A recent RADA graduate, Abili has quickly made an impression with credits including Dido Queen of Carthage at the National, The Brothers Size at the Young Vic and Angels in America for Headlong.
Billed as a “sharp, vivacious take on two worlds colliding”, the play is inspired by the real-life story of a flamboyant con artist who managed to convince wealthy residents of Manhattan’s Upper East Side he was the son of Sidney Poitier. At the Old Vic, Obili is the social-climbing interloper Paul, opposite Head and Manville as the affluent couple, John and Louise Kittredge.
Six Degrees of Separation originally debuted on Broadway in 1990 and in 1993 was adapted as a film starring Stockard Channing - reprising her stage role - Donald Sutherland and Will Smith. In 1992, it received its London premiere at the Royal Court with a cast including Channing, Paul Shelley and Adrian Lester as Paul, going on to win the Olivier for Best New Play.
In terms of a blunt scientific breakdown, “six degrees of separation” is the notion that we’re all connected to everyone else on the planet by no more than six people, thanks to coincidence, fate, love, the mechanics of movement, communication and so on. Beyond the theory, it’s a levelling field, a way of allowing all of us to see each other as equals.
In the play, it’s made manifest because my character, Paul, from randomly meeting a guy in a doorway on a rainy night in Boston, manages to make connections many months and hundreds of miles later with these rich Manhattan-ites in an Upper East Side apartment. Because of the connection, he gets past any racial or sexual tensions at the beginning and he has this incredible effect on their lives.
Paul wants to belong. And, you know, that’s what underpins the notion of six degrees: we all want to belong, we all want to be part of a community, we’re all trying to be on that level playing field. We don’t want to be seen as black or white or male or female or Christian or Muslim, whatever. We just want to be recognised for our humanity. That’s the beating heart of the character and the play. Beneath all the lying and the fantasy, Paul just wants to belong, to be like whatever person he’s with at any particular time. It that means going out and picking up some dude or going into a park and singing a song with people or pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier, so be it - whatever he needs to do to make that connection, he can’t help himself.
The character is based on a real guy called David Hamilton who, during the Nineties and early Eighties, lied and said he was Poitier’s son, initially so he could get into Studio 54 and other fancy places. Then he took it further to gain favour with people like Leonard Bernstein, Gary Sinise, the actor – basically, the rich socialites of New York were all fooled by this dude. But Hamilton was much more manipulative and calculating than Paul. And he died of Aids-related illnesses in 2003.
John Guare wrote the play in 1990. These days, because of technology, it’s more like two or three degrees of separation. But the actual notion still applies because it’s not about the difference between one, two, three, four, five or six degrees – it’s not about difference at all. It’s about the similarity between me being human and you being human. And for me it’s about love. Everyone wants to be loved and to belong. And that in itself is a connection – you can spot the connection right there, you know?
- Obi Abili was speaking to Terri Paddock
Six Degrees of Separation opened on 19 January 2010 at the Old Vic, where it continues until 3 April.