Lucian Msamati, pic by Johan Persson
Lucian Msamati is a man of many talents. Having just completed his run as Dromio at the National Theatre in the Comedy of Errors, the artistic director of Tiata Fahodzi is rehearsing the lead role of Kayode in Belong at the Royal Court. As I interview him during his well earned lunch break and as his mushroom omelette gets progressively colder, I discover just how passionate he is about his various roles. Most profoundly, I also learn about his unflinching determination to make a difference and spread awareness through his craft.
Tell me about your character Kayode in Belong.
Well Kayode is born and raised in Nigeria. He moved to England for university, and ends up spending the next 25 years of his life there, becomes a politician and dives into all things English. Then the election results don’t go his way and he throws his toys out of the pram, returns to Nigeria and things all go downhill from there. What I find intriguing about the character is that it would have been quite easy to be very “right on” and actually I think there’s a lot of him that’s not appealing at all. I would not say he is instantly likeable or necessarily instantly horrible. He is very interestingly in between.
The characters on the whole are all very well drawn, we have really pushed the envelope with the wonderful amazing cast we have
Is he a victim of circumstance?
Well, he’s clearly a person of privilege like me. He’s from a comfortable background, he’s an only child and doted on by his mother. A lot has come out during the play rehearsals about why he is the way he is. It’s been quite moving really. The relationship with his mother is fascinating. When we meet her I believe a lot of people will understand why he is the way he is. In fact I think it would be interesting to do another story all about her, coming from the country that she comes from, how it is possible that a woman on her own has gained such power and such wealth. The characters on the whole are all very well drawn, we have really pushed the envelope with the wonderful amazing cast we have. We’ve been able to experiment with the story that we’re telling and things have been borne out of the rehearsals, which I think is a good thing.
You recently played Dromio in the National theatre’s very contemporary Comedy of Errors. Is it a challenge to develop a play in such a way when it isn’t a new piece of work like Belong?
I think it depends very much on who you’re working with and their vision for it. Dominic (Cooke) was all about the moment; the truth, the honesty and reality of the world we inhabit and putting that across creatively. It’s a very delicate balance, Shakespeare’s been around for hundreds of years so you have to know your beans if you’re going to tamper with it. But again, because Bola Agbaje’s piece is very much of our time and because of the fantastic team we have we are able to deconstruct it, pulling it apart and reforming it and with another team that wouldn’t be allowed. I think sometimes there’s a misunderstanding about actors. There are very few actors that I know who will ask a question out of ego or vanity. It will be because they need their character to make sense to them to make their part believable.
Belong by Bola Agbaje
Your theatre company Over the Edge received great acclaim in Zimbabwe and was the first multi racial theatre company in your country which was hugely significant. Why did you choose to take it out of Africa?
Well, a few reasons. On the one hand we believed we were as good as anyone in the world. We were capable of doing what everyone else is doing. I also think all of us were interested in the world beyond. Practically speaking in Zimbabwe there was no room for development, being respected for your profession was limited. Also, we’re plugged into the international world. England and America are the high temples of our craft and our industry, so why ever not? Let’s learn, let’s expand.
It’s not that what we were doing in Zimbabwe was backward in any way, we were quite surprised at how cutting edge some of the stuff we were doing was compared to abroad. Similarly we were shocked at how people couldn’t understand how these black Africans spoke so well and understood Shakespeare. We’re not all living in mud huts and riding zebras. I’m not saying it to be contrary, I am genuinely quite shocked at how many people really have that belief. That’s one of the themes of the play. There are people who don’t see that there is a whole other world out there, where you are just you, everybody looks like you, where the colour of your skin doesn’t matter.
Playing Devil’s advocate, what if Kayode was white and tried to make it in Nigerian politics?
This is an interesting concept. When he comes back to Nigeria, everybody calls him a white man.
Because of his world view. In a roundabout way the black has taken the place of the white. Dare I say it; white is a state of mind, not a state of being in terms of how the Nigerians in the play process it. It’s a mentality, not a physiological state. If Kayode were physically white, it would be a lot easier to take a stand. The otherness would be rather obvious, literally black and white. But that’s rather simplistic.
How do you interpret the Nigerian political system?
The state of Nigeria is complex in that Nigeria is a construct. It’s been through various stages being controlled in different areas by different tribal groups, Yoruba land, Igbo land and so on until the concept of what Nigeria is and how it began is still difficult. I think it’s fair to say that Nigerians have perfected the art of corruption. Nigerians are more open and honest about it. You’re not going to be invited to a private dinner that is paid for by the tax payer and then say you weren’t discussing politics. You’re going to say ‘Here’s a one thousand pound watch and here’s two million dollars. I want to be the governor of X and I need you to back my campaign.’ It’s not fair, but it’s honest.
Shouldn’t honesty result in fairness?
Well it’s fair in the sense that everybody can have a chance to rise to any position. Again, it’s a theme that comes up in the play. A particular line is ‘To be a Nigerian means to be a hustler. I’m a hustler from the day I’m born to the day I die.’ And Kayode says ‘I’m Nigerian and I’m not a hustler.’ They laugh in his face and say, ‘You’re an English hustler, your life is very different, you don’t have the same fight.’
As a writer, director and actor do you have a favourite role of the three?
Definitely acting, it was my first love and remains my first love. Everything else developed because of acting, because there was a lack of opportunities we had to do it all ourselves. I do think passion can lead to all sorts of disciplines.
Lucian Msamati (Dromio of Syracuse) and Lenny Henry (Antipholus of Syracuse), Jude Owusu (First Merchant) image Johan Persson
What inspired your love of acting?
I remember watching something on TV, when I was young and thinking those people were having so much fun and I wanted to do that. My mother says that as a little boy I always said I wanted to be an actor. I was always genuinely interested; watching programmes, reading plays, watching plays, I just looked at it with a different eye. Wondering why they used this camera, why they set the scene there. I’ve just always loved it.
You became artistic director of Tiata Fahodzi in 2010. How difficult was it to take over from the founder Femi Elufowoju Jnr?
It wasn’t as difficult as I expected it to be because there was so much good will; I felt I made the right decision. The real difficulties came later. It’s easy to stand outside and complain but once you’re sat behind the desk saying you want this and you want that you realise how difficult it is. We don’t sit around all day discussing our great ideas. Policy and budgets can make it into a nine to five desk job, but it’s all necessary. If that work isn’t done we can’t make our art.
When you took over as artistic director were there any major visions you had for the future?
Ironically, it was to break out of the West African Congo genre! But here I am doing a West African play and loving doing it. Actually it’s been one of the main challenges to overcome; this almost pathological desire for people to pigeon hole. You go to an audition for a play clearly set in Uganda and you’re told ‘Just do a general African accent’. Well, what’s a general African accent? A Nigerian doesn’t sound the same as a Ghanaian. A Ghanaian does not sound the same as a Congonian. This happens for so many reasons, a fear, a slight laziness, a certain arrogance. I think people do not want to realise the diversity of people in Africa, we are not defined solely by our struggles or our political troubles or religious affiliations.
Do you feel that in Britain today your skin colour is still an issue?
Yes. It’s a bit sad and a bit annoying because this country has had such an influence on the rest of the world and yet the narrow mindedness still exists. There is outrage because it’s still headline news. But then again, from the day that I was born to today this country has been through huge changes. Let’s not forget that it’s not so long ago that you and I having this conversation would not have been possible. When we did Clybourne Park there was outrage particularly in America, it was too close to the bone. In England, it being one step removed people were able to look at it in a much more objective light. They were able to admit that they do laugh and they do discriminate and that this is happening in our society.
We’re not all living in mud huts and riding zebras. I’m not saying it to be contrary, I am genuinely quite shocked at how many people really have that belief.
Prejudice is prejudice is prejudice. There is always someone who is suffering more and very often it is not easy to see what is happening in the minority, whatever that minority is. I have the same argument with gay friends who talk about their struggle. I get that and I say ‘To be honest I have no right to comment.’ Because I don’t know what it feels like to be looked up and down in that way. I do understand on a certain level because they’re having the contents of their humanity disapproved of. Going back to Belong, Kayode basically has his blackness questioned. He is always the oppressor, the bad guy. But throughout the play we discover that he is a man who has a very good heart and who does want to make the world better. And you’ll see that when you watch the play.
Belong is at the Royal Court Theatre from 26 Apr – 26 May, 2012
Afridiziak Theatre News interview with Bola Agbaje, Belong