Spinning and grinning

In making major life decisions, Zoe Richards loves marching to her own beat, trusting that much-pondered choices will make matters cheerier than unsolicited suggestions ever could. Especially desiring autonomy in her profession, the actress has sought parts that promote passionate immersion into a text and compassionate camaraderie with peers. Through Sunday, she will enjoy both blessings as The Selector in “How We Got On,” the season opener for Azuka Theatre.

“She’s just such a fun character to embody,” the 23-year-old said of the disc jockey who serves as “kind of the narrator” in the tale of three suburban teenagers who want to become hip-hop heroes. “The whole storytelling component really resonates with me because there’s something about the pleasure of guiding people that’s powerful and transformational.”

The East Passyunk Crossing dweller and her contemporaries are handling the Idris Goodwin script through The Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake. Thrilled to help Azuka to further its affinity for “telling the stories of outcasts and underdogs,” Richards considers “How We Got On” a perfect outlet for fostering positivity, particularly because of the cast’s racial makeup.

“It’s a show about black people that’s not sad and depressing,” she said of the 1988-set work helmed by renowned director Raelle Myrick-Hodges. “There are no drugs and no gangs. It’s just about exploring hope and self-belief, and I’m loving every minute of it.”

She and the likewise young hires, in portraying vibrant late 20th-century figures, are, according to Richards, “giving a voice to a section of the black community that hasn’t had any light shone on it.” That opportunity has proven potent for her, with The Selector as a refreshing reflection of who she is on stage and off.

“It’s just so rewarding to be open to these interactions and to enjoy the space that we’re in, literally and figuratively,” Richards said. “I play multiple characters in the show, but the Selector is so endearing to me. She’s galvanizing and hopeful, and I think that’s absolutely intoxicating.”

To prepare for the role, the thespian found herself in disc jockey classes and had opportunities to work with vinyl, which she dubbed “very much a process.” Much like she received instruction in a discipline, she hopes her turn in the Philadelphia premiere will be a source of positive spins for those who are looking to scratch goals off their lists one dream at a time.

“It takes courage to want to be someone with aspirations,” Richards said, giving a nod to the expertise with which her trio of castmates executes the action and expecting big things from the young performers soon. “For me, that means aiming to do really good work that I’m passionate about. Azuka is all about making that a reality for anyone with similar thinking, so I’m very blessed for ‘How We Got On’ and my time among such great and creative people.”

The daughter of Guyanese immigrants grew up in Jersey City with ample encouragement to determine the course that her life might take. Dancing and singing won immediate favor, but Richards, knowing she would forever be irrepressibly drawn to the arts, did not deem either the ultimate supplier of comfort or conviction. Through the New Jersey Orators, Richards soon found her niche, particularly thanks to competitions in which she emerged victorious. With an initial plan to attend Pepperdine University as a broadcast journalism major, she decided that giving life to plots could offer far more enjoyment than relaying news could.

“I just felt that my thing had to be something more engaging and engrossing,” the performer said, noting that a high school performance of a Sept. 11 work, through which her character offered a monologue detailing the harrowing process of trying to contact a missing loved one, enabled her to know the proper path to pursue. Craving a conservatory program as her next stop, she chose The University of the Arts, a destination that furthered her enthusiasm for independence and awareness.

“I function based on what I feel will make me happy,” she said of becoming a Philadelphia resident. “I couldn’t live my life otherwise, and it’s there that I began to understand the reality of making this a career.”

Great material, amazing connections among educators and learners, and her burgeoning enthusiasm helped the Center City stint to be a delightful experience. Junior year proved pivotal, as she used the first semester to study performance and creation, dance, and devised theater at Headlong Performance Institute, 1170 S. Broad St., and the second part of the year to matriculate at The University of Cape Town, the latter stop stopping any belief that she was destined to do anything outside of the arts.

“I had a couple doubts and wondered if I should be pursuing something else, but I know what’s going to continue to appeal to me, and that’s exploring the diversity of being an actor, thinking about and working on my artistry, and constantly evolving as a performer,” Richards said. “Having been a Philly performer for a bit, too, I have wanted to bring out the authenticity that really goes a long way no matter what profession you have.”

That commitment to excellence has made her stay in Philadelphia, notably her two years in South Philly, which she lauded for its “spirit of creativity,” a wonderful journey. Connections with Azuka, Plays & Players Theatre, the Reject Theatre Project, and the Renegade Co. have helped to hone her talent, unite her with inspirational practitioners, and count herself among individuals whose waking hours are all about putting boredom to bed and being tireless contributors to Philadelphia’s rich stage identity.

“It’s so easy to connect with people because everyone wants to develop and mature,” she said. “Anyone who wants to be a theater presence in Philadelphia is definitely blessed.”

Like the hopeful characters in “How We Got On,” Richards will see what a craving for adventure could yield, as shortly after the show concludes, she will move to Harlem, N.Y.

“I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing, but I’m looking to explore and grow,” she said. “I’ll figure it all out, and I’ll have Philly to thank for so much of my growth as a person.” SPR

Show: How We Got On

Performance dates: Through Oct. 9

Where: Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Tickets: Call 215–563–1100, or

visit azukatheatre.com.

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at jmyers@southphillyreview.com.