His hit 2018 play riffed on black identity and saw the actor and writer hailed as one of the British theatre’s most exciting voices. Now he’s starring in a bold new version of Death of a Salesman
Right up until the first night of previews, it was clear to no one, least of all its author, that Misty, an incendiary play by actor and playwright Arinzé Kene, was going to be one of the great theatre success stories of 2018.
That’s no reflection on Kene’s track record. The east Londoner had written five well-received plays prior to Misty, and his acting career was on the rise, propelled by arresting stage performances in One Night in Miamiand Girlfrom the North Country. But with this particular project there was, he admits, “a massive element of uncertainty”.
For starters, it was an ordeal to write. He was commissioned by the Bush theatre back in 2012 and Kene spent three years searching for the right idea. At one point, disillusioned by his lack of progress, he tried to pay back the commission, but the Bush’s creative team persuaded him to keep going.
When he did finally propose an idea in 2015, it felt extremely close to the bone. He wanted to tell the story, set to grime music, of a young black man in Hackney provoked to violence as his neighbourhood succumbs to gentrification. This would be interspersed by scenes in which the author of the story, called Arinzé, worries that he’s perpetuating a stereotype of disaffected black youth.
“I felt so exposed: I was putting a version of my story on stage,” says Kene, who had recently moved back to Hackney and was struck by how much his old neighbourhood had changed. “I was afraid that if people didn’t like it, it might feel like people didn’t like me.”
As the play took shape, test audiences and even some of Kene’s collaborators struggled to get it. “So many of the workshops we did for Misty fell flat,” he says. “There are all these different media in the play – visuals, pre-recorded voices, music – and everything that could go wrong went wrong.”
But then, as previews got underway in February 2018, everything suddenly went right. The critics were positive – the Independent called it “abstract, absurdist and enthralling” – and audiences loved it. In September, Mistytransferred to Trafalgar Studios, becoming only the second play by a black British writer ever to be staged in the West End (the first was Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen 15 years earlier). At the Olivier awards earlier this month, it was nominated for best new play and Kene for best actor.
Now the 31-year-old’s hot streak looks set to continue. From Wednesday, Kene will appear as Biff Loman, son of Willy, in a radical new staging of Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic. In Arthur Miller’s original text, the Lomans are socially and professionally frustrated for reasons that have nothing to do with the colour of their skin. In this production, co-director Marianne Elliott has made the family black, which casts their travails in pre-civil rights America in a very different light.
At the rehearsal studio in south London, I arrive just as the core cast are running through a pivotal scene – the one where Biff discovers an unwholesome truth about his father and storms out of a Boston hotel room in tears. Through an open door, I glimpse Wendell Pierce (detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire) shouting “Come back here or I’ll beat you!” at his son before collapsing backwards on to the floor.
Moments later, the cast breaks for lunch and Kene, in a pastel blue jacket, charcoal grey slacks and white trainers, emerges blinking into the sunlight. He is tall and well built but with an easygoing, empathetic manner that seems to extend in all directions. When he discovers an ant in his salad during our conversation, he places it gently on a wall, along with a few stray grains, inviting it to “enjoy the quinoa”.
We grab two chairs and head for a shady spot in a nearby car park to eat our lunch. He indulges my excitement about glimpsing Pierce – “He’s one of the performers who walked me into manhood,” he nods, munching away. “He’s been in so many of my favourite things” – and enthuses about working with Elliott (War Horse, Angels in America). “She’s lovely. One of the things I’m really enjoying is getting to do so much character work and really delving into the history.
“It’s incredible how well it works with the text,” he says of Elliott’s decision – prompted by a phone call from Miller’s daughter Rebecca – to reimagine the Lomans as African American. “For a long time Biff believes in the American dream, but at some point he becomes disillusioned and realises it’s only for certain people. In this production – and you didn’t really get this perspective before – it feels like the white characters have it easy.”
For Kene, who was born in Lagos and moved to London aged four, this isn’t difficult to understand. “As a black man I’ve experienced institutional racism and the paranoia that comes with it,” he says quietly, “and the effects that has on a person’s character.” Similar experiences fed into the writing of Misty, which is acutely sensitive to racial tensions in British society. “When I moved back to Hackney,” says Kene, “I just realised, again, that to some people I’m very threatening. In a hoodie, tracksuit, and trainers, I’m a big threat. And that’s the furthest thing away from me.” He lets out a big laugh. “I work in the theatre, do you know what I mean? I don’t know when the last time was that I got in a fight or raised my voice at someone.”
During the past five weeks of rehearsal, Kene has also been thinking a lot about his relationship with his late father. “My dad was pretty old-school Nigerian,” he says, “and there were things that I couldn’t open up to him about. With my mum, we got there. I could talk to her about stuff, and that’s quite similar in this play. But with my dad there’s just so much that we didn’t get to say.”
In Miller’s play, Willy Loman wants his son to become a successful businessman, but Biff is torn – he dreams, instead, of going out west to work as a farmhand. In Kene’s case, his dad wanted him to be a doctor, lawyer or accountant. “I took a different path,” he says, “and that was tough – tougher than it should have been. But I don’t blame my dad. He wanted his son to have security, and my choice was completely alien to him. My dad had never been in a theatre. He’d never read a play before. It didn’t make any sense to him.”
Eugene Kene moved to London in 1990 and got a job as a taxi driver, saving enough money to fly the rest of the family over from Nigeria the following year. Settled in Hackney, Kene’s mother Felicia retrained as a nurse and his father continued to drive cabs for the rest of his working life. “He wanted to give us more opportunities,” says Kene. “He really put his dreams aside so he could give us every fighting chance.”
Home was a busy, noisy place. “There was a lot of talk all the time and a constant flow of people. The younger you are” – Kene was the second youngest of five – “the less you’re allowed to really speak and engage, so I spent a lot of time listening. I think that’s why I became a writer and performer.”
Kene first declared his intention to write when he was five. Later on, though, he felt embarrassed to talk about his dreams at home. “I didn’t really tell my brother or sisters about it until I was offered professional work. When you grew up in that family where… ” He pauses. “It’s a very strong household. But I also had myself to blame. As a young man, I had a real problem being open. And that was a vulnerable place to say, ‘I want to be something’, when I was nowhere near [being] that thing.”
As a teenager, he poured his energies into music, rapping under the name Street Journalist, playing in bands and collaborating with, among others, grime artist Labrinth and singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka. He was also a keen basketball player and a diligent student, making head boy at St Aloysius college in Islington, where he became friends with the actor Daniel Kaluuya.
“Theatre was not my focus as a young person,” he says. “In fact I was put off. My first theatre trip was to see King Lear. It was quite a conventional production – big scale, full regalia and everything. I remember thinking, Why are people talking like this? There’s nobody up there who looks or even sounds like me. I’m getting corrected in English all the time for stuff they’re doing right now, so what’s the line? I went away with a lump of questions, but not liking theatre.”
One day, aged 14, he “accidentally” walked into the Arcola theatre in Dalston to dodge the rain and happened upon a company of young performers doing a workshop, which he was invited to join. “They were just playing. You got to pick up texts and improvise a lot. And there were a lot of girls there,” he laughs, “so it seemed like a good way to meet girls my age.”
As his interest in theatre grew and he began to get parts (he was cast as the lead in Been So Long at the Young Vic in 2009), Kene switched from writing rhymes to writing scripts. His first play, Estate Walls, which followed a young writer struggling to leave his working-class estate, ran at Oval House in 2010 and was nominated for best new play at the Offies, which recognise off-West End theatre in London. The same year, Kene joined the cast of EastEnders, playing tough guy Connor Stanley for a 12-month stint.
He started turning out scripts at a clip: Little Baby Jesus, one of three Kene plays produced in 2011, observed three inner-city teenagers stumbling into adulthood; God’s Property at the Soho theatre in 2013 dealt with race relations in the wake of the Brixton riots. On screen, he played a gay footballer opposite Russell Tovey in The Pass in 2016, and last year he reprised his role in the Netflix movie version of Been So Long, playing suitor to Michaela Coel, and appeared in the BBC adaptation of Andrea Levy’s The Long Song.
In the meantime, Kene was still grappling with his elusive commission for the Bush theatre. He wanted to talk about gentrification and racism and the kind of anger that leads one man to attack another on a night bus winding through Hackney. But he also wanted to highlight the pitfalls of staging such a story, which would grab attention but might alienate black audiences weary of seeing yet another example of “black trauma” on stage. In the end, he did both things, threading in a meta-narrative, which interrogates the story every step of the way.
When Misty finally began to take shape, Kene was surprised to find his musical talents coming back into play. “I don’t know how,” he says, “but all of a sudden I started writing these rhymes and it just worked. Lucas [ the angry main character] was just rhymes. Everything about his story was lyrical.”
Due to the demands of the performance and the personal nature of the story, Kene decided to play the roles of Lucas and Arinzé himself – the first time he has appeared in one of his own works. According to Omar Elerian, who directed the play, Kene was doing six performances a week as the fugitive boxer Joe Scott in Girl from the North Country, which had transferred to the West End, when they started rehearsals for Misty. “He would be in the room at the Bush from 10am to 6pm, then cross town and perform in a two-and-a-half hour musical. This went on for three weeks. Beforehand I said: ‘Arinzé, I don’t think you can do it man.’ He really stomped his foot and said: ‘I can.’”
Kene has lamented in the past that London theatre audiences don’t reflect the city he knows: they skew old and white. If there was an imbalance during Misty’s first run, it was in the opposite direction – “because at the Bush it was very, very black,” he says. “I was like: ‘Man, this is amazing.’” In the West End it was more of a mix – of age as well as background. “I thought that at some point the older people would stop coming because of the grime and all the aggressive moments, but I was so wrong. I’d be walking into the tube at night after the show and a 79-year-old lady would say to me: ‘Oh I loved that.’” Kene grins. “That’s one of the things I learned doing this: don’t second-guess your audience.”
In his introduction to the play text of Misty, Kene quotes the actor Janet Suzman’s remark, from 2014, that black people “don’t bloody come” to the theatre. “I was really sad when I read that,” he says, “because it’s not true is it? You’re giving a bunch of sickos fuel to carry on with their really ignorant ways when you say things like that. We’re busy trying to knock down those walls while she’s getting bricks.”
He feels strongly that, with plays such as Misty and Nine Night taking the West End by storm, and with the global success of films such as Black Panther, Get Out and Crazy Rich Asians, people of colour in the entertainment industry are showing their clout. “People have said: ‘You can’t sell to this domain, you can’t break box office hits’ – it’s all bullshit. And those mountains are coming crumbling down. Let everybody create work, man, let everybody share the stage.”
With Misty, he didn’t set out to answer questions about how the black experience should be represented. “I just wanted to put the discussion on stage,” he says, scraping his leftover salad with a fork. “The things that black writers and actors talk about when we get together and it’s just us.”
He’s had “loads” of responses to the play. During the Bush production, the poet Bridget Minamore wrote on Twitter: “I loved Misty + its questions about what it means to be a black creative making work for mostly white audiences… particularly great to see the endless questions about gentrification.”
Kene tells me he’s planning to revive the show at some point, to keep the discussion going. In the nearer future, he’ll appear opposite Gemma Chan in an as yet untitled anthology series for Channel 4 directed by Dominic Savage. He’s also working on his next theatre commission, though he declines to reveal anything about it. And, he says with a note of surprise, he’s writing music again. “I actually wrote a verse on the way in this morning, not connected to any theatrical thing. I find it relaxing as a contrast to rehearsing.”
What about Hollywood, where his old friend Kaluuya (Get Out, Black Panther) is making waves? Does he have any ambitions in that direction? “I’ve been to LA a number of times and I think it’s cool – I get it,” he shrugs, “but I’m more interested in what we’re doing over here. I’d much rather go see a play by Nick Payne or James Graham, or audition for debbie tucker green.”
What Kene comes up with next is anyone’s guess, says Elerian. “When he says: ‘I’ve started writing something, I’ll send you a draft when it’s ready’, I have no idea what to expect. I’ll just read it as it lands. That’s what makes Arinzé so exciting to me. No one has a blueprint for his work.”