Ito Aghayere’s resume doesn’t read like any other actor’s. As she makes her Broadway debut in Ayad Akhtar’s new play Junk, her bio, of course, includes credits like Danai Gurira’s Familiar, appearances in Classic Stage Company’s The Tempest, Macbeth, and Much Ado About Nothing, and a run at Signature Theatre. She’s crossed over to the screen, too, working on Logan Lucky and television’s Elementary, Master of None, Orange is the New Black, and more. But the graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program was also a political science major during her undergrad at Duke University and served as a White House intern during the Obama administration in 2010.
Her political mind gives her a distinct perspective on the Pulitzer Prize winner’s latest play, officially opening at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont November 2, and her character Jackie Blount. In Junk, Jackie is a 28-year-old shark, wheeling and dealing in the financial revolution and scheming (in a man’s world) of the 1980s. With ferocity and smarts, Jackie—and Ito, herself—holds her own. And, since it’s her Broadway debut, Playbill asked Aghayere to look back on her other theatre firsts, including the first show that left a mark on her, the first time she felt like her character, her first thought when she steps onstage, and her first (well, only) White House internship.
What was the first piece of theatre you ever saw?
Romeo and Juliet
What was the first piece of theatre that thrilled you and made you think?
When I was 14 years old, in the middle of winter in upstate New York, I walked into the gymnasium of my middle school not knowing what to expect. All I knew was that, despite the snow, the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s touring production of Romeo and Juliet would not be canceled. I was all nerves that day. I had never seen a play, let alone one that I had read and fallen in love with. I was that dorky kid who would secretly come up with voices for every character while I read. I couldn’t wait to see how my interpretation of Shakespeare’s words would stack up. It wasn’t until the actors walked onstage that I realized something that would change the course of my life. I was stunned when Juliet took the stage. Juliet was being played by a girl who looked like me. As an awkward, 14-year-old black girl, the Juliet I had imagined was not unlike the prettiest girl in my class: white, straight-haired, and with delicate features. My vision of Shakespeare’s world was too small to leave room for me. Honestly, I thought Shakespeare was for white people. It was revolutionary to see a different vision of that world. Juliet was black, kinky-haired, and muscular. She was vibrant, powerful, and illuminating. She was the Juliet I needed to see.
What was your first audition ever?
My first “audition” was for a role in my sister’s mandatory, first annual sibling Christmas pageant. She was eight and determined, and I was seven and easily bribed with candy. I helped her rope in my younger brothers, and I got to play the principal role of a “Gift-Wrapped Present.”
What was your first paid acting gig?
Ironically enough, in complete contradiction to how I felt about Shakespeare as a kid, my first paid gig was playing the fiercely rebellious female lead in Much Ado About Nothing. After Columbia, Classic Stage Company offered me the role of Beatrice in their Young Company production, set against the backdrop of a 1920s speakeasy. It was magical... Both the production and the getting-a-paycheck thing.
What was your first response when you learned you would make your Broadway debut in Junk?
I couldn’t stop laughing. I was in shock. I had no idea it would happen so fast, and I just couldn’t believe it. After auditioning for the first time the week prior, I went in for a callback, and hours later, I got the call.
What was the first scene you rehearsed for Junk?
The first scene I rehearsed up on my feet was the scene that begins with “Team Everson” making their first entrance in the play. I felt ready—eager to jump into the hyper speed reality of the world we were creating. While another scene is happening, I walk out, and the guys follow behind me for a dramatic entrance that slams us into the second scene of the play. I admit I was a little nervous the first time because doing anything in high heels is no joke. However, it’s easily become one of my favorite moments to lean into at the top of the show. It sets the convention and pace for all that comes next.
When was the first time you felt like Jacqueline?
I have this dress that never fails to give me an added layer of invincibility whenever I put it on. For me, it’s armor. It’s a simple dress, really. One that I can’t actually wear as often as I would like. However, I read the script for Junk, and instantly knew I had something from Jackie’s wardrobe sitting in my closet. For this insatiable war play, I knew I needed armor. Before I knew whether the part was mine or not, I felt like Jackie Blount the second I put it on.
In one word, what was your first performance on Broadway like?
What was it like to see your name in a Playbill for the first time?
I felt giddy.
What is your first thought when you make your entrance each night?
It’s never the same. I don’t have a mantra or anything like that. My thoughts usually have something to do with stirring up an inner recklessness, but it really just depends on the night!
What is the first thought you have when you take your bow?
It’s usually some version of catharsis. It’s still all a bit surreal to me that I get to make my Broadway debut in a play that pulls no punches and resonates with such prophetic zeal. It’s an incredible gift to see and hear the audience respond each night to the weight of the harsh truths we leave with them by the end of the show.
Does your background in political science influence your interpretation of this material?
Absolutely. I read this play in one sitting; for two hours, I didn’t move. I was enthralled by the web of power, deception, and desire that winds its insidious way through the whole play. It’s political. It’s Darwinian. It’s unapologetic. In Junk, we are confronted with how the sausage gets made in the financialization of America. Through this origin story of sorts, the nexus of ambition and greed exposes us to what really runs the world: the politics of wealth and power.
What do you think it’s important for people to understand about the financial background of the show that us non poli-sci majors don’t know?
One of the brilliant aspects of Ayad’s play is that you don’t need to know the ins and outs of finance or Sun Tzu’s Art of War to understand the stakes. Of course, your experience of the play can only be enriched with any level of understanding concerning the nuances of high yield bonds and corporate warfare. But, all you really need to know is that there are winners and there are losers, and in this very political game of life and debt, it’s eat or be eaten.
How does your time in the Obama White House impact your perspective on the characters in Junk? Do you find yourself taking sides with Merkin or with Leo personally?
Working at the White House was unlike anything I've ever experienced before. In the years since my internship, I've come to discover the macro lesson of my short time working under the Obama Administration. Looking at where we are as a nation right now, I can admit that I never saw this coming. When you have momentum, the sky always seems to be the limit. Hope is bullet pointed and actionable. There seems to be no end to the good you can do. It's hard to see the bubble when you're inside of it. In Junk, Robert Merkin champions the reasons to hope in an economy that can never falter nor fail to level the playing field for all who feel marginalized. Meanwhile, Leo Tressler advocates for a more measured, tribal, tried-and-true approach to getting things done. Who’s right? Whose bubble wins? In many ways, I agree and disagree with them both.