"so much of being a self-employed creative is about your own drive, your own passion, your own resilience." | An Interview with Gemma Knight Jones

7 Mar 2024
Gemma Knight Jones (L) and Khadijah Sawyers in Young Company production "There's Nobody Else...". Photo Chelsea Cliff

Gemma Knight Jones is an actor, singer and vocal arranger. She’s currently playing Professor Bowman in Starter for TenKhadijah Sawyers is an aspiring actor and theatre maker currently at Bristol Old Vic as part of its Young SixSix company and Made in Bristol 2023/24 cohort. 

We thought they might make a mighty double act, so we asked Gemma if she'd spare a lunchbreak to chat with Khadijah about her career in theatre, and shared her advice for young theatre makers just like Khadijah coming into the industry today.

Gemma in rehearsals for Starter for Ten. Photo Marc Brenner

Khadijah: You’ve been open about your journey as a dark-skinned woman in this industry – can you tell us a bit about your challenges and how you tackled them?

Gemma: For me, having been in the industry for some time now, I guess only in more recent years I’ve felt able to speak up about that more.

I’ve been working in theatre for around 15 years now and the landscape has massively changed. I came into theatre, specifically musical theatre, at the time when jukebox musicals were gaining popularity and that for me, as a Black woman, was a positive thing. My first commercial show was Hairspray – a show that needed a diverse cast, being set in the segregated South of 60s’ America. Suddenly, there was space for and, at times, a necessity for a number of Black cast members.

Another pivotal moment of my early career was being in the West End cast of The Lion King. They have stipulations in that contract that protect the employment of a certain percentage of South African performers in the cast because the score is peppered with Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho, and references the spiritual side of Black South African culture. It was and still is refreshing to see that the intention and care has been taken for over 20 years now to keep this piece as authentic as possible.

But being a bit older now, what feels right to me at this point in my career, is to do shows that aren’t focused on my ethnicity. That I’m being seen for roles that don’t feel two-dimensional and stereotypical and I think we’re starting to see this within the industry now.

I want to be seen as the doctor or the police officer or the Professor, like the current role I’m playing in Starter for Ten, rather than always a character particularly defined by a specific historic time or event.

It’s a big deal, for example, that an Asian girl was cast as the lead in David Nicholls’ Netflix adaptation of One Day, which I’ve recently finished and loved, by the way! That wouldn’t have happened 3–4 years ago. 

These kind of steps and out-of-the-box thinking is encouraging to me as a dark-skinned Black performer.

Gemma in A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic 2023

K: That resonates with me a lot, thank you. You’ve had such a varied career – how do you feel about the state of representation of Black women in theatre, and what changes do you want to see? 

G: I feel steps are being made, and I’m thinking about people in positions beyond just the acting company – where the decisions are made – this is where the diversity needs to reach, so it trickles down to the stage. I’m thinking about people like Lynette Linton, running The Bush Theatre, and also Nancy here at BOV – these are important appointments that embolden other Black creatives to say “yeah, this is possible now”. The work that is programmed becomes more diverse. Different voices are given a platform, and it brings a wider variety of people into the theatre space. Just being a woman in leadership roles, never mind talking about race, is a corner to get around. These steps open up the gateway to allow diversity of gender and race to exist in them.

Nancy Medina, Bristol Old Vic (L). Photo Barbara Evripidou. Lynette Linton, Bush Theatre (R). Photo by Bronwen Sharp

K: How important is a support system and network for people like me starting out, and do you have advice on that?

G: One good thing about social media is how much it opens up networking with everybody. I’m finding that too. I find social media helpful in finding out what’s going on. That’s my first tip – connect with theatre spaces and artists doing the things you’re interested in. It’s a big web with so many connectors. Personally, I’m part of a WhatsApp group called ‘Black, Booked and Blessed’ that I find a great hub of info and advice – from the biggest production to the smallest grass roots opportunities. There’s so much work going on that’s under the radar, but it’s absolutely happening.

Also, I do subscribe to the idea of not only trying to get a seat at the table, but creating your own table instead. We can take ownership now – that’s my plan. I recently wrote a post on social media about being the only dark-skinned performer in a recent production, and how that informed my time in the job. Surprisingly enough, that was the first time I’d been in this position in my career, so it felt like a moment that needed to be marked somehow.

I received a lot of responses from other Black creatives about my perspective on how we might change our mindset to help empower, rather than put boundaries up and close ourselves down. For me, it’s always important to think about people who look like me, and try to inspire them to go out there and get what they dream of.

K: How do you balance being true to your artistic self and dealing with the industry’s demands?

G: It is hard to do both. The industry is relentless and makes you feel very much like if you don’t say yes to everything you’ll be forgotten, and that you should be grateful for what you get. The mindset needs to be that you’ve worked hard, and you deserve the work you’re getting. That helps you keep balance and keep focussed on what’s important in your life as a whole, not just through the lens of your career.

Photo by Liza Heinrichs

K: What is next on your career bucket list, both as a performer and as an advocate for Black creatives?

G: I want to create a community of young global majority artists and creatives to talk about the whys and wherefores of the industry, the things that feel good (and not so good perhaps) about the industry. I’m in the process of starting my own Substack to house this community and to explore these ideas, and I’d love to eventually grow that platform into a one-to-one mentoring service.

So that is my plan for non-acting stuff. And bucket list, goodness me, I think I just have a bucket list of theatres! The Old Vic, London was one of them, which I’ve just done, and Bristol Old Vic was another. So hooray, two great theatre spaces ticked off my list in the last 6 months – not bad!

Gemma in Starter for Ten rehearsals with Stephenson Ardern-Sodje and Adam Bregman. Photo Marc Brenner

K: What advice would you leave us with today? 

G: Being a self-employed creative is very much about your own drive, your own passion, your own get-up-and-go, your own resilience. Make your own work, connect with people that are doing things that you’re interested in. It’s a great time to be a creative in that sense, because the world is much more open and accessible to people intentionally carving out spaces by and for themselves.

Gemma as Professor Bowman in Starter for Ten. Photo Marc Brenner