The concept developed during discussions Mr. Essiedu had with the director, Simon Godwin, who saw his “Romeo” and felt he had the range to tackle the most demanding role in the canon. Mr. Essiedu was born and grew up in London, but both of his parents were Ghanaian and his attachment to the country remains strong. His father, who stayed in Ghana, died when he was 14; his mother, who raised him on her own, died seven years ago. “He’s lived a lot for someone of his age,” Mr. Godwin said.
When they began discussing the role of Hamlet, Mr. Essiedu had recently returned from a trip to Ghana and was fascinated by similarities between Shakespeare’s world, poised between many different political and faith systems, and that of present-day West Africa. But he was also mindful of how they could use this device to speak to audiences from different cultural backgrounds. “We bang on about Shakespeare being universal and timeless,” Mr. Essiedu said. “But until you produce his plays in ways that are accessible, that doesn’t mean anything.”
When he stepped onstage as Hamlet, Mr. Essiedu became the first actor of color to play the Danish prince at the Royal Shakespeare Company; in another first for the company, the cast alongside him was almost entirely nonwhite. “There’s such diversity of talent out there,” Mr. Godwin said. “We wanted to create a production that reflected that.”
Mr. Essiedu is certainly part of a remarkable cohort: He went to drama school with the writer and actor Michaela Coel, creator of the TV show “Chewing Gum,” and admitted to being in awe of his slightly older contemporary Daniel Kaluuya, who grew up not far away in North East London and was recently nominated for an Academy Award.
“It’s really exciting to know that a lot of my peers will be the Judi Denches, the Mark Rylances, of 10 years’ time,” he said.
But Mr. Essiedu, though pleased with how much more open the theater world is than even a few years ago, still seemed frustrated by the pace of change, which he said was “glacial.”
“It’s so important,” he added. “The way we live our lives is informed by what we see. And if stories of all kinds don’t appear, it’s like they don’t exist.”
Once his work with “Lear” and “Hamlet” is done in May, Mr. Essiedu said, he won’t have anything immediate scheduled (at least that he could discuss). Last year he had a cameo in Kenneth Branagh’s film “Murder on the Orient Express,” and he recently finished filming a TV drama, “Press,” by playwright and screenwriter Mike Bartlett (“King Charles III”), that will air later this year on the BBC, before heading to PBS in the United States.
He will also make an appearance in “The Forgiving Earth,” Hugo Blick’s much-anticipated war crimes thriller set partly in Ghana. It, too, is scheduled for release later in 2018.
Mr. Godwin said the he hopes Mr. Essiedu will continue to do theater work, even if movie or TV producers come calling. “There’s a line of classical roles for Paapa, if he wants to play them,” he said. “The canon is wide open.”
But Mr. Essiedu insisted that he just wanted to take his career day by day.
“I look back over the past decade and realize how one opportunity has led to another one,” he said. “A huge part of that’s luck, but it’s also about having the openness and readiness to take those opportunities when they come.”