejo was “strung out” performing her solo show, Lava, at the Bush Theatre in London and shooting a TV pilot at the same time.
During a particularly intense day of filming at one of the BBC’s historic buildings, she observed a room filled with creative works dedicated to musicians from the 17th to 19th centuries. Within the collection, a book on Joseph Bologne, the virtuoso violinist and champion fencer known also as Chevalier de Saint-Georges or (reductively and problematically) the “Black Mozart”. Adekoluejo opened the book, “flipped through it” and found it informative. He was born in 1745 in Guadalupe; the son of a wealthy French plantation owner and an enslaved Senegalese woman named Nanon. Such was his musical genius that Bologne’s compositions would be heard echoing through the gilded halls of Château de Versailles and deeply admired by Marie Antoinette herself. Less than a week after reading his story, Adekoluejo ‘s agent emailed her about an audition. It was for the part of Bologne’s mother in the Stefani Robinson–written biopic titled Chevalier.
“It was such a dream,” the actor tells StyleCaster over Zoom, pausing for a moment to recall whether she could pay a character, and a mother, nine years older than herself. But the script was just too good, she says. For her audition, it was “the scene in the film where I’m trying to wash my son’s clothes, but I do it wrong,” Adekoluejo explains, “So, I kind of destroy one of his jackets and he tells me off for it.” She filmed her audition video (standard Hollywood procedure in a post-COVID world) with her mom, who had some strong words of advice: “She was like, ‘You’re not a mother, you don’t know what you’re doing!’” Adekoluejo says with a laugh. “But I’ve found that if you want a job, so much, you can also suffocate it and your audition ends up being not about the character, it ends up being about desperation and yourself … That [knowledge] comes with age, as well, and it definitely benefited the role of Nanon because she has lived this life where desperation is out of the question, it’s more about resilience. It’s about survival.”
Ronke Adekoluejo spoke to STYLECASTER about which historical figures inspired her portrayal of Nanon and why she draws issue with Joseph Bologne’s nickname as The Black Mozart.
As your character was an enslaved woman, I can’t imagine there were many historical documents you could refer to about who Nanon was. How did you go about researching her or did you have quite a bit of creative freedom?
Both, actually. I do this really intensive character book, which is like 100 questions or more on like, what was the weather like when you were born? Or what’s your parent’s middle name? What’s your occupation? Describe your parents. What do they look like? Do you have any siblings? When was your first kiss?
Because I figured out that I couldn’t really find much online, I was allowed to create this whole world, but I still have questions about who she was. And in order for me to answer them as authentically as I could, I decided to look to other Black women in history that have withheld or defended themselves against oppression, abuse and enslavement and really took matters into their own hands.
Like Yaa Asantewaa, who fought the British in the War of the Golden Stool in 1900, Nanny of the Maroons in Jamaica, Harriet Tubman. All of these women. And luckily for me, someone somewhere thought it was important that these people’s stories were recorded. So those were the women that I pulled on to assist me in trying to bring Nanon to life. Because I needed their strength, I needed their resilience, I needed the understanding of what it was that they were actually facing. Because I felt like in 2023—also, just in the privileges that I’ve grown up [with]—I haven’t faced intense racism and xenophobia as these characters, these people would have had to live through. But also, it’s a bit traumatic to tell and relive.
On having to relive that trauma, which were the most challenging parts, and which parts were the most rewarding?
Oh, there were so many rewarding parts and I thought this even though the subject matter is quite intense in terms of my character’s journey. I had the most beautiful time making this film with these people. I got to work with a drama therapist, who I’ve had the pleasure of working with on a couple of projects, Wabriya King, who helps the actor be able to separate themselves from their characters.
People’s names are their direct connection to who they are and what they give us, and what they’re supposed to offer to the world.
So you can compartmentalize?
Yeah. Because your body doesn’t know it’s not real. If you have to run through the forest for fear of your life, your body’s gonna think that’s actually happening. Because we have to do takes again and again, we have to train our bodies in order to understand that we’re not in danger, so that we don’t overload our systems.
Why do you think we’re only learning Joseph’s story now?
I think that as time moves on, especially in the digital age that we live in, people are able to be informed without relying on the big gatekeepers. For so long, the people that are in power—and I’m doing air quotes because I feel that power is relative—the people that are in power held on to the narrative of how they saw us; whether we’re working class, Black, brown majority, global majority trends, disabled and non-binary, etc. All those people have been told to sit down because that’s not what is celebrated, that’s not what is acceptable. And because now we’ve all said “Fuck ya, we don’t care.” Pardon my language, sorry—
Oh my God, no, let it rip.
We don’t care about what you tell us. We should be celebrating ourselves and seeing ourselves being celebrated. Because ultimately, what it comes down to is money. And once we start putting money in their pockets and putting money in our own, people are gonna be like, “Oh, no. We need to keep up”
Joseph Bologne is often referred to as The Black Mozart, which is quite problematic because not saying his name, it’s a form of erasure.
I agree. Actually, I feel like in Yoruba culture—my parents are both Nigerian—in our tribe, it is very important, your name, because the whole community comes together to name you. You’re not named before you’re born, you’re named a week after, give or take. And your grandma, if they’re alive, gives you a name, your parents, siblings, all these different people give you a name. Because our names are like proverbs, or should I say they’re like mottos. So for me, personally, I always feel that people’s names are their direct connection to who they are and what they give us, and what they’re supposed to offer to the world. … Even by just calling him Chevalier, not Joseph Bologne, we’re kind of erasing him because he was Joseph before he was Chevalier.
Chevalier is in cinemas.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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