Conversations at Scarfes Bar: Isabel Adomakoh Young
Intersectionality and avoiding the in-crowd with writer and actor Isabel Adomakoh Young. By Charlotte Metcalf
It’s June, and Isabel Adomakoh Young is starting rehearsals at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. She’s playing Juliet opposite Joel MacCormack’s Romeo in this summer’s production of Shakespeare’s most famous love story. Isabel arrives at Scarfes and is soon changing out of her boiler suit into a flamboyant, puff-sleeved dress. ‘Very Tudor, so very Juliet,’ she chuckles. The dress is by her friend Edeline Lee, who asked Isabel to take part in her show at London Fashion Week two years ago.
‘I make quite a few of my own costumes and I love styling and collecting clothes,’ says Isabel. ‘A defining moment was sitting on the tube opposite a white-haired man in a formal suit and hat – but in bright cherry red. He looked so smart and I’ll never forget it. I love researching designers and seeking out their stuff on Depop or in Oxfam shops. It’s my personal rule never to buy fast fashion.’
Isabel can look beguilingly feminine – no doubt a prerequisite for playing the love-struck young Juliet – but she identifies as a cis queer woman and actor, and is proud to don a moustache for Pecs, an all-female/ non-binary drag king collective, where she’s also a creative associate. She’ll take part in the Pecs production of The Boys are Back in Town at the Soho Theatre at the end of August. ‘I’m enthusiastically intersectional,’ she proclaims, ‘after all, I grew up in a feminist household and was always aware of my own potential for action and change.’
Isabel’s career to date feels full of both, plus a lot of adventure and risk for someone of just 28. Isabel is the result of a happy accident between the writer Louisa Young and Louis Adomakoh. ‘My parents weren’t in a relationship,’ says Isabel, ‘but they’ve stayed amazing friends and sometimes live together platonically. I never questioned how unusual it was as it seemed to work so well.’
‘Dad is from Ghana and I found an old childhood notebook where I’d written, “I am Isabel. I am black. I like lizards.” Mum always said, “You’re both. Not neither,” and I think being mixed race got me involved in racial politics from the start. Though I – and everyone else – always “read” me as being black, I’m also partly white.’ Louisa is a renowned author and together they wrote Lionboy, the children’s trilogy, under the joint pseudonym Zizou Corder. ‘I was only about eight when the first one came out and the experience shaped me.
I’d seen Mum live, work and survive as an artist and we were doing author talks and media readings at festivals and live events all over the world in the school holidays, so very early I acclimatised to the professional world and media.’
She followed in her parents’ footsteps to Cambridge University, where she read English. Though she did a lot of drama, she avoided Footlights and the ADC: ‘I was wary of committing to a clique, it all seemed a bit in-crowdish. Plus, I never saw acting as a viable career.’
After Cambridge, Isabel took a job in Jo Unwin’s literary agency. ‘I loved it. But the better the job, the more I realised I could be in it the rest of my life. I had to jump off the train. Jo came and watched me act one night and just said, “Go for it!”’ Isabel did. She joined the National Youth Theatre, completed their summer course and did nine months in rep.
She laughs as she remembers her 2019 audition with the RSC that followed: ‘“You know this job starts on Monday?” they said. I went for it. I had small parts in The Provoked Wife and Venice Preserved at the Swan, so I upped sticks and took a little cottage in Stratford-upon- Avon. I loved it. The quality of acting was incredible and it was such a chance to learn.’ It was at Stratford- upon-Avon that Kimberley Sykes, who’s directing Romeo & Juliet, spotted Isabel.
Anyone who’s ever felt stuck in a job should take inspiration from Isabel who’s always found the courage to change tack. I ask what’s next. ‘At the moment I’m feeling a strong urge to spend time with my father and his family in Ghana to get to know my heritage. I’d love to get to a point where I choose my work and can tell stories that need to be told. I want to pass the microphone out to unheard voices – we need more migrant, queer and trans stories especially. I’d love to make an independent film that has a real heart and tells the world something we don’t know about.’
I have no doubt she’ll succeed. For now, she exudes the kind of happiness and excitement that come from doing a job she loves and knowing it will lead to more adventures. ‘What’s precious to me right now is being among other artists and queer people,’ she says. ‘But what brings me most joy is seeing people being their true selves and feeling free to be whatever they want – that makes me feel quite delirious!’.
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