What's A Boy and His Soul about?
It's the examination of a "boy" in quotations because it's really about a man in his 30s who's feeling like a boy; he's looking back on his coming of age because his parents are ageing and selling the family home in Philadelphia. It's an examination of his soul and also the music he was given as he grew up, by the likes of The O'Jays, The Spinners, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips. It's all built on the word soul.
Is it autobiographical?
It absolutely is, though a good 20% of it is theatrical license - whether I truncate time or change a name for comic effect.
How did the production at the Tricycle come about?
It came about through a conversation with the artistic director in Canada, while we were being hosted at the Banff Resort by the Sundance theatre lab. Indhu [Rubasingham] was directing a play and I was developing a new play of mine called Wild With Happy. We would meet in the pub to talk about art and life, and got to know each other as creatives. It was just one of those new relationships where I thought ‘oh my gosh I'm so excited about what this person is doing in the world'. And then she heard from a few sources about my solo play, so she called me up one day and asked about it. She said it would be a great introduction for me to the Tricycle and also to the creative world of London. The timing worked perfectly when I found out I'd be doing The Scottsboro Boys over here, so I guess the stars all aligned.
How are you finding London so far?
There's a huge love fest going on where London and I are kissing each other on the street. You know, public displays of affection. London is just so good for me right now!
And next up is The Scottsboro Boys - could you tell us a bit more about it?
It's written by the wunderkinds of the American musical Kander and Ebb, who wrote Chicago and Cabaret, and directed by Susan Stroman, who helmed The Producers. It's about the true story of nine African American teenagers in 1931 who were wrongly accused of raping two Caucasian women. It sparked a huge change in the way criminals are represented, as well as anticipating the civil rights movement. My primary role is Mr Bones, one of the ring leaders - it's a role I originated off-Broadway and subsequently on Broadway. I think it's one of the most dynamic pieces of theatre I've been involved in; it's painful, it's beautiful, and it's deeply thought-provoking.
How do you think it will go down with British audiences?
I honestly believe it's going to go over very well with British audiences, because there's more of a distance from the material. It's such an American story, but I think you need a little bit of a distance to examine exactly what we're doing. So with this new lens I hope it's going to be very well appreciated.
Are you excited about working with Susan Stroman again?
Yes, she's the most exciting director I have ever worked with. There's something we call 'The Scottsboro Boys workout' because working with Susan is so intense. It puts you in the best shape of your life - there's not an ounce of body fat on you, you eat well - you really feel like an athlete. She expects it from herself and she expects it from her cast. Her favourite statement is: "Again, but full out with conviction." When you work with Susan, you feel you can do anything.
Was acting something you always wanted to do?
It was actually something that I never thought of when I was younger. I didn't grow up going to theatre and I certainly didn't know I could have a career in it. I was a journalism student at school and took an elective acting class. I was always quite a shy kid, but that one class changed my life. I realised that I had a gift, a way of expressing myself, and my teacher encouraged me to examine that. I found it was a way to tell the story of myself - I was trying to write articles for magazine, but I learnt that I could actually tell those stories as a theatre artist.
Is your writing work shaped by your experiences as a performer?
I know that my writing informs my acting and vice versa. As a playwright, I find that actors like my plays a lot because I write with a lot of action and I write from the perspective of an actor. My writing is very lean; it's very action driven and pretty concise.
Which do you prefer?
Acting for me is somehow more limited than being a playwright. As a playwright I'm more in the driver's seat of my world-view, my point of view, and what I'm trying to say. I'm actually in charge of the whole story as opposed to just my role. But then I think it's a very natural progression from actor to writer.
What would you say to entice audiences to come and see A Boy and His Soul?
I would entice people by saying if you enjoy classic soul music and you enjoy to laugh out loud, if you enjoy stories of a very colourful family, than this is the show for you. All my characters are extremely expressive of their feelings and opinions. I write them all with a sense of love, and honour.