Rotimi Agbabiaka - The talented actor adds 'Cabaret's MC to his roster, again

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Tuesday May 21, 2024
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Actor Rotimi Agbabiaka
Actor Rotimi Agbabiaka

"Cabaret," the classic musical with lyrics by Fred Ebb, music by John Kander and book by Joe Masteroff, will be staged at the Center Repertory Company at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek from May 26-June 23. Originally opened on Broadway in 1966, "Cabaret" was based on the 1951 play "I Am a Camera" by John Van Druten, which was in turn based on the 1939 novel "Goodbye to Berlin" by noted gay author Christopher Isherwood.

"Cabaret," though filled with splashy musical numbers, is a very serious work. Set in Berlin in the very early 1930s, it focuses on The Kit Kat Klub, a seedy nightclub which, according to the show, flourished during the Weimar Era, that brief period between the World Wars when Berlin was a beacon of sexual freedom and artistic expression. The show's story is set during a very dark time: the rise of the Nazis, which brought an end to the freedom that Berliners were enjoying.

Rotimi Agbabiaka (center) with the cast of 'Cabaret' (photo: MacKensie Crane)  

One of the most memorable characters in "Cabaret" is the Master of Ceremonies, the flamboyant, androgynous host at the Kit Kat Klub. When Center Rep unveils its new production, the Master of Ceremonies, or Emcee, will be played by queer Bay Area theater performer Rotimi Agbabiaka, who is no stranger to playing flamboyant characters. In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Agbabiaka spoke about the show, and about some of the drag characters he's played.

David-Elijah Nahmod: Please tell us a bit about you.
Rotimi Agbabiaka: I'm an actor, writer, director and teacher. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, I attended high school in Katy, Texas, went to the University of Texas in Austin, studied acting at the Moscow Art Theater, received my MFA in acting from Northern Illinois University, and fled the midwest for the sometimes warmer and gayer climate of San Francisco where I have lived for fourteen years.

I currently teach acting, solo performance and theater making at Stanford University. I am drawn to theater because of the opportunity it affords me to travel through time, space and cultures, to speak beautifully crafted words, express huge emotions, sing gorgeous music, and wear fabulous costumes.

Rotimi Agbabiaka at Zombie Minnelli  

Please tell us a bit about your drag character Zombie Minnelli.
Zombie Minnelli began about a decade ago as a Halloween costume, which I came up with because I adore Liza and also in order to take advantage of my friend's newly acquired skills at applying zombie makeup. I dubbed her "Zombie with a Z Minelli" and she was a huge hit at every party I attended. So I brought her back the following year to perform at "Something," a weekly drag show at The Stud. She sang "Death is a Cabaret" and absolutely killed.

Rotimi Agbabiaka as Miss Cleo Patois singing as Nina Simone  

Please tell us about your drag character Miss Cleo Patois.
Miss Cleo Patois is my main drag alter-ego. She was born at The Stud and most recently appeared at the weekly party "Something." She's since been spotted at Aunt Charlie's, Oasis, Hard French and the San Jose Pride stage, among other locales. She's a theatrical, live singing jazz dancing conduit of high and low culture who only makes rare appearances these days.

Please tell us how you see the character of the Master of Ceremonies in "Cabaret."
The Master of Ceremonies is your guide through the heavenly hell that is the Kit Kat Klub. He's a shapeshifting fiend who embodies the delights and horrors of the kind of decadence that consumed Berlin at the time.

The Emcee usually wears a flashy costume. Do you know what your costume will be like in Center Rep's production?
Our costume designer, Becky Bodurtha, is creating so many beautiful emcee looks and is certainly leaning into his gender expansive nature. I have several costumes in this production and they run the gamut from flashy to funny to adorable to sultry to sinister.

You've played the Emcee before. What do you like about playing this character?
I played the Emcee in college and am excited to play the role professionally for the first time. I love getting to sing, dance, act and interact with the audience as such a colorful, queer, and multi-layered character. I love the cheeky sex appeal of the role and the way that his dark undercurrents bubble up through the mesmerizing surface.

Rotimi Agbabiaka in fab drag  

Would you say there are parallels between the story of "Cabaret" and what's going on in the world today, given the rise of the religious right and conservative politicians?
I think what "Cabaret" does wonderfully is show us various characters in a turbulent time, which may have some parallels to our own, and the different ways in which they respond, from ramping up their addictions, to fleeing, to denial, to keeping their heads down, to full out collaboration with some pretty dark forces.

I don't think "Cabaret" gives us any answers about how to stop fascism, that's a bit too much to ask of any play, in my opinion. What it does so well is allow the audience to experience the thrill and subversion of queer Berlin in the 1930s and the uncertainty and looming horror of the Nazi era.

Ultimately the audience is left with the question Fraulein Schneider poses: "What would you do?" And I imagine there could be as many answers as there are audience members.

'Cabaret,' Center Repertory Company at the Lesher Center for the Arts, $58-$64, May 26-June 23, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek.

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