Meet the Bohemians: Tim & Ruva

By Santilla Chingaipe |

The bohemian world of the Moulin Rouge! The Musical was not something Tim Omaji was familiar with prior to auditioning for the stage adaption of the beloved film. “It’s not something I ever thought I’d be doing, playing a Frenchman in a musical,” laughs Omaji. After arriving in Australia from Nigeria with his family as an infant, Omaji grew up around Australia, with stints in Canberra, Perth, Darwin, Melbourne and Sydney thanks to his father’s career as an academic. Weekends in the Omaji household were filled with music, fuelling teenage Omaji with the passion for performing. “We grew up in church; my father played the guitar, so we were a musical family. My sister sings and my brother plays the drums. I learned to play percussion and we had a family band, so we would perform.” Although music was part of his childhood, choosing a creative career over studying something academic wasn’t an option. “It is commonly said in Nigeria that you can grow up to be one of three things: A doctor, a lawyer, or a failure,” he jokingly adds. And despite attempting to pursue a career in psychology and management, he decided to pursue a career in music.   His first taste of professional musical theatre was in Fame, which he was says he “stumbled into”, and paved the way for a career in acting and theatre. “It was never the plan, but it was just this strategy to show myself as more than a dancer.” And that strategy has worked, with Omaji later becoming a well-known recording artist performing under the moniker Timomatic. And those talents are what caught the eye of the casting directors for Moulin Rouge! The Musical. After an almost 12-month audition process, Omaji is thrilled to be taking on the role of Toulouse-Lautrec. “It’s very satisfying,” he says. Omaji hopes to bring parts of his African ancestry in his take of the 19th Century artist and observer of Parisian life. “I want to bring an undertone of an African heritage to the character through the accent, so that he’s not speaking from the position of a Parisian … but he’s got these influences of African countries that speak French.”   It’s not often that people of African descent are cast in stage roles in Australia that aren’t explicitly about their identity or heritage. For Ruva Ngwenya, being cast in Moulin Rouge! was a welcome surprise. “I wasn’t aware that it was a show that I could even be a part of and that there was really space for me in that show, until some mates said, ‘you should really think about auditioning’,” she adds. “When I went in, and I saw the brief and I saw how eclectic the cast is and varied all the characters are and what they bring to the show, was really refreshing.” Ngwenya says she is relishing the freedom that comes with the opportunity to play La Chocolat. “She’s kind of like the mama of the group; she’s very nurturing, sassy and strong. She holds the girls and is their protector,” she says. Unlike Omaji, Ngwenya was born and raised in Melbourne, but grew up embracing her African heritage. But like Omaji, she also plans to bring some of that into her stage performance. “I love Afrobeats and I love dancehall, and whenever I’m dancing, it’s very whine your waist, get low … my version of La Chocolat is rooted in that Afrobeats dancehall culture and a lot of my dancing comes from that energy,” says Ngwenya.   Ngwenya says that she’s been musically inclined since she was a child “I’ve always been a singer. But growing up it was more of a party trick, something I was good at,” she says. It wasn’t until a drama teacher in high school suggested she consider a career in the arts that she decided to pursue a career in music. And it was while studying musical performance at the Victorian College of the Arts, that Ngwenya found herself cast in the musical The Lion King, in what she describes as “a bit of a happy accident”. Ngwenya says she wasn’t aware that musical theatre was a career pathway available to her until she received serendipitous message on social media. “I got a message on Facebook from a casting director asking me to come in and sing for The Lion King musical and I thought ‘oh okay’,” she adds.   That eventually opened the door to more roles including La Chocolat. Adding to Ngwenya’s excitement is the diversity and inclusive cast that fronts the Moulin Rouge!. “We’ve got everything and it’s just effortless and it’s not about their race – they’re just playing these characters,” she says. Tim Omaji agrees, and he hopes his turn in the role goes beyond his performance, but that it opens the door for more people of African descent taking to the stage. “If you are African, and you have a passion for this, and you do the work, there’s a space for you and it should be normal.”   About Santilla Chingaipe: Santilla Chingaipe is an award-winning journalist, filmmaker and author, whose work explores slavery, colonialism and post-colonial migration in Australia.   MORE IN THIS SERIES