Jesmille Darbouze wasn't sure she would land a lead role in the revival of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which has a modern-day vibe in the retooled version now playing on Broadway. “I would have been happy as an understudy,” she confesses to EBONY. What the Afro-Latina star, who made headlines in 2019 for back-to-back performances in two Broadway shows, did know is that she had what it takes to portray Kristine Linde, the play’s widow who stands on her own. “So I auditioned for the role, and I was really proud of what I did,” she shares. “I knew I was capable of handling this part.”
It’s not all the actress is capable of doing. In the past three years, she’s given birth and pursued a nursing degree. “I’m really interested in labor and delivery rights, and supporting women during one of the most influential and incredible experiences she can have,” Darbouze says.
With her energy currently focused on the stage, the actress discusses taking on the works of a Norwegian playwright from the late 19th century, and why this story of humanity defies racial boundaries.
EBONY: You approached the producers of A Doll’s House for an understudy role, and got cast in the lead!
Jesmille Darbouze: Because this show stars Jessica Chastain, who is probably one of the most incredible actresses of our time, I had in my head that they were going to want someone with a bigger name to play alongside her because theaters have to sell tickets. I had gone out to eat with the associate director and said I wasn’t above being an understudy. He told me no, let’s get you on stage. When I got the call two days later that I had booked the role, I was sort of in shock. But I'm really happy it went my way. This experience has totally shifted my perspective of what I'm capable of doing and the way I view my worth and value in the work that we’re doing. And I'm going and going to toe to toe with Jessica Chastian, eight times a week!
This is a modern-day version of Henri Ibsen’s play, written in the Netherlands in the late 1800s. As a Black woman, what do you bring to the role?
Since her husband passed, Kristine has taken on caring for her family and made sacrifices for others in her life. But she’s also advocating for herself. I think there are parallels for Black women who are consistently finding ways to advocate for themselves. I think systemically there is fear as a female, especially as a woman of color, to ask for what you want because people might label you as difficult. There’s this extra layer of bias. Kristine is not scared to ask for what she wants, and I love that about her. The parallels of what it's like to be a woman of color in this industry, this community and in this world, I feel like I was able to bring in those experiences as well.
What's also interesting about the show is that there are several people of color in the cast. Does that play into how the story is told?
I do find that we take our ethnicity and race everywhere we go and that history is put on any piece we do, as opposed to just looking at these characters and their stories. But I don't think that we were cast specifically in these roles because of our race. These are the best actors who have the humanity needed to make it work. And that’s the takeaway, right? These characters are incredibly complex. And there are good things and bad things about these characters. They are incredibly flawed, but you're also rooting for them. The play shines a light and mirrors human beings, no matter their race.
You’ve done smaller projects, but have said you really didn’t break through in your career until 2019, at the age of 35. Why is that significant?
I had been in New York City as a working actor since 2006, but I made my Broadway debut at 35. Three weeks after doing Kiss Me, Kate, I booked Betrayal. It's kind of unheard of to book two Broadway shows in the same year. So for me, that felt like a breakthrough. I was able to bring these two amazing parts into my life. And then the pandemic hit.
You had a baby during the pandemic. Had you planned on having a child?
I knew I wanted another child. And with the shutdown, my husband and I knew that theater wasn't coming back for a while, so it seemed like a good time. We were fortunate enough to get pregnant in less than six months. I had my son Elliot, which was a huge blessing. I also went back to school because I wasn't sure what was going to happen and with two little children, I felt like I need a little bit more stability in my life. I started taking prerequisite courses to potentially go to nursing school. This time last year, I was taking microbiology on-site with three-hour lectures and lab classes while I was adjunct teaching, raising two kids, working at a restaurant three times a week and auditioning at the same time.
What can we do to encourage more Black people to pursue classical work on stage?
This is a big umbrella answer, but there isn't enough access to the arts in communities that need it. I think that's why we have such a low representation of BIPOC actors in this industry. And I would just encourage actors of color to know that there is a place for you. We are seeing a shift in the industry where stories that are being told are more inclusive, and there's still a lot of work to be done. I think more up-and-coming artists need to know that their voices and stories are important and that they need to be shared and told and that they hold value to society. Our stories are important enough.
A Doll’s House runs at the Hudson Theater in New York City through June 10, 2023.