WHEN the curtain rises in the Rose Theatre, Kingston, for Adjoa Andoh’s production of Richard III next month, the stalls will be heaving with parishioners from Herne Hill supporting their Reader.
Ms Andoh has been active in the benefice for decades, having married the novelist Howard Cunnell there, and sent her children to St Saviour’s C of E Primary School. She also met Harriet Lamb, former chief executive of Fairtrade, at church, and is now the charity’s patron.
But the actor known worldwide as Lady Danbury in Bridgerton traces her interest in food, farming, and social justice back to her “Cotswold hippie” childhood with a Ghanaian father, Frank, and an English mother, Jacqueline. “Social justice is something I’ve always felt strongly about, having switched-on, engaged parents, who came together at a time when African men marrying English white women was not a favoured thing. So they were both curious, independent, and determined folk.”
Ms Andoh recalls being sent to buy soil-encased carrots, onions, and potatoes from the local farm. “I spent my childhood walking through fields and having friends whose parents were pig farmers and dairy farmers and butchers. The growing of food, environment, and nature is in my DNA; it wasn’t a big leap to go from that to Fairtrade.”
Describing the choice to select food where farmers are treated fairly as “godly”, Ms Andoh makes a powerful argument for supporting Fairtrade. “It’s about equality. It’s about being self-sufficient, and caring about other people, caring about your environment. And, with my faith hat on, it’s a godly way to be; so I’m Fairtrade all the way.
“Also, it’s delicious food. You don’t have to worry about pesticides or soil contamination. You know the people making the food aren’t being ripped off, and their environment is not being destroyed or diminished. When they get the Fairtrade premium, they can make real-world changes to their life circumstances. They can improve their health care, their education, their children’s outcomes, the environment they live in. There’s work that empowers women. It’s an easy leap for me.”
The battle in far from won. There was the demise of Traidcraft in January, and, more widely, the pulling away of large corporations, such as Sainsbury’s and Starbucks, from the Fairtrade mark to other accreditations. But Ms Andoh frames both events in the cyclical nature of social-justice campaigning. “There are phrases that sound like Fairtrade, which are cheeky, and confusing. Capitalism wants to make money, and Fairtrade, for a while, was a source of good greenwash. But if corporations feel the focus has shifted somewhere else, they may shift somewhere else as well.
“Fairtrade may cost more to produce, and you may need to pass on that cost to the consumer, and when people are worrying about the cost of living, it may not look like a great imperative any more. Frankly, big organisations also have deep pockets, and sometimes shareholders could manage with a little less, whereas those people producing stuff are struggling with all the same issues around income and the cost of living that many people in this country are struggling with.”
For Ms Andoh, the end of Traidcraft does not equate to the end of Traidcraft’s ethos. “The principles of Traidcraft and the synthesis of the model of trade they set up is still ongoing — it’s got a different hat now. We need to understand, things come and go in waves. Sometimes we’re in the ascendancy with the spirit of the times, and sometimes we’re not.”
INVOLVEMENT in church life has also been a cyclical experience for the actor, starting in childhood with the Congregational church (known as “chapel” to distinguish it from the Anglican church favoured by local landowners and their tenants), in Wickwar, Gloucestershire. As an eight-year-old, tempted by the prospect of earning 18 pence a month as a chorister, and wearing robes, Ms Andoh briefly sang and rang bells in the village’s parish church, “but quickly skipped back to the intimacy and warmth of chapel”.
Reflecting on her teenage years and the move to London to establish a performing career, Ms Andoh says: “I went ‘OK, C of E, I’m kind of done with you for the time being.’ And I got involved with the Dick Saunders crusade and Christian Scripture Union. I went that way for a while.”
Summing up the patchy relationship with faith which is characteristic of people in their twenties, she says: “It’s the same for lots of children who’ve been raised in church. The mustard seed has been planted, and you may drift off and then you drift back. I was just bog standard — I had my teenage years and my student years, but if I passed a church, I would be in the church. If there was a service on and I was available . . . but I wouldn’t be going to regular services. You wander off, and God’s still waiting, and then you come back.”
AlamyAdjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury in Bridgerton, with Simone Ashley as Kate Sharma
Connection with St Saviour’s, Herne Hill, was forged when her oldest daughter, Jesse, started primary school. Then a milestone birthday prompted more reflection on life and faith. “I didn’t decide I’d like to be a Reader. It was more a case of: I got to 40, had three kids, was married, I was busy in the church, I was busy with my career, just past my 40th birthday, and thinking: ‘Well, is this it? Is this what I do for the rest of my life? What else am I supposed to be doing? God, what else am I supposed to be doing?’
“I went into the parish office, and my then Vicar, Cameron Barker, handed me a leaflet about vocation in the Church, saying: ‘Don’t hit me! Have a read. Tell me what you think.’ I walked out of the parish office, thinking: ‘OK, bang to rights! What am I going to do now?’”
After attending vocational training and taster sessions to ascertain candidates’ particular gifts, Ms Andoh realised: “The frame that worked for me was Reader training. I headed down that path in 2006. I started at Southwark Cathedral and was licensed in 2009.”
In June 2020, Ms Andoh preached on James 2.14-17 and the death of George Floyd. The sermon has had more than 2000 views on YouTube. She mentions the Australian theologian William Loader as a great inspiration. “He’s pretty terrific. I’ll always have a read to see what Bill Loader has to think about anything.
“I love Paula Gooder, Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral. I did a beautiful evening with her last autumn at the cathedral on Psalms 19, 69, and 23, where I would read a psalm, she would do some exegesis, and then the choir would sing the song.
“I love that there’s a psalm for every occasion. I love how the Psalms express every emotion, from great joy to complete rage and despair. That’s how life is. I love the songs that are about ‘Where does my help come from?’, all the songs about God stiffening us in our moments of wobbliness, the notion of comfort, literally meaning ‘with strength’. When we turn to God for comfort, we are turning for strengthening. There’s something utilitarian and good about that.”
Ms Andoh’s middle daughter, Daisy, is studying for a Ph.D. in theology, and there is a shared family interest in understanding scripture in its historical context. “We have great conversations about thinking about the Bible in the context of when it was written. Who was it written for? Who it was written by? What was going on at the time? It’s good to keep in mind that I’m reading a third- or fourth-hand translation.
“I also love the radicalness of loving your neighbour as yourself, which you will find across many faiths. That idea that to love your neighbour as yourself, you have to love yourself. That sense we’re all the same creation, and we’re all connected to each other at a fundamental level. The counter-culturalness of saying: ‘I want to be in communion with people. I don’t want to get one over; I don’t want to profit at the expense of people.’”
Heartened by the Church’s recent reflections on profits made from slavery and “how it can divest itself of that stain”, Ms Andoh says that scripture will light the path to acting in a restorative way. “We’re an imperfect institution — just as all institutions are, by their nature, imperfect. Scripture is a good place to go back to, to become re-acquainted with your alertness to God, and the possibility of movement in a godly way through the world.”
As we speak, Ms Andoh is moving through south-London traffic, having just read the intercessions at a friend’s funeral. As a judge for this year’s Booker Prize, besides having a play to stage and a Netflix drama on air, she finds that her time is pressured. “I was just talking through the logistics of life with the Vicar. I’m not as actively present in the parish as I have been in the past or intend to be in the future. But they are incredibly generous and patient with my schedule. I’m preaching next on 5 March.”
Being part of a church community is grounding and encouraging. “It all counts as a blessing, the work I’ve got in my acting career, or my directing, or whatever I’m doing; and the church communities I’ve been gifted are another blessing. So, I’m trying to live as abundantly, without going bonkers, as I can.”
Fairtrade has created the “Endangered Aisle”, a pop-up store highlighting the supermarket staples most at risk from being endangered by the climate crisis.