How the brilliant Cynthia Erivo continues to forge a new path for people of colour
“If you’re going to go for a thing, there’s no point unless you’re going all the way.”
Standing at a little over five feet with her cropped hair, pierced ears and a dazzling smile, Cynthia Erivo is nothing short of a revelation. An incredibly talented singer and actress, Erivo’s delightful on-screen presence is mesmerising and captivating in equal measure. Her raw talent is palpable with her powerful voice and innate acting separating her from the rest. The Tony, Emmy and Grammy recipient has received several accolades including two Academy Award nominations as her meteoric rise to acclaim continues its ascent. Her infectious on-screen presence has fuelled a burgeoning career, one which is highly inspirational for all creatively inspired people of colour.
Erivo, of Nigerian descent and born in Stockwell, South London, was raised within a strong family unit centred around her mother. Having grown up with an absent father, one she did not see since she turned 16, Cynthia has described her childhood to be “pretty cool” and one spearheaded by a strong female lead. While she was somewhat of a hustler in the Catholic school she attended, one which her young mind led her to raise a lot of questions, it was a period of that opened up her desire to openly discuss important themes. While she discovered her love for singing at the very tender age of five during nativity play, a career in music seemed too streamlined given the rising competition in the field. Instead, Cynthia Erivo pursued music psychology at the University of East London before applying to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where she trained herself.
Erivo, who has always been at the top of her game, realised that as a person of colour, she would have to work extra hard to achieve what she wanted. One of the only four people of colour in her group, Erivo was soon cast in a minor role despite being a more accomplished singer with more enigmatic vocals than the lead. She was made to sing on behalf of one of the performers behind the curtains which, looking back, is not a choice she is proud of. As Steve Rose quoted her saying in an interview with The Guardian, “It still makes me feel a little bit yuck to think that I even agreed to it.”
Erivo soon gained prominence in the realms of British television and theatre. Having starred in programmes such as Chewing Gum, The Tunnel and more, the first musical she bagged was John Adams and June Jordans’ I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. Erivo’s major breakthrough then arrived in 2013 when she was cast in the musical The Color Purple. It is for her fantastic performance and rendition of the song ‘I’m Here’ that her unique flair for singing and acting was brought to audience attention. Shortly after, Erivo did get to perform on Broadway, being the only cast member from the original group to tag along.
Representation and diversity are critical issues in the world today, especially within the film industry where, despite the introduction of diverse roles, people of colour continue being marginalised. Cynthia Erivo is no exception; however, she never gave up and continued striving hard for her goals. Erivo’s film debut in the 2018 feature Bad Times at the El Royale brought forth her splendid performance, a showing in which she was called “revelatory in the most rewarding sense” by LA Times’ Justin Chang.
However, it was Kasi Lemmons’ biographical drama Harrietthat resonated with Erivo the most. The film was based on one of the most polarising and revolutionary Black woman to have walked the earth, Harriet Tubman, who was not only known for taking extreme measures to liberate slaves but also for her selfless contribution to the women’s suffrage movement. The role was exhilarating and challenging for Erivo who identified herself at a better position than that of Tubman. She further emphasised that Black women have a long way to go; she could not help but draw parallels between the tumultuous political climate of the civil war as well as the present-day given the rise in the white supremacists, systemic oppression, racism and violence.
Dynamic and inspiring, the film is about a woman who had embarked dauntlessly on a journey beset with difficulties; Cynthia Erivo did absolute justice to the role. She received Academy Award nominations for Best Actress as well as Best Original Song. While she did encounter a lot of backlash for this role as Tubman was an American and Erivo was British, she dismissed such conversation by talking about how her identity was not ‘British’ but that of “a black woman”. She further asserted: “The first things people see are the colour of my skin and my sex. That’s how I have lived my whole life. All I can do as an actor is to tell the story. That’s my job.”
It was quite paradoxical given Erivo had been marginalised for the very same issues previously – being black took away her position as the lead actor in the musical. Erivo has always been very vocal about the criticism she has to face regarding her looks. However, this queen does not let paltry hate comments bother her; she is focused on her set of goals. “Just because I don’t look like everybody else doesn’t mean that I can’t be just as beautiful.”
An inspiration for women all over the world, especially for those of colour, Erivo’s perseverance and hard work continue to bring her the best fruits of her labour. In 2019, Erivo was nominated at the BAFTA’s Rising Star Awards, a decision which made her feel “grateful”. She said: “It means the world to me to be acknowledged by the community that, for most of my life, I’ve known as home. Thank you for this incredible honour.”
Erivo, who was seen in HBO’s The Outsider, will star in the 2021 film Chaos Walking as well as in an anthology series Genius where she shall be portraying her favourite idol, Aretha Franklin. Determined and passionate, Erivo continues to inspire young fans all over the world, proving herself despite the racism that pervades Hollywood even today, cementing a path for the people of colour.
“I discovered at the age of five that I could sing, and I realised people liked it. The sound that came out made people happy, so I kept doing it.”