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20 Questions With... Danny Sapani

Actor Danny Sapani – who opens this week in the UK premiere of the ‘lost’ 1930s African-American play Big White Fog at the Almeida – explains how theatre saved him at the age of six & why he’s enjoying excavating history.

By • West End


Danny Sapani’s stage credits include The Overwhelming, His Dark Materials and Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre, the title role in Macbeth for Out of Joint, To the Green Fields Beyond at the Donmar Warehouse, Neverland at the Royal Court, and Measure for Measure for Cheek by Jowl.

On television, he has appeared in Holby City, Little Britain, Blue Murder, Serious and Organised, Ultimate Force, Judge John Deed and Trial and Retribution II. His films include Blood Diamond, The Oxford Murders, Song for Raggy Boy, Anansi and Hotel.

Sapani is now starring in Michael Attenborough’s staging of the UK premiere of African-American playwright Theodore Ward’s 1937 play, Big White Fog, running from 17 May to 30 June 2007 (previews from 11 May) at the Almeida. Set in Chicago between 1922 and 1933, it follows the journey of members of the Mason family and the pursuit of their own ideological beliefs, as they steer a course through racism and the Great Depression. Supported by wife Ella, Vic’s loyalty is to Marcus Garvey’s separatist Back to Africa campaign, while his brother-in-law Dan is committed to the American Dream, believing that the black community can prosper and succeed within the system.


Date & place of birth
Born in Hackney, east London on 15 November 1970.

Lives now in
North London. I have lived there for 15 years, and I love it.

Training
Central School of Speech and Drama.

First big break
I’d define my break as the beginning of the type of work I do now. So I guess it began when I took the part of Claudio in Measure for Measure in Cheek by Jowl’s production and worked with Declan Donnellan and a fabulous cast on that.

Career highlights to date
Mostly for me playing Macbeth, directed by Max Stafford-Clark for Out of Joint. Collecting the Manchester Evening News Award that we won for that on behalf of the company was a very proud moment. And working with Sam Mendes at the Donmar was a big deal for me. Doing His Dark Materials was also quite a wonderful experience. I had never worked with puppets before, and it was great to have the chance to give that a go.

Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
I really enjoyed the work I did with Gordon Anderson when I had just finished drama school. I did quite a lot of stuff with him, including Silver Lake by Kurt Weill at Wilton’s Music Hall - I was one of two actors among a cast of opera singers. I tend not to do musicals, in as much as I can sing but don’t feel so confident singing in public, and there I was in the very deep end of that! I’d love to do more musicals, actually, but that was extraordinary.

Favourite co-stars
I loved working with Mark Rylance at the Globe. He’s a great actor, such a great craftsman, and just about anything can happen of a night. Jenny Jules, my current co-star in Big White Fog, I adored in Fabulation before I even knew we were going to do this together. Working in the same show as Helen Mirren (in Antony and Cleopatra at the National) was a great experience. And all the actors I worked with in To the Green Fields Beyond and in The Overwhelming as well.

Favourite directors
Max Stafford-Clark, Declan Donnellan and Sam Mendes, because they’re the directors who have made the biggest impression on me as an actor and at different stages of my life they have revived my work.

Favourite playwrights
I really like Frank McGuinness. I recently saw There Came a Gypsy Riding at the Almeida, and The Chain Play here as well, which he wrote scenes for. I particularly like a lot of Irish writers. I like the honesty of their work.

What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
Anything Cirque du Soleil does I’m amazed by. Recently in the theatre, I went to see Sizwe Banzi Is Dead at the Lyttelton. The way those two (John Kani and Winston Ntshona) work, their relationship with an audience and their craft, is mind-blowing. I think they are amazing artists and the stories they tell are still very relevant even post-apartheid. And everything I’ve seen at the Almeida recently has been fantastic, so I’m very happy to be working here again.

What made you first want to become an actor?
I decided when I was quite young. As a six-year-old boy, I was finding life hard, I was going to the headmistress’ office a lot. But I had a very good drama teacher and I was cast in a play. Everything changed for me from that point on really. I just knew that I loved being on stage and telling stories. I’m sure it’s a time-honoured story, but I always knew this was what I was going to do and I never veered from it. I now wish I had been a bit more mature when I made the decision. But it’s been great - I’ve done some great stuff and I’m continuing to grow as a person through my work.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
Something communicative. In my deepest fantasy, I’d have liked to pursue a literary career, to write or to go into some form of academia, politics or philosophy. But chances are, I would probably have done none of those things so in a way acting was probably a saving grace for me!

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Always aim for the cheap seats – in other words, project to the back. And in life the best advice is really dull but true: believe that you can be whatever you want to be. Hard work does pay off and goals and dreams are worth having.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I think it would be Shakespeare because there’s so much controversy over who he was and whether one person wrote all his plays. I’d like to know.

Favourite books
Anything by Tony Morrison or Philip Roth. And I’m reading a book at the moment by Zora Neale Hurston that’s beautifully written.

Favourite holiday destinations
I’ve got a lot of family in Ghana and Thailand so I like to go and visit them. I hope to retire to Ghana one day. The mountain areas are very beautiful. And my wife’s Thai so we like going to Thailand as well. There are some amazing places in south Thailand particularly. I remember standing there one evening and thinking, if I died in that spot right then, it would be okay because it really was the perfect paradise.

Favourite websites
Wikipedia, Youtube and Whatsonstage.com - they are all very good. I’m quite new to the internet so websites that show the true vastness of what you can do and how it can really change your life and open your world are the ones that excite me most. I’m still a bit wowed and inspired by being able to press a button and access anything I want.

Why did you want to accept the part of Vic in Big White Fog?
Victor Mason is a family man with four children and married to Ella, and he’s a follower of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, who was a black revolutionary of the time. What’s clear to begin with when you read Big White Fog is that it’s a very good play, incredibly well written and ahead of it’s time. It’s also a piece of history that I knew very little about. That was very interesting to me, that this was written at a time when there was such a huge change taking place in America - particularly among the rural communities - and the writing and the culture that came out of that was just astounding with blues and jazz. Politically, it was a very interesting time too. And that’s what the play deals with, so I was fascinated by it and was really keen to be involved.

Were you familiar with Theodore Ward’s work before this production?
I wasn’t familiar with it, no. This play has only been performed I think twice in its history and never here. I had read novels from that time in America, but I hadn’t read a lot of plays so it was quite refreshing for me to read this and hear the views of the black American writers of that period.

How does it feel to premiere a piece written almost 70 years ago?
It could be a huge risk with a play like this - maybe there’s a reason it’s not been performed for 70 years! But I don’t think so, I think it was way ahead of it’s time and perhaps too raw to be performed here when it was written, because it really does tell it as it is. It’s a very honest piece and that sometimes becomes more appreciated over time.

Do you have a favourite line from Big White Fog?
The dialogue is very natural. Michael (Attenborough) has been working on the play to make it tighter in places. There are some great funny bits which are Americanisms, and funny phrases that are quite enjoyable. Vic is very succinct and he has a great line: “It’s a mighty poor slave who gives up trying to break his chains just because there’s a nick in the hammer.” That’s Vic all over, he doesn’t do things by halves.

What’s the oddest/funniest/most notable thing that’s happened in rehearsals?
Putting the play on it’s feet has been surprisingly easy. It’s been a very smooth transition to get to grips with it because it just makes more sense being acted rather than read. The characters are well-rounded and the relationships are very real. Michael read us a letter from Theodore Ward’s daughter. She recalled how her father used to type on an old typewriter. That was nice for us to have a very close personal contact with the writer. Working with Mike is a joy. He’s very funny. He keeps everybody happy with his tales.

- Danny Sapani was speaking to Caroline Ansdell


Big White Fog opens on 17 May 2007 (previews from 11 May) at the Almeida Theatre, where its limited season continues until 30 June.


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