Nadia Latif, but i cd only whisper

Published: Friday, November 9, 2012 9:40 AM | Interview by Gillian Fisher
Nadia Latif, but i cd only whisper  [image credit Richard Davenport] Nadia Latif, but i cd only whisper | © Richard Davenport

Nadia Latif, is one of those incredible people who seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of pretty much everything. Currently directing Kristiana Colón’s new play but i cd only whisper at the Arcola Theatre as I interview Latif about the production we somehow manage to unwittingly cover the US election, London transport and Scientology. Speaking to Latif about her research for the play and the inspirations for it I find myself shocked, intrigued and moved by her discerning responses.

but i cd only whisper |  © Richard Davenport but i cd only whisper | © Richard Davenport

What would you say but i cd only whisper is about?

I sort of can’t give too much away, there’s a bit of a secret as to what the play’s all about.
But I will say it’s set in Chicago in 1970 and it’s about a black Vietnam veteran called Beau Willie Brown who is being interviewed having committed a crime, but you don’t know what that crime is.
That’s all I can give away because the rest of it is about how that interview unfolds and what the crime actually is. It’s touching on a lot of things; the position of black men in America, their demonisation and their position of having to provide for their families when so many doors are shut to them.

What other issues does the play touch upon?

It’s about these hundreds of thousands of young boys who really didn’t know what they were getting into, finding themselves in a civil war that they should not be a part of. Also it’s about the first generation who came back and were not necessarily heroes; you came back from World War II and you’re a hero because you fought the evil Japs, whereas Vietnam was the first televised war so you had an American public watching footage and going ‘This isn’t right’ and you had all the protests with the flower power children. So you come back to a country that wasn’t totally behind you and realise you’d just committed yourself to fighting in an illegal war.

Quite a lot of the play is about mental illness, the treatment of it and ignorance about it within... I’m not going to say black communities ...I’m going to say poor communities, there’s a real issue of under-diagnosis. I think we’re very used to upper and middle class America saying, ‘Your kid has ADHD? Give him Ritalin. Your teenage daughter’s depressed? Give her Prozac’ and at the bottom end of the scale there are kids who aren’t assessed to find out if they have learning difficulties or emotional problems when they enter school. These are the kids who go through a system where had they been diagnosed and their teaching been adjusted accordingly, their lives would have been very different. Sorry, that was a bit of a splurge!

I love people splurging! Why did you choose to look at the fallout from an American War rather than a war which involved British troops?

Well the writer Kristiana (Colón) is American and we wanted to focus upon this particularly extraordinary period in history, particularly in terms of its black civil rights movement.
In 1963 in Little Rock, Texas the first black student enters an all white school and fifty years later America has a black president! Black boys couldn’t get jobs beyond being the mop man at Woolworths, but they could go off to fight for a country who had not so long before made them slaves. There were so many extremes in culture at that time; Malcolm X getting shot, Martin Luther King, Kennedy, then you’ve got Marilyn Monroe and the first man on the moon! All of these iconic moments take place within eight years. It’s such a weird period of striving for greatness and to assert your own identity but while yore striving you’re creating a system that’s weak at the bottom.

but i cd only whisper |  © Richard Davenport but i cd only whisper | © Richard Davenport

I think it’s very interesting that the Chicago riots were in 1968 and the LA riots in 1965 were in black areas and these people were essentially burning themselves out and you can’t help but draw that parallel with the London riots of last year. Black anger is a really destructive force in history, and we’re sort of doomed to keep repeating that and so I guess this play is an attempt to go back to the beginning to that 1960 to 1972 period and those iconic moments in black civil rights.

Do you think the soldiers who went to Vietnam knew what they were fighting for?

No, not at all. I think there was a real national pride thing, ‘I’m gonna go and fight for my country!’ but if you’re a young black man, what is your country? America has not embraced you.
It was a great job in a time when there weren’t many opportunities and there was a belief that ‘Maybe my country is going to start treating me like a man if I go and fight for it.’ Which isn’t a bad instinct but I think people were radically underprepared for what they were gonna get. We read a lot of firsthand accounts and all of the soldiers remembered the first person they killed. They were just completely underprepared for the reality of war. The us government actually dropped the entry requirements, you no longer had to have your high school diploma so a lot of not so well educated boys could join the army and unfortunately that meant black people. I don’t think that’s a colour thing, I’m sure there were a lot of young white working class men, particularly from the white rural areas who signed up because it’s a regular pay check and you have healthcare. But these boys were fresh off an aeroplane with basic training and being thrown into the most difficult war they world has ever known. Unfortunately poor and black tend to coincide so it may seem like something is racially inspired but really it’s about poverty and being at the bottom and of course in America at the time, black people were at the bottom.

Do you think that black people in America are still at the bottom socially?

Are you kidding there’s a black man at the top?! I think again when you take into consideration that it’s only 50 years of black civil rights, black people are doing remarkably well. But you can’t superpower that evolution and all attempts to do that fail and it gets called positive discrimination. I think it’s amazing that Barack Obama is president! But I think poverty is poverty and colour is colour, and I think it’s unfortunate when the two become conflicted. I think other ethnic groups within America such as the Latino community are going through the same thing. America has a problem that the gap between the richest and the poorest is still massive.

but i cd only whisper |  © Richard Davenport but i cd only whisper | © Richard Davenport

Do you think we could ever have a black prime minister?

I don’t see why not. A few years ago I did a show at Theatre 503 called Coalition which Gordon Brown and a lot of junior politicians came to see, including Oona King. We had a long chat about why there aren’t more black politicians here and it still seems a bit of a mystery. Often if you’re going to be a black politician in Britain you’ve got to represent a community whereas I think the strength of Obama is that, yes, he’s a black man but he’s also half white and he won’t reject either side of his identity. I would say I’m pretty confident that if a great black politician came along I don’t think this country would have a problem with it, but the issue is where is that black politician? Where are they going to come from and how are they going to be encouraged? ’Cos of course you’ve got to aspire to someone, you’ve got to see that politician to want to be one yourself.

I actually grew up in Sudan; I came here for school when I was 14 so I’ve got a huge amount of respect for British culture. My mum’s half English so we’d come here every summer and think ‘England’s great!’ My mum used to take us to the theatre four times a week sometimes. Maybe Britons don’t dream as big, because at some point Barack Obama must have gone, ‘I’m going to be president one day’ but I don’t know what that moment of alchemy is. But it also raises the question of whether we could have a gay prime minister. I mean Tony Blair originally had to hide his Catholicism when he came to power so how prepared are we to break with tradition? But then we’ve had a woman so who knows.

Often if you’re going to be a black politician in Britain you’ve got to represent a community whereas I think the strength of Obama is that, yes, he’s a black man but he’s also half white and he won’t reject either side of his identity.

Is this play based on a true story?

No, it’s not. The character Beau Willie Brown is taken from Ntozake Shange’s play, For Coloured Girls Who have Considered Suicide. It’s weird because that piece is very famous if you’re black but not really to anyone else and certainly not here! But Kristiana read it and said ‘That guy sounds interesting, I think I want to write that guy’s story’ but I think she then tried to embed it in real information, researched the army and the period and tried to make it as real as possible. But then Kristiana is a young black woman living in Chicago so the accessibility to that information is quite easy. It’s not that far back; it’s probably your dad’s generation so those real life events and experiences were all around.

Why the decision to go against standardised writing and use what looks almost like text speak?

Everybody assumes it’s text speak; it’s not, it’s mainly phonetics. Text speak is evolved from phonetics. I think Kristiana really wanted to take it back to basics; she’s a performance poet herself so her obsession is what things sound like. When you see it on the page it looks like a mess, but actually it’s a very specific key that tells you the length of pauses, the stress of certain words and so on. It’s also about wanting to take language away from the privileged and trying to make it something more primal. I really applaud Kristiana for abandoning standardised language because it’s a play that jumps around in space and time and it has a dream like quality to parts of it, so the text fits with the ethos. Obviously in the mouths of actors it becomes something real. It’s going to touch a lot of people differently. It’s heart breaking and heartfelt.

but i cd only whisper cr Richard Davenport but i cd only whisper | © Richard Davenport

Info: but i cd only whisper is at the Arcola Theatre until 1 December 2012

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