Arinze Kene: 'At home, I'm Nigerian. I go out and I'm a British kid'

Former EastEnders actor Arinze Kene is fast becoming one of Britain's most exciting young playwrights. He tells Maddy Costa why he has turned his gaze on the riots that rocked the 1980s

When Arinze Kene began writing plays in his teens, he started working his way through bookshelves of British drama. What he encountered was a thrilling document of the 20th century, but he also noticed an absence – "gaping holes when it comes to black culture and black history".

He was then working as an actor; EastEnders fans will remember him as Connor, the gang member who had an affair with an older woman, Carol Jackson, in 2010. But he quickly became frustrated with the one-dimensional characters that came his way. "I found that if I was young and black, I was going to have to be bad, dealing or whatever," Kene says. So he set about creating alternatives.

His new play God's Property is set in Deptford, south London, in 1982, and tells the story of two brothers born to an Irish mother and Nigerian father, struggling to assimilate with the white community around them. Kene, who was born in Lagos in 1987 (his parents emigrated in 1991), says he chose the period because "there was a lot of racial tension, which peaked with the riots in 1981 and '85. It's almost as if Britain was going through growing pains." What's striking about the play is how familiar it still feels: although people no longer describe themselves as "half-caste" and the skinhead uniform worn by one of the brothers has dated, the strained social atmosphere, the sense of inequality and confused personal identity have echoes today.

Not that Kene drew any deliberate parallels; if anything, he made a conscious effort to avoid them. "Earlier drafts had almost aspirational bits," he says, "where characters spoke about what they can hope for in the future. But I took them out because they felt like spoon-feeding the audience. I talked to a lot of people about what it was like then, and things haven't changed that much, and I'm not sure if they ever will."

That makes him sound pessimistic, though; sitting in the bar of Soho theatre in London, the 25-year-old talks enthusiastically of wanting to create new narratives for black people. "A lot of writers like myself – young, from London – write ourselves into a corner. We write what is expected of us, and often what's expected is knife-crime stories." There's a reason for this, he admits: "I can speak from experience and say that it's easier to be listened to, to get your work on stage, if you depict the same old shit." Meanwhile, he argues, large realms of black experience are being ignored.

He points to his own family: they have lived in east London since his parents emigrated from Nigeria, yet none of his siblings has ever been involved in violent crime; two of them are graduates, and his brother is a photographer. "What about those stories?" he asks. "They're just as interesting." But he admits that he grew up surrounded by "bad influences", and came close to trouble himself: if he is a successful writer and actor now, it is partly down to the luck of never having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

His parents were bent on academic success for their children, but at 18 Kene argued his way into a gap year from studying science. His first play, Estate Rules, took more than two years to write and was largely autobiographical. "The lead character has one foot in the world of violence and the other foot in wanting to make it." He didn't grow up on an estate himself, but as a teenager his bedroom window looked out on to the estate where his friends lived – an experience that is typical, he says, of his mixed-up youth.

Like many first-generation Londoners, he experienced a divided sense of nationality. "At home, I'm very Nigerian. You'll hear Nigerian music, my parents speak in Igbo, my mum's got her wrap on and cooks Nigerian food. Then I leave the house and I'm Arinze, the British kid." It's a division that is embedded in his plays: the dialogue is very London, but the storytelling, he explains, is more influenced by the structure of African folk stories, particularly the way a narrative isn't resolved but remains open-ended.

He is also much inspired by the writing of Langston Hughes, a key figure in the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. "You can tell he loves black people. He understands that there is a lot out there saying you shouldn't like yourself – and he writes because he wants us to love ourselves." The same love pulsed through Kene's second play, Little Baby Jesus, which depicted the loss of innocence of a group of black teenagers, and it's there again in God's Property. "Yes, I'm writing about inner-city characters, but I'm celebrating those characters," he says. His mission is to encourage other young black writers to do the same.


Maddy Costa

The GuardianTramp

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