Interview: Clifford Samuel

There’s been a fascinating debate about race and identity in the arts in progress on the internet, a debate that grew out of the Facebook group for Bola Agbaje’s play Gone Too Far! and carried on, specifically in regards to theatre, via Andrew Haydon’s blog on the Guardian’s website. The question posed was this: “If a black person produces something such as a play, a film or music, should it be associated with the word black?”

Actor Clifford Samuel is equivocal about where he stands on the matter. There is no such thing as a black play, he says “plays are just plays.” The use of the label is divisive, unhelpful and contains “echoes of segregation”

Clifford Samuel is the very definition of up and coming. He trained at the Guildhall School and graduated early to make his professional debut with the Royal Shakespeare Company, in Julius Caesar and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in Stratford-upon-Avon, productions that then toured the United States. He played Octavius Caesar at the Lyric Hammersmith and went on to work with Cheek by Jowl in their production of The Changeling at the Barbican. He gave a memorable performance, as a young musician with a disapproving West Indian father, in Jack Shepherd’s Chasing the Moment at the Arcola and he is soon to be seen in Tiata Delights! a “celebration of British-born African playwrights” at the Almeida.

Part of the theatre’s summer festival, the week-long season, presented by Tiata Fahodzi, is the fourth of its kind. Previous seasons have showcased work by Oladipo Agboluale and Levi David Addai (whose Oxford Street played recently at the Royal Court prior to a sold-out stint in Elephant and Castle shopping centre). The line-up for the forthcoming season features six short plays, including new work by Agbaje, and features performances from Jenny Jules, Cathy Tyson and Martina Laird. Samuel is performing in The Burial by Ghanaian writer Francis Aidoo, and thinks such festivals, highlighting the work of emerging African writers, are necessary. “In a utopian world more black playwrights would be recognized, but now it does seem to be something of a ‘one in, one out’ system,” with Roy Williams and Kwame Kwei Armah embraced while other talented writers remain on the margins. Plays by black writers don’t always have to be “cutting edge, Royal Court” material, they just have to deliver. “Michael Bhim” he adds (whose Pure Gold was staged at Soho Theatre), “he’s one to watch out for. 2009 is his year.”

Samuel is incredibly easy to talk to. He is a thoughtful and charming, passionate and excitable about the things that matter to him. He takes care with his words, and often chastises himself for being too “vague” in his responses, before finding a more precise way of making his point (his pride at his friend Beru Tessema’s success in Che Walker’s The Frontline is particularly endearing).

His most high profile role to date has been as Don Warrington’s illegitimate son in Kwei Armah’s Statement Of Regret which was staged at the National Theatre last year. The play was set in a think tank and dissected various ideas about race: the divisions that exist between those of Caribbean and those of African descent, homophobia within the black British community and the concept of post traumatic slave syndrome. Samuel thinks the play got a rough handling from the critics, with the reviews focusing too much on certain concepts such as post-traumatic slave syndrome (“laughable gibberish” according to Quentin Letts writing, predictably, for the Daily Mail) ignoring the fact that this formed only one strand of a more complex narrative. He felt that a lot of commentary on the play read like an essay on the issues, with discussion of the performances and characters relegated to the last couple of lines. He applauds Kwei Armah for bringing such issues to a wider audience, particularly for highlighting how the legacy of slavery amongst West Indians is passed down through generations, from grandfather to father to son, but he thinks the way the reviews focused on the issues rather than taking the play as a whole was ultimately detrimental. “I had hoped the play might transfer, might have a greater life and hopefully it still might.”

He is full of warm words for Kwei-Armah, describing him as “brilliant” and then clarifying: “he has such energy and he’s generous, very generous. He was in the rehearsal room 80% of the time and when he wasn’t there it was only because he was out of the country.” Kwei-Armah “takes chances, he doesn’t just go for names” and he took a chance on Samuel that paid off. It must have been particularly satisfying to work with Kwei-Armah, because it was seeing one of the playwright’s earlier plays that first opened his eyes to the potency of theatre. The play was Elmina’s Kitchen, then starring Patterson Joseph (though it would later transfer to the Garrick Theatre in the West End with Kwei-Armah himself taking the lead). “It was the last day of carnival and come six o’clock I said let’s swing by the South Bank” It turned out to be an inspiring moment for his teenage self. He also cites reading a copy of Che Walker‘s Been So Long as another inspiration, “it was so funny and it was about a Camden I recognised.”

“He’s very generous. He was in the rehearsal room 80% of the time and when he wasn’t there it was only because he was out of the country.” – Clifford Samuel on working with Kwame Kwei Armah.

Despite the mixed and perhaps somewhat blinkered critical response, Statement Of Regret played to full houses, attracting a racially mixed crowd and crucially “speaking to people who don’t normally go to such things because they don’t feel there’s anything out there for them, that reflects their lives.” He points out that there has been a noticeable shift in audience demographics at the National since Nicholas Hytner took over as artistic director, though this can present new challenges as an actor. Black audiences can be more vocal, less reserved, “you know when you’ve lost a black audience because they start talking as if they’re in their living rooms at home.” But, he adds, they are equally forthcoming when they’re enjoying something. Though Statement dealt with a number of issues specific to black Britons, its overriding theme was fairly universal, about men and their fathers, the need for approval. And, as Samuel tells me, “Kwame’s into politics and the play was inspired by Charles Kennedy. Seeing Kennedy, a public figure, intoxicated. Watching the television and thinking ‘he’s drunk.’ That’s where the idea came from initially.” (In the play, Warrington’s character, Kwaku, has a drink problem that is beginning to escalate, impinging on his work as the think-tank’s spokesman).

Samuel has also just completed his first film, (Shoot On Sight, a British political thriller to be released later this summer) but until now, despite a recent stint on The Bill, his career to date has been predominantly stage-based. However he’s at the stage in his career when he’s open to “all interesting work.” He is “fascinated by film, its language, its processes.” It is “more disciplined than theatre. With theatre, it’s family and you bond.” But “film is not an actors medium, it’s a filmmaker’s medium. On stage you are visible from head to toe, on film you need to use your face to convey the drama. The good actors are the ones you can see thinking, where you can see something going on behind their eyes.”

He has a few interesting potentially very interesting projects on the cards for later in the year, though doesn’t want to talk about the details in case he jinxes them. Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: he’s a face we’re going to be seeing a lot more of.

Clifford Samuel features in Tiata Delights! part of the Almeida Summer Festival, 28 July – 2 August 2008.

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