Rotimi Agbabiaka: Transforming perceptions onstage and off

Bay Area actor naturally, skillfully embodies varied gender roles, identities

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Rotimi Agbabiaka balances multiple gender roles and identities quite naturally. As an actor, transformation and quick change are his stock-in-trade, though the pandemic required even more adaptability to his fluid practice, a skill he attributes in part to his training with the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

“It’s such an incredible way to begin in theater, learning and performing with these legends of physical comedy,” said Agbabiaka, who arrived here fresh out of grad school to perform in the Mime Troupe’s 2010 production, “Possibilidad.”

“Every actor has to play several characters. When I think about what I’ve done since with solo shows, transforming physically into a character, those skills have meant so much to me,” he said.

About to commence playing an activist drag queen confined to jail in the Mime Troupe’s podcast series, “Tales of the Resistance Vol. 2,” Agbabiaka also has performed with esteemed ensembles at American Conservatory Theater, the Magic Theatre, Cal Shakes and in the longstanding San Francisco musical “Beach Blanket Babylon.” But during the shutdown, he mostly worked solo, developing his piece, “Manifesto,” moving it from the stage at the Brava Theatre to the screen with direction by Brava’s Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe.

“It explores a queer Black artist during the pandemic who is on the brink of success, headed to New York for role in a Broadway show and the big time, asking questions like, ‘What am I doing, what is success, what does it mean to be a queer Black artist when diversity is in? And what do I want to put into the world? What am I doing as the Black face or the queer face in the production?’”

Conjuring questions asked by Black artists throughout time and in the spirit of comedy by the Wayans Brothers, Robert Townsend (“Hollywood Shuffle”) and Dave Chappelle, Agbabiaka invites his artistic ancestors and heroes to show up in the movie, to offer their own takes on the questions.

“James Baldwin is definitely someone I’ve been very inspired by. He says the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers,” said Agbabiaka. “We get presented a lot of answers by society, how to solve the problem, what the conventional wisdom is at the moment. That statement of his is a reminder that as an artist you should always be questioning, you should always be able and willing to investigate and question and uncover, ask new questions and reveal new questions to deepen our understanding as people.”

Agbabiaka’s answer is to be part of that tradition, “to do what I want to do, to keep pushing the envelope by asking the questions and doing it with the language of theater, comedy, music and spectacle.”

In “Manifesto,” he also morphs into singer-songwriter, pianist and composer Nina Simone — “She talks about art being used to ‘Shake things up’”— and film director Alejandro Jodorowsky.

“His questions are playful, as he confronts the role that money and the pursuit of money has on the arts. I look to all of them for guidance,” said Agbabiaka, who also takes the guise of his father, various gatekeepers in show business, and the ultimate authority.

“It’s a bit of a spoiler but God appears, and she is a Nigerian drag queen who drops some words of wisdom for the young protagonist,” he said. “Reclaiming a sense of the divine, creating gods in our image is a beautiful thing we do with storytelling and art to create new stories.”

Agbabiaka is originally from Lagos, Nigeria and lived there until he moved to Texas with his family when he was 14. Graduating from University of Texas at Austin, he achieved an MFA in acting from Northern Illinois University before making his home here, first in the Mission and more recently in the Castro.

“I grew up in a Christian household and there was a schism that being queer was a problem, my father praying to God to heal me,” he said. But Agbabiaka was also aware of the orisha, the deities of the Yoruba people, the ethnic group of Nigeria and its surrounding region of West Africa.

“Eshu is also the trickster god of the in-between, of decision making, understandings, and is multiple genders,” said Agbabiaka, confirming that he “answers to all pronouns.” For this story, “he” was his preference for the sake of consistency.

Agbabiaka recently had the experience of embodying another multi-dimensional spirit guide during his run in “Psychopomp,” an immersive outdoor production by We Players which wrapped last weekend in McLaren Park. As figures in Greek mythology, psychopomps serve as go-betweens, between worlds; the assembled actors sought to create the transitional space between life and the afterlife, the so-called crossroads where one chooses their eternal path.

Rotimi Agbabiaka portrayed a multi-dimensional spirit guide in “Psychopomp,” a recent We Players production in McLaren Park. <ins>(Courtesy Lauren Matley)</ins>

Rotimi Agbabiaka portrayed a multi-dimensional spirit guide in “Psychopomp,” a recent We Players production in McLaren Park. (Courtesy Lauren Matley)

“The piece was created with nature,” explained Agbabiaka, its intention to complete the connection between audience, actor and the natural world. For his role as Papa Legba (a manifestation of Eshu throughout the African diaspora), Agbabiaka chose half-male, half-female costuming to evoke “Yoruba tradition, a queer sensibility and artistry, COVID limbo and the emergence from it.”

Again, he was acting the questions instead of necessarily answering them.

“What are the different parts of you that are contradictory and complimentary? What do you want to take with you and leave behind? There is ambiguity at the beginning of the journey of the afterlife, though in a way, it could easily stand in for life after the pandemic,” he said.

“As we re-enter society, the journey for the actor, as well as for the audience, is to look at choices. It’s really been a wonderful way of appreciating the variety that human beings are,” he said of his experience in “Psychopomp.”

Returning to the Mime Troupe for its 62nd season is a homecoming of sorts for Agbabiaka, his own values in sync with the collective’s commitment to making change through performance following “a difficult and surreal year, definitely some lows and highs,” he said.

“It’s wonderful to be working with the Troupe … creating work that lays bare the questions and mechanisms that create the situations and contribute to the problems we have is a great lesson in how art can entertain, inform and inspire people to action,” he said.

Rotimi Agbabiaka, pictured at the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s Mission District rehearsal space, says an artist’s mission is to “always be questioning.” (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Rotimi Agbabiaka, pictured at the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s Mission District rehearsal space, says an artist’s mission is to “always be questioning.” (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

“Those ideals of a collaborative space, where you are encouraged to contribute to the show, discuss political issues, and the magic of theater to speak to the burning issues of our day has had a huge impact on everything I’ve done. It’s meant so much to me to have that be the beginning.”

San Francisco Mime Troupe’s “Tales of the Resistance: Vol 2” radio play podcast series streams July 4-through Sept. 5; suggested donation is $10. Visit SFMT.ORG.

“Manifesto: A Film By Rotimi Agbabiaka” can be seen through July 18 via Brava Theatre; tickets are $15. Visit brava.org/upcoming.

Denise Sullivan, an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions,” can be reached at http://denisesullivan.com.

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