Rising Star: Gabrielle Brooks

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

For Gabrielle Brooks, a career which began with Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind continues to blossom

Gabrielle Brooks (photography: Dujonna)
Gabrielle Brooks (photography: Dujonna)

The facts

Gabrielle Brooks is a 33-year-old actress who made her debut aged seven in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind. After studying at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA), she constructed an impressively varied career mixing plays and Musical Theatre – and even combining them in a musical version of Twelfth Night at the Young Vic. She’s now thrilled to be in a show which ‘means such a lot to the Black theatre community’, and in the magical setting of Regent’s Park ‘where you’re singing and you hear birds chirping: Disney vibes!’


Brooks was born in Hornsey, north London. Her mum is from Jamaica and her dad is from Guyana. ‘They really instilled in me the importance of education,’ says Brooks. ‘There was also a lot of music in the house: reggae, Motown, gospel… And my sister sang in a band. Like any annoying younger sibling, I tried to emulate her.’

Child stardom

‘I fell into the arts – people don’t believe that!’ laughs Brooks. ‘I had an overactive imagination, so Mum sent me to an after-school drama club. The teacher running it started a children’s agency, and I went to my first audition at six years old.’ She tried out for Annie first and didn’t get it, ‘so I understood rejection’. But she did get Whistle Down the Wind. ‘It felt like an extended playtime. I loved being on stage – that out-of-body euphoria.’


Brooks’s parents saved her wages and put them towards her university education. But she wasn’t sure what she would study. ‘I applied for journalism and creative writing courses as well as drama school, and left it up to fate. Then I got in everywhere! But I realised I was drawn to acting.’ However, Brooks found studying at LIPA a shock. ‘All of a sudden I was placing judgement on what I was doing, instead of just performing without analysing it. I went into my shell. Also I’d left home and gone from somewhere diverse to a majority-white environment. But it did teach me a lot: not just acting, but how to be a good human being.’


That was another learning experience, says Brooks, meeting different creative people and figuring out how she was perceived. ‘Very early on I realised I was desperate not to be pigeonholed. So when I do a play at the Donmar and then a musical in the West End, I’ve chosen that. I love it all and I want to prove I can do it all.’

Fighting discrimination

However, Brooks has also experienced frustration in having to prove herself constantly as an actor of colour. ‘When I played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, [I was] asked if I was a diversity hire. Yes, things are changing, but some minds are closed off – especially with roles traditionally played by white people, or specific to British history like Shakespeare.’ That’s what made Twelfth Night particularly special: it combined Brooks’s two great loves, Musical Theatre and the Bard. ‘I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. It was like someone had opened up the door to my actual dream.’

Playing Rita Marley

Brooks says she’d never seen so many Black people in the audience as they had at Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical in the West End. She was Olivier-nominated for her performance as the singer’s wife. ‘It was the most moving experience of my life. Playing Rita especially, a dark-skinned woman who I admire, telling her story of duty and honour and love.’ Even better, Rita’s children came to the show and told Brooks that she’d done their mum proud.

Park life

The Haiti-set Once On This Island has special meaning for Brooks. ‘When I was at drama school, and I wasn’t sure I had a place in the industry, my teacher suggested I sing a song from it for my assessment.’ In the Regent’s Park production: ‘We’re not shying away from the root of the story, which is about colonialism, racism and colourism. It’s a celebratory tale, but also a cautionary one if we don’t continue to have those conversations and make change.’ She can’t wait for audiences to hear the score: ‘Soca, calypso, reggae – all the great music that Black people have originated in one show. It’s a total joy.’

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2023 issue of Musicals magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today