Thursday, December 9

Arinzé Kene on his portrayal of Bob Marley: ‘You can’t just sit back and enjoy my work. I want you to be challenged ‘| Stage

TORinzé Kene’s life is usually one of perpetual motion: writing, acting, devising, repeating. Rest is not usually in the equation. During misty – his 2018 play that became a sensation, fusing a story about violence, gentrification and displacement – did not leave the stage. The usual 20-second intervals, in which actors drink a glass of water and take a breath while changing sets and costumes, have been eliminated. Kene simply brought them into action; frantic is the speed at which you like to live your life.

At 34, he has written half a dozen plays, appeared on EastEnders, appeared on the BBC drama The Long Song, played Simba on stage in The Lion King, sang alongside Michaela Coel in the Netflix musical Been So Long, and was awarded. an MBE for screenwriting and playwriting services. It is his plays, which have consistently focused on the tensions and pressures faced by black men in the city center, that have established him as one of the most unique talents in British theater. Their selection, the autobiographical Misty, premiered at the Bush Theater before moving to London’s West End. He is only the second black British playwright to have had a job there, after Kwame Kwei-Armah.

But the blockade stopped him in his tracks. The wheels stopped turning, productions were postponed. For once in his life, Kene had to pause. While others accepted the change of pace, he did not handle it well. “That was the first time in a few years that everything was turned off,” he says. “I didn’t like it very much; it was not good for my sanity. “

Most disturbing of all, he couldn’t create. It took Misty three years to write, rewrite, and do workshops, but Kene always enjoyed the process. “The blocking was not good creatively,” he says. “I feel like I need to have things to constantly work on.” Part of that is his love for his work, but it’s also practical – he knows that success can be short-lived and that not all ideas will succeed. Lately it’s been feeling like you’ve put all your eggs in one basket. “I was talking to some of the cast members the other day saying I needed new hobbies,” he says smiling. “I wish I had some other shit to deal with besides writing and talking to the line designer on the phone at 7:15 PM after rehearsals.”

His current focus is the Bob Marley musical Get Up, Stand Up, which opens in the West End on Friday. It follows the story of Marley, played by Kene, during his stay in the UK with his band The Wailers and before the Smile Jamaica concert, which took place just days after a failed assassination attempt on the singer in December 1976. With Official Endorsement from Marley’s Estate and songs including No Woman, No Cry, Exodus, and Three Little Birds, it looks like it will be one of the biggest openings of the fall as the West End begins to rebuild after a year of lockdowns.

Arinzé Kene Misty
Arinzé Kene in his autobiographical work, Misty, in 2018. Photograph: Tristram Kenton / The Guardian

We spoke about Zoom from Jerwood Space, London, where the final rehearsals for Get Up, Stand Up are taking place. It is 8am when we speak and despite the early start, he is still full of energy. “I am obsessed with my work because I love it,” he says. “Bob Marley was very similar.” Along with Stevie Wonder and Fela Kuti, Marley is one of the three great musical influences in Kene’s life. “He saw himself as a messenger,” he says. “He said, ‘This is my gift, Jah gave me this gift.’ So this is the story of a man who spends his entire life pursuing this and using his gift to heal the world. I don’t see myself within a million miles of that. “

We’re not a million miles from where Kene says he first knew he was destined to be an artist. The studio is a 30-minute drive from his childhood home in Hackney. He spent time in Queen’s Park, on the other side of London, for a while, and tried Los Angeles for a while, but has been back in Hackney for a few years. There is a pull that you cannot ignore; Hackney for him, he says, is like New York for Spike Lee: “He will always be at my job. He was a central character in my education ”.

Born in Lagos before moving to London at age four, Kene was one of four children and grew up in a one-bedroom apartment on the Trelawney estate when the district was one of the most disadvantaged in the country. His father was a taxi driver, his mother a nurse. At the time, Hackney’s council was notoriously mismanaged and faced a £ 40 million shortfall due to basic services such as garbage collection being stopped.

Since 2000, the neighborhood has gone from being synonymous with deprivation to synonymous with gentrification, a topic he addressed in Misty. During a Q&A after the show, Kene says there will always be someone asking how they, as middle-class gentrifiers, could help. “I would have to say, ‘Sorry, I don’t know the answer.’

Kene just creates the work, he says, and it’s up to the audience to decipher it. But it is clear that he sees his writing as a way to change his mind. There is a sense of duty. “I can sit at home and enjoy some really pointless comedy,” he says. “But it turns out that’s not the kind of work I think of. I end up doing a job that I really feel like ”.

How does that look like? “I strive to change people, transform them, challenge their accepted values. That’s what my job does. He will question you. You can’t just sit back and enjoy it; I want you to get involved, sit up front, challenge yourself and go for that interval and say, ‘Oh shit, what’s going to happen?’ “

Watch the cast of Get Up, Stand Up at rehearsal.

It’s fair to say that Get Up, Stand Up won’t have the same tension as a great commercial musical that needs an audience from outside the London theater world to survive. But Kene still sees an opportunity to challenge the audience, albeit subtly. It will be directed by Clint Dyer after its original, white director, Dominic Cooke decided to put it aside last summer because “the conversation about race has changed in the theater, as it has throughout society.” British-Jamaican Dyer, who is Deputy Artistic Director of the National Theater and became the first black person to direct a West End musical in 2005 with the Olivier Award-nominated The Big Life, describes himself as “a Marley since I could hear. ” .

A year later, Kene is convinced that a black British creative team leading the project will improve it. “It’s not just about putting people of color on stage,” he says. “It’s also about the people who do the work.” Kene always speaks with a purpose, but as the subject of representation comes up, he changes gears. There is an urgency, as if he can’t wait to get the words out: “Clint is a black director of Jamaican heritage, he’s bringing his authenticity to the project. You will be able to see that on stage through osmosis, it will enter you. Regardless of your country of origin or the color of your skin, you will see that what you are looking at is authentic. “

He believes the musical could do what Ayub Khan Din’s play East Is East did for British Asian audiences in the 1990s, or what Misty accomplished three years ago: inspire more diverse audiences to attend the theater. “It happens every time,” he says. “It happened with Misty and [Natasha Gordon’s] Nine nights. It happens all the time. “

Kene has spoken before about watching from a London stage and being amazed at how the audience is nothing like the city that is humming a few feet outside the theater walls. Unlike the complicated issue of gentrification, he believes there is a simple answer to the problem.

“Let’s let everyone play and share the stage, then everyone can shut up about trying to find these audiences,” he says, sounding angry for the first time. “These people are not coming because you are not putting people who look like them on stage. The problem with the West End is clear, and the answer is simply obvious. “

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