“I think what Ryan’s done really astutely is pull up the band aid a little bit to allow people to see, especially at a moment when stardom, popularity, fame is at such a high premium and people are willing to do anything for it”. Ivanno Jeremiah
Ivanno Jeremiah is a British Ugandan Actor and Writer. Since graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art has worked consistently in Film, Television & International Theatre.
He is best known for playing ‘Max’ in Channel 4 and AMC’s, Humans (2018) & ‘Chris’ in Sky’s, A Discovery of Witches (2020). Also starring in the unaired Game of Thrones Prequel (2019).
Additional screen credits include Counterpart (2019), Cold Feet (2020), Doctor Who (2017), Black Mirror (2016), The Flood (2019), The Hollow Crown (2016), Julius Caesar (2012), The Jury II (2011) and Injustice (2011).
ALT caught up with the actor to talk about the might of playing the titan that was Sydney Poitier in Retrograde at the Kiln Theatre, how he relates to the experiences Sydney had as a black actor half a century ago if not more. On that Jeremiah says are “concepts and struggles and battles that” he knows “very well”, also what we can expect from Retrograde he says ” ..we only see the finished product”. People would not have seen the Sydney who was perhaps “living of malted milks and hotdogs”. #Retrograde asks the question; how much have we really evolved?
Let’s talk about this play. The name Sydney is mighty, a titan. How does his life, imitate yours or how has his life impacted yours in terms of influence. You know of course you do the same job, right?
Yeah there’s loads, there’s loads. I’m going to be candid, maybe a bit. But I lost someone very close to me before the end of last year. I’m from an immigrant family as well, first generation, older than me. There’s a great likeness there and a commonality in the lack of a blueprint of it all. The private wins and the private joys, the beauty and ugliness of it, welcome-ness and not. The fast double time feat that you’ve gotta sometimes do. And thinking of the trial-and-error stages of all of those who have opened or just walked there before us, has made our route both easier. Almost fathomable, <laugh>, decodable and I am thankful to all of them. So I think in doing this, I’m also doing a homage for someone very close to me.
I guess in preparation for this. Because this came before the end of the year before all of that. I came back just to do this. And I will probably sort of disappear for a little while after. Watching all of his films has been fantastic and reading all of the books. The person I lost was also a man. Sydney was also from Cat Island in The Bahamas. Really rural, rustic, very basic beginning and up until what we now see as, and what I’ve come to call as “The Sidney”. So those looking to come and see “The Sidney” may only get glimpses of this. I think what Ryan’s done really astutely is pull up the band aid a little bit to allow people to see, especially at a moment when stardom, popularity, fame is at such a high premium and people are willing to do anything for it.
But also the perspective of it that we often only really regard the finished products. We only ever really see the person at the end of the line, not the Sydney sleeping rough in New York, or writing a personal letter to Roosevelt saying, this country cold take me back to me country. <laugh> <laugh> and asking for money from Roosevelt. And literally, living off malted milks and hotdogs.
ALT: Where do we see the story in Sidney’s life?
We meet him age 28. So, we’re in 1954/ 1955. It is the height of the summer. Segregation is still bang on trend down South <laugh>. we meet Sydney after a long spell of unemployment, which is unheard of. again, this polishing. particularly while in grief, in preparation, the fortunate thing was I found a lot of solace in watching almost all of his films. I’ve watched almost all of it. And reading everything that’s available. “This Life” is a fantastic autobiography. Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon biography and, a few other bits and pieces. he even speaks about this. So across those books, I was able to sort of sympathize where he is actually at. You know, he had got two kids, one on the way, married to Juanita by now, age 28, basic housing. He has a rib shack, opened up a rib restaurant with his friend to just try and smooth the way of the ups and downs of it, because by now he’s done five films. His first film was Sepia Cinderella (1947). He showed up as a little non-speaking part Go, Man, Go! Goodbye My Lady. Red Ball Express, Blackboard Jungle. No Way Out!
That’s quite strange. No Way Out itself. So, you’ve done a big old film with Mankiewicz, he plays a Black lead, a doctor. And I think the first time we saw a Black person negotiating White spaces in a very diplomatic manner on screen, which now we kind of see in ER and he did that and then went back to borderline homelessness. So, I think astutely, it’s very important that we meet Sydney at this moment., but also to say more about the time before coming to New York, living of malted milks and hotdogs, freezing himself to death in his first winter, police brutality, been in riots, resorted to going to the army, pled insanity to get out of it. Like really trying like these unicorns, these pioneers.
What would you say might be some of the challenges of this role how do you derive at presenting such an iconic figure, which is satisfactory to you?
I’ve shaved my beard (smile) well, aside from just the immersion getting in with it but quite a lot of it reflects massively. These are feelings and thoughts that are possibly some of the most lived in I’ve been able to, I’ve had their luxury to play. Concepts and struggles and battles that I know very well.
Could you elaborate, are we talking about as a young Black actor today, probably around that same generation that you’re playing. Are you saying that you can relate to what he was going through all those years ago, decades ago?
Yeah. And I mean, I hope audience catches up as well. And it’s what Ryan’s done fantastically. A lot of it feels completely contemporary and some of it feels completely in 1955 that I’m now nearly 12 years deep in the game. And I’ve had a varied and beautiful opportunity to work with some of the best people in the world. But also there are ways in which my career and all of that doesn’t reflect. There’s that, there’s the that of it. And, knowing that I’ve got spars and counterparts, people from the same year of RADA whose experience have been very different mentioned or not <laugh>. these are things that we have to reconcile with in terms of being understood in these spaces. Stepping into hot rooms and showing your best, looking your best despite how you are feeling. Even just, you know, that first scene is a bit of a first line is good morning.
What do you like about Ryan’s work?
I’ve just seen For Black Boys, which is on at the Apollo a fantastic show. I recommend it, a very healing show. I’ve been very impressed by his versatility because he’s writing in period now and this is a very different play. So you may or may not see some tenuous links in his particular style, but this is a very distinct one from the one we’ve seen before. I love his handling of Sydney. I love his bravery in microaggression and prejudice in practice. I love how he’s painted or included, the Black Square Syndrome, the middle moderate friend who may not be as helpful at the crunch times as one may need. I made a couple of little notes, about allyship and where that lands and ends, about cancel culture, the risk. In this meeting in Mr. Parks’ corner office at NBC Towers, that was meant to be just going in to sign contracts at the height of McCarthyism. Turns out that it’s very much the latter that he’s being asked. I was asked by someone just before this interview, who would you have loved to have seen this? I would’ve loved Sid to have seen this, to be able to look back at his under duress, fortitude. Maybe you’re not even known at the time and this similar situation has happened twice in his career. You know, it’s the combination of it.
ALT A: What attracts you to a script
Now and I think more poignantly than ever, it has to make me feel, and it has to not only elevate, educate, and inform my community and people around me, but also, you’ve kind of probably seen from some of the thing, some of the work I have done there. There isn’t really a theme there, it has to be challenging, has to be new and with this freedom that Sydney and those before have Hattie McDaniel, Stepin Fetchit, even though some of them had to do it in a caricature sense. Jo Baker, all of that. That they’ve given me the license to be freer. So yeah, it’s almost my duty to then enjoy that play on this beautiful field that they’ve forged at the cost of their lives often and much else. So yeah, the challenging, the different, as far away or as close as possible to self, but just not predictable, not boring, not stereotyped. I have less time for that.
One other thing just to elevate that hopefully this spikes up, brings his name into the room. If that alone is a win for me because I know I’ve had to fight hard to be able to watch most of his back catalog of films and at quite a great cost. I don’t know what the generation before me are doing to try and find these films. I don’t know if there is thoughts of an archive or a collective or something. But it would be wrong of me to omit the fact that it’s been very hard for me to access Sydney and I wonder if that is divisive or not. But you know.
And hopefully now people know. Hopefully more of these plays of everyone who’s gone before just so the next generation know. Because too often this brand-new culture isn’t really helping anyone. And Sydney wasn’t even the first, Paul Robeson is the first.
Retrograde takes us back to The Golden Age of Hollywood and the Young Poitier is between jobs. What is the price he would pay for fame.
Cast Ian Bonar (Bobby), Ivanno Jeremiah (Sidney), and Daniel Lapaine (Mr Parks). From the writer of the award-winning, smash hit For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy, Directed by Kiln Associate Director Amit Sharma.
Retrograde opened at the Kiln Theatre on 26 April, runs until 27 May 2023. BOOK HERE