“Now is a time of distrust and distrust is pulling apart the glue that holds us together”
Gabriel Gbadamosi is an Irish-Nigerian novelist, poet and playwright. Stop and Search marks his London stage debut at the Arcola Theatre which opened in early January 2019 and runs until February 9th 2019. With many years experience his theatre credits include Eshu’s Faust (Jesus College, Cambridge), Hotel Orpheu (Schaubühne, Berlin), Shango (DNA, Amsterdam); and for radio, The Long, Hot Summer of ’76 – winner of the first Richard Imison Award. Gbadamosi’s novel Vauxhall won the Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize and Best International Novel at the Sharjah Book Fair. Alt A caught up with Gbadamosi.
AA: Tell us about your journey in terms of getting into theatre, what was the first play you wrote?
GG: I grew up in London and when I was a teenager I joined the Young Vic and we put on Shakespeare for people of our age who were doing O’level exams and so really I got into theatre as an actor and I continued acting at university. From that experience I thought I should start writing plays and my first play was called No Blacks No Irish (1987)
AA: Okay, we’ll come back to that one. So, can you tell me a bit about Stop and Search. What is the story?
GG: Stop and Search as you know it is to combat violence, drugs and terrorism. Targeting 8 non-white people to every one White person that gets stopped. So, it’s a form of profiling and it’s a problem I think in our society as a method of policing and kind of, um, really just reinforces the underlying problems that produce drugs, violence and terrorism I would argue. If you go into communities where there is no investment in its young then what is this the best thing for its community, for its young, then what choices do they have. In my family we are afraid for our young people, we fear for our young people. And so, I said, well, I will write about the underlying situation, around stop and search and knife crime and so many people, kind of young people, particularly black, young people dying. And so, I wrote this play calling it Stop and Search, so people are going to think it’s all going to be about policemen wrestling young, Black, Brown. people to the ground in Peckham. Um, but actually the play takes them on a journey. It’s about fear. It’s about people not being able to walk the street in freedom, we are not free, who in this society is free. Now is a time of distrust and distrust is pulling apart the glue that holds us together.
AA: Thank you. I mean that kind of leads into what my next question was. I was going to ask you what is the message. Recently a 14-year old boy was killed in the capital. So, it is as you’ve explained, you can add to that?
GG: Yes. I would say that not so much the message of the play what I’m trying to do with the play is reach something in people. For people to connect with others who are different from them for example the inability to mourn. It is very much a, “oh it is what is happening to them over there, whether is it the migrants drowning in the Mediterranean or young trans or LGBT people, oh, this is their problem them over there. Really what I’m trying to do is open up the space for compassion. We need to work towards that kind of feeling. Actually we need to widen our sympathies towards each other.
AA: So how did the play get to the Arcola?
GG: Right. Um, well first of all, I’m a trustee of the Arcola theatre I really support what it does and what it tries to do. It is Turkish led both the Artistic Director (Mehmet Ergen), and the Assistant Director are Turkish. It is an area where there is a Turkish and Kurdish community in Dalston. It operates as one of the hubs of London BAME theatre, in the capital Arcola is the newly cutting-edge diverse theatre, in an open London. They approached me and asked if I would write a play. I was inspired to write it as I explained to someone the young people around me are frightened. Theatre is a social form I said I must look at this situation what people can see on TV every day, it a bit of nervous breakdown of British society. In regard to working with Mehmet, I have known him for a long time and we always intended to work together.
AA: Does your background as a poet or performer help when you write for the stage?
GG: For me it does because uh, as I mentioned my first experiences of acting was at school and doing Shakespeare. Because I’m a poet, that I am, I thought that writing was a really natural fit. Not verse theatre but the theatre that I make which is poetic but is the language of ordinary speech.
AA: In 1987 you wrote the play No Blacks, No Irish, race, identity, inequality, are the biggest conversations we’re having right now. Since you’ve been in this industry, how much do you think has changed and what are the changes you would like to see?
GG: In my experience when I started out we did not have theatre that reflected diversity, it was a White middle-class trust fund theatre. There was no money in it and you had to have money to engage in it. Its audience were an older demographic and generally White. When I first started working in theatre that was the situation. I couldn’t make the kind of theatre I wanted I couldn’t be inclusive. So I actually left the country. I went to Africa where I looked at the ways in which theatre related to society, coming back to this country I felt that maybe there have been changes, but not enough, most recently with the appointment of BAME’s to various London theatres you get the sense that something has begun to change. I hope Stop and Search contributes to the emergence of really representative theatre. What I would look forward to in the future is the development of that in terms of who participates in the theatre, who is the audience and who is the artist. Not all the cultures present in London are represented.
AA: What are the big moments in your career, what stands out for you as memorable?
GG: In my theatre career it was doing a play called Eshu’s Faust, for this I bought a #Yoruba Dancer Peter Badejo and Beninois dancer Koffi Kok into an English sacred space, a chapel, very old chapel from the 15th century, a Yoruba priest deceptively crosses culture and becomes a Christian priest and that culture crossing I re-interpreted as what happens when you encounter Yoruba spiritual power in a Christian space, what are the kind of conflicts between those two deeply embedded cultures. That was an extraordinary experience for me.
AA: What are the rules of audience engagement for the writers out there?
GG: Well, I think first of all, writers have to appreciate that theatre is what happens between the stage and the audience and you should have some experience of what that engagement is like and I got that from being an actor that’s the most important part, do not write in a vacuum. Imagine what theatre would be like in normal daylight, in a theatre, a church, in a village hall. Rethink what the social event is that you are engaged in.