Senior Theater Major Lands Lead in Theater Production of Top Girls

By Tom McLaughlin

Been there, done that.

Onukwugha says she wants to put her own “spin” on the character of Marlene in Top Girls.

During her time at Rutgers University–Camden, Brittany Onukwugha has contributed to theater productions in just about every way imaginable: behind the scenes, onstage, and in the front of the house.

Among her roles, the senior theater major played the part of Lena/Francine in Clybourne Park and Gary Coleman in Avenue Q; assisted with choreography and audio for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee; and served as the house manager for various productions.

At last, the Willingboro resident is ready for her close-up.

Onukwugha will play the lead role of Marlene in the Rutgers–Camden theater program’s inaugural 2019-20 season production, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls. The production – featuring an all-female cast and directed by Paul Bernstein, an associate professor of theater – runs from Wednesday, Oct. 30, to Sunday, Nov. 3, in the Walter K. Gordon Theater on the Rutgers–Camden campus.

“To be leading a show on the main stage has been a unique and thrilling experience,” says Onukwugha, who has a double concentration in acting and musical theater. “I am happy to be able to do so and with so many amazing people.”

The story centers around the ambitious, career-minded Marlene, who stops at nothing to become the top executive at Top Girls Employment Agency. However, when she sets out to shatter glass ceilings, there are bound to be a few casualties along the way.

The Honors College student explains that she prepared for her role by researching the time period, practicing her British accent, and trying to find the subtext of the characters’ dialogue and actions.

Onukwugha as Francine in Clybourne Park

“It’s a matter of finding the information in the lines and what the text gives me,” she says. “I want to put my own spin on the character.”

You could say that she has put her own spin – and twist, step, and jump – on things since she began dance classes at 3 years of age. It was then that Onukwugha developed an unbridled love of dance and choreography, which continues to this day. In eighth grade, she recalls, she had a seminal moment when she and her family attended a high school production of the musical 42nd Street.

She never looked back.

“I remember there was tap dancing throughout the whole performance,” she says. “I knew then and there that I wanted to do musical theater.”

Onukwugha’s passion for the live stage would flourish at Holy Cross Preparatory Academy in Delran. She regularly performed in plays and musical theater productions, and was a member of the dance team – serving as captain during her junior and senior years.

“I always wanted to add something new,” she says.

Onukwugha as Gary Coleman in Avenue Q

True to form, Onukwugha arrived at Rutgers–Camden in fall 2016 with the intent of getting everything possible out of her theater experience.

Among her other credits, she played the role of Peaseblossom in the Ignoble Shakespeare Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; served as a wardrobe intern for the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival; and performed, choreographed, and served on the tech crew on various productions for the Burlington County Footlighters.

While landing the lead in Top Girls is rewarding, Onukwugha says, she is quick to remind herself that it took a lot of hard work and determination to get there – a fact that she wants to remember even long after she graduates in May.

“I might not nail every audition and get every role that I want, but I can remember how hard I pushed and challenged myself,” says Onukwugha, who served as a resident assistant and participated in several student groups on campus. “It’s not going to be any different; it’s going to be challenging and tough in the future, but it will also be rewarding and no doubt quite the experience.”

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