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Juma Sharkah: From the slum to the stage

SURVIVOR: Juma Sharkah

ANYONE WHO had the opportunity to watch Juma Sharkah’s harrowing performance as a girl forced to take on the brutal role of a child soldier during the Liberian Civil War would not be surprised that the actress was nominated for a prestigious Laurence Olivier Award.

Still, receiving the prestigious nod for her role in the production Liberian Girl was a pretty impressive feat considering the 20-year-old actress hadn’t even graduated from drama school.

The role, however, was an obvious fit for the rising star, who has experienced her fair share of war-related tragedy in real life.

Sharkah was born in war-torn Sierra Leone, where she faced some truly shocking experiences.

Though she admits she “doesn’t really like talking about it,” Sharkah reveals that before she turned 13, she stared death in the face.

“Basically, what they [soldiers] did was line people up and then kill them,” she recalled. “They would say ‘sing for us’ and we would have to sing for them.

“As you’re singing, they’re killing people. Then it was our turn – my family. But what happened – I don’t know. It was like the grace of God, something interrupted the whole thing and we just managed to run away.”

After escaping death, a young Sharkah was forced to face more troubles.

“My house was burnt down. I was sleeping in gutters, I was naked, I had nothing.”

For a year, she was out of education, but then her mother was able to come to England and Sharkah and her sister were able to join her.

Upon arrival in the UK, the aspiring actress, who is currently starring in The Skriker at Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, started applying to drama schools while she was at Leyton Sixth Form College in east London.

Although she can’t put her finger on the moment she fell in love with drama, Sharkah believes she was inspired by watching Nollywood films as a child.


STAGE STAR: Sharkah stars alongside Maxine Peake in The Skriker

“There’s a Nigerian actress called Genevieve Nnaji and I admired her a lot. She’s very raw and I just loved that.”

With Creole as her mother tongue, the language barrier when she arrived in London also heavily influenced her.

“When I came to England, I found it hard speaking English, so for me, I started expressing myself through movement and then acting came about.

“I did drama in secondary school and then I was still keen. I still wanted to find out more about it. So I did it at Leyton Sixth Form. I didn’t even know drama school existed until I went there.”

After being accepted to all the colleges she applied for, the 20-year-old was awarded a full scholarship and bursary to attend Arts Educational Schools London at 18.

“I chose to go ArtsEd, because as soon as I entered, I felt warm and at home.

“Coming from Africa, coming to another man’s country, you’re always, not searching for home necessarily, but you just want to have that rest. As soon as I walked into ArtsEd, I felt that.”

As she anxiously awaits her final grades, Sharkah can’t thank her ArtsEd teachers enough.

“They’ve been very supportive. I’ve always felt like I don’t fit in ‘cause I’m an African kid with an African accent.

“But one thing they kept saying to me was ‘yes we have accent classes for you to learn new accents, but your accent is yours. Do not try and change yourself. That’s what makes you unique. They taught me to embrace myself.”

Juma Sharkah stars in The Skriker at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until August 1. Visit www.royalexchange.co.uk

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