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24 September 2014
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Sea Of Souls

Rakie Ayola plays Yemi Wande
Episodes 5 & 6

Taking on the role of Yemi Wande in the third Sea Of Souls storyline became a quest into the deep roots of her own origins for Cardiff-born actress Rakie Ayola. It put her in touch with her ancestry and shed light on a history she knew little about.

"Like Yemi, I am Yoruba," she explains. "But I knew far more about being Welsh than being Yoruba. It's a religion/tribe, so it's almost like being a Celt. You can be African without being Yoruba, you can be British without being Scottish or Welsh."

The term Yoruba describes a number of semi-independent peoples loosely linked by geography, language, history and religion and this ancient tribe now numbers over 20 million around south-western Nigeria.

"My father is Nigerian and my mother's from Sierra Leone," Ayola explains. "My brother was raised over there so he speaks Yoruba which is akin to speaking Welsh or Gaelic."

The third story in the Sea Of Souls trilogy sees Ayola's character, twenty-something student Yemi, plunged into the dark and terrifying world of voodoo while searching for her missing brother who she fears has become embroiled in an extreme Yoruba cult.

Her investigations may have shed light on her origins but playing Yemi also gave 35-year-old Ayola a glimpse of the dark side.

Yemi is an ordinary student who suddenly finds herself at the centre of a living nightmare. Her father is dying from cancer, her brother disappears and the horrific spectre of ritual Muti killings casts a shadow over her safety and her sanity.

"But it wasn't the spooky side of it that leapt out at me when I was reading it – it was the incredible sadness of it all for Yemi," insists Ayola.

"She finds herself completely alone in the world on top of having people chasing her. The only person she can turn to is a complete stranger, Gemmill. So when I say it's been a joy to play that's because for an actor it's a gift, an absolute gift."

But there was a price to pay. Ayola reveals that the harrowing storyline of Yemi's experiences took its toll.

"I think I knew when I started doing it that I should prepare to be under a cloud for seven weeks. To play her well I knew I'd be miserable for longer than when I was just saying the lines.

"The difficulty was explaining that to people. They were constantly coming up asking me if I was all right," she laughs. "Which was lovely of them – but they weren't to know that I was thinking about a scene coming up and I couldn't join in the fun at the moment.

"If someone cracked a joke I couldn't be laughing at that one minute and running terrified across Westminster Bridge the next – I just couldn't do that."

But she came up with the perfect solution. "I developed a strategy that, if I was in a situation where I couldn't be by myself, I would simply put my Walkman on which said, loud and clear, 'Closed for the afternoon'."

Ayola is acutely aware of the responsibility of playing Yemi and the potential impact of this piece of disturbing drama.

"I don't want to offend any Yoruba people," she says. "To many viewers these names will mean nothing, so we needed to emphasise that Yoruba is a legitimate thing to be.

"If the woman next door is Yoruba, don't think for a second that she is anything to do with Muti magic.

"I think it was important to cast it and play it in a way that says, 'OK, this originated in Africa but other people have taken it on.'

"There are people who do terrible things and it's a side of life that we might not want to acknowledge, but it happens. These are the people that Yemi needs to fear."

Ayola trained at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama where she was recently made a Fellow.

"There was a wonderful ceremony in St David's Hall and I got to wear this extraordinary gown and mortarboard in purple – my favourite clothes colour," she says proudly.

"You can blame it all on Barbra Streisand – it was seeing her in Hello Dolly when I was a kid that made me want to do all this in the first place. But after doing musicals at school and in amateur dramatics I haven't done one since."

Instead Ayola has made her mark in EastEnders – playing Dan Sullivan's barrister – Being April and Maisie Rain, both with Pauline Quirke.

"But taking on Yemi in Sea Of Souls is certainly the most challenging thing I've done on screen," she says. "And it's opened a whole new chapter in my life."


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