Interview with Kwame Kwei-Armah and Baz Bamigboye, Gem of the Ocean critics
Kwame Kweih Armah
Interviewer: I wanted to start by asking you two general questions about August Wilson. When and how did you discover Wilson and his work, and what made you such a fan?
Kwame: First one is very easy the second one is slightly harder. The first play I saw of August Wilson actually was Ma Rainey, Ma Rainey' s Black Bottom. Which there was a National Theatre production, directed by M Howard and I saw it in Hackney Empire, I was right up in the gods could probably just about afford a ticket and I was just... I remember just thinking this is magnificent. Then I have to fast-forward to a Tricycle production of Joe Turner and that really really... in fact that hit me so hard that the women who brought me there was my then girlfriend, and I think I probably married her because I thought anybody who can bring me to work such as this, who can understand the every ethos of me must be someone I want to spend the rest of my life with. But actually we' re divorced now but that' s immaterial! So yes, those were the first times that I met the work of Wilson and as much as Ma Rainey, I found myself interested in and moved by it, it was the spirituality of Joe Turner that made me a die-hard fan.
To answer the second part of your question, why I am such a die-hard fan, is because... Well often I had found in my generation, that to be a successful black person in any arena meant a certain level of compromise had to be in your work, had to be in your persona. The things that I often found that we, as African-Caribbean' s, we as African-Americans, spoke in our front rooms were literally, even if a white person walked into the room, the conversation would change, and would be skewed to a softer more gentle conversation. And then I could go and see the work of August Wilson and I would hear the conversations of the front room. I would hear conversation that we keep to ourselves because we are afraid of the system. And there they were on stage, coming out the mouths of great actors, being directed in the most magnificent way, these views and these stories are coming out not just in straight-forward dialogue, but in poetry, but the vernacular of Pittsburgh being made equal that of any vernacular. I have to say I found myself in awe of somebody who could do that with such skill. Not make it agitprop, make it real drama in the way we understand Greek drama, in the way that we understand tragedy. Do that from our cultural lens, with the political strength and honesty of a community centre meeting, in Tottenham or Brixton. He became my writing hero.
Interviewer: Quentin Lets, the critic at the Telegraph, said there should be a warning outside the Tricycle reading ' Phd in African-American literature advisable' . Is Gem of the Ocean only for erudite academics?
Kwame: Well, I' m glad that you told me that, I tend not to read reviews and I' d seen this play on Broadway. What' s very interesting, and if I can talk about that for a moment, is actually when I was sat next to a woman of about 97, and I say 97, I mean I choose that number randomly she certainly was 80+ in my opinion. And it was terribly interesting because she was reciting lines of poetry along with the characters, she was singing along with songs, folk songs of that period. And I found myself tremendously moved by that. I don' t think you need a Phd in African-American history to understand the power of the middle passage, to understand the psychological damage that Wilson eludes to that happened in the passage from Africa to the New World. I don' t believe that you need a Phd in African-American history to understand that someone arrives and says ' I wished to be purged, I wish to be made clean' I don' t think you need a Phd in order to understand that, I would fundamentally disagree with that comment. I would say however, having seen two productions of it as I' ve said, the one on Broadway and the one at the Tricycle, that in my humble opinion one needs to look at Gem of the Ocean as one huge evocation and that' s why I can understand where Quentin' s coming from on that, it' s a huge poem, a huge spiritual evocation. And if you find that difficult to access, then maybe you might wonder about the play. But I certainly don' t feel that you need a Phd.
Interviewer: Perhaps you could talk a bit about the two performances you saw of Gem of the Ocean, what you enjoyed about Paulette' s?
Kwame: Well I enjoyed Paulette' s production terribly and I was really really pleased with it, again, having seen the one on Broadway - I don' t mean pleased with as though, ooh, I' ve given it my seal of approval, but just, you' re always quite afraid aren' t you when you' ve seen the original and then you' re going to see a second production of it, it' s a huge weight. I enjoyed it very much. Again I enjoyed the performances of all of the characters, Joe Marcella was tremendous. The actor that played that part in America is a most magnificent actor so even though I' m a big respecter of Joe' s work I was, you know, a bit afraid for that, but Joe took the character in a completely different direction and made it his own and I enjoyed in very much. It was a very truthful production that honoured the message that Wilson was trying to put across. Which is in essence, that we, in my humble opinion, is that we will never be free until psychologically we deal with psychological effects of being enslaved, of the middle passage, of the slave sale, of the seasoning process where you were de-Africanised and made European. We will never be free. It is not something that we discuss. It is not something that we openly look at and other communities have mechanisms by which to talk about their own holocaust, quite rightly. But the African community, throughout the diaspora does not discuss this and I found the production to be truthful in articulating that which Wilson was trying to elude to.
Interviewer: How does August Wilson compare with other contemporary American writers? Is he of the stature of Edward Albie or Arthur Miller?
Baz: I think August Wilson is up there with Albie and Arthur Miller and Sam Shepard, I' d say. You know these are playwrights who have defined the American way of living over the last century and a half. Albie' s plays dig right deep into the social fabric of America and I think that Shepard' s plays more go to the... delve into what' s happening in more contemporary blue collar America. I think with August Wilson... This is a cycle of ten plays that have essentially gone across the whole of American 20th century. Through writing these plays that are set in Pittsburgh, he' s writing about the whole country, the whole American experience and I do believe that sure when you see Ma Rainey' s Black Bottom or Joe Turner' s Come and Gone sure that the characters are African-American but I think through it we' re seeing other parts of history, seeing the American experience experienced by Caucasians. I think we do learn about that sort of aspect as well, I think that' s so important. I think they' re major plays. You know. In Ma Rainey' s Black Bottom the main character says ' white people when they listen to the blues they don' t know where it comes from' . And that' s so true, they haven' t experienced the pain, that music sounds so happy, sounds so gleeful, but when certain people listen to it they don' t know what people went through to create that music. And I think sort of August Wilson there' s a rhythm to his speech, a rhythm that could equal anything of Shakespeare' s speech. People will probably attack me for saying that but I think that' s true. Albie has a certain rhythm of speech that is equal to what August Wilson does. I think he' s a major playwright of the 20th century, yeah he' s a big noise.
Interviewer: Explain what you mean by ' rhythm' of August Wilson play and why do you think it' s equal to Shakespeare' s work?
Baz: When I say rhythm I mean I often, you know if I' m reading, particularly as opposed to watching, listening to Shakespeare, if I' m reading Shakespeare' s text on a page, doing a bit of homework or whatever.There is a rhythm, you can feel it, and you can hear it, and I think that whatever play I' m listening or reading I always look for the rhythm, the balance, has it got rhythm, can it, for want of a better phrase, can it swing. And yeah, the bard swings. August Wilson swings. His language is made up of the speech that has come from Africa to the US. It is the African rhythm I can hear and that' s what we can still hear now if we go to truly African-American areas of the South theirs is this rhythm in speech. It' s very difficult to do, very difficult to capture the speech of people. Shakespeare speech is particularly of the English race, the Anglo-Saxon race and he' s picked that rhythm up, so I think I' m entitled to say if another author picks up the same, different kind of rhythm that' s of his own, beats to his drum. And do you know what, I don' t know if I have to defend it frankly. In fact, you know, if I' d really wanted to answer your question I' d have said don' t insult me by asking me to defend, you know, why shouldn' t August Wilson, who just so happens to be Black, why shouldn' t he be compared to Shakespeare or Edward Albie or David Hare.