Seattle Times Review

In ‘Ode,’ Seattle actress channels dark memories, midlife triumphs

Originally published May 2, 2017 at 10:27 am Updated May 9, 2017 at 7:36 am

Nike Imoru in “Ode,” at West of Lenin through May 20. (Navid Baraty)

You might recognize Nike Imoru from her roles with upstart crow or Seattle Repertory Theatre, or you might watch the TV show she casts, “Z Nation.” In her new show, she’s playing herself, tracing her life from childhood in Africa to the present day.

Whether portraying a sword-waving Shakespearean warrior dressed for battle in sleek leather or coaching faux-zombies as a casting director for the Syfy cable series “Z Nation,” Nike (pronounced NI-kay) Imoru is a striking woman to observe in action — and in repose.

Just sitting across the table quietly chatting with you about her life, and her autobiographical new dance-theater piece “Ode” (at Fremont’s West of Lenin through May 20), Imoru’s presence is vivid.

With her large and expressive eyes, petite but muscular frame and classically trained, British-accented vocal chops, she has been a standout at Seattle Repertory Theatre and in all-female Shakespeare productions by upstart crow and Seattle Shakespeare Company. (Next fall she’ll star in a feminized version of the Bard’s “Coriolanus,” presented by The Demo Site and Rebel Kat Productions.)

But her current stage role is especially challenging: she’s playing herself, as a shy child and exuberant midlife adult.

In “Ode,” alongside dancer-collaborator Simone Bruyere Fraser as her kinetic alter-ego/subconscious, Imoru recaptures several harrowing and exultant events from her peripatetic past. The fervent, witty and sometimes gobsmackingly intense memoir is staged by British director John Britton, and it packs a visceral charge.

“I wanted to look at how an artist is created, this artist, how I developed and grew into the actor and person I am,” Imoru explained over tea. “I wanted to share the challenges and the extraordinary triumphs of my life.”

It’s been quite a life so far. Though she has traveled and resided in more than 20 countries, “Ode” unfolds in nonlinear vignettes in three pivotal locales: London, where Imoru was born and educated; Nigeria, where she spent her childhood with her African parents; and Washington state, her home for the past 15 years.

“I grew up within a Nigerian context and a Western context,” noted the Seattle resident, who also maintains a casting studio in Los Angeles. “I had the backdrop of the Biafran War as a child, and witnessed its terrible residual effects.”

“Ode” alludes to the repercussions of that conflict, and to other kinds of violence that more directly affected Imoru’s childhood and adult identity. But with poetic passages from “Macbeth” and “King Lear” seamlessly blended into her text, her love for, and facility with, Shakespeare’s verse adds other colors, textures and sparks of infectious joy to an intimate saga.

Until recently, we learn, she was blocking out the darker recesses of her past. But when a serious health crisis struck a couple years ago (later resolved with a major operation), it brought up cataclysmic memories from her early years. And it spurred the creation of “Ode.”

“That was a turning point. And the story of how the show came to be is in the play,” said Imoru, with a gentle request to not give away the script’s startling twists.

A classically trained actor, and a theater historian with a Ph.D from England’s University of Warwick, Imoru traveled the world teaching, including stints at University of Idaho and Western Washington University. But, she declares, “I was an actor first,” and a free spirit who always understood that “I wouldn’t survive academic, bureaucratic structures forever.”

Later, a successful career recruiting and coaching actors here and in L.A. for TV and films became a satisfying way to pay the bills, teach performance skills and help scare up work for others. She’s proud of “populating” the continuing zombie-drama “Z Nation” (which is filmed in Spokane) with “90 percent local actors. It’s a great showcase for our scene.”

When taking on the new challenge of scripting her own two-person show, Imoru felt “an urgency to write and speak directly from the heart, from places less cultured and cultivated and analytical than when I was writing as a professor.”

The resulting work is in tune with a contemporary tradition of highly choreographed European dance-drama fusions. Blending verbal storytelling with vigorous movement on a nearly bare stage, the piece is informed by collaborative techniques director Britton teaches in his Duende School of Ensemble Physical Theatre in Greece, and has outlined in his book “Encountering Ensemble.”

Incorporating a musical score by Ryan “Nails” Leyva and lighting by Geoff Korf, “Ode” is both an exorcism and celebration for Imoru. It ends with the marking of her 50th birthday last year, which she describes as a kind of rebirth.

Offstage Imoru reflects, “I’ve always been interested in autobiographical women’s writing, and how women chronicle their lives, finding the universal themes in that. And I wanted this to be a real experience, as much as a play.” And without being over self-indulgent but bravely self-revealing, so it is.

Nike Imoru