As a child, Clint Dyer only ever wanted to be a footballer and, by the age of 15, he was well on his way. “If I bump into people who went to my school,” he says, “they ask, ‘How come you’re an actor? We thought you were going to become a footballer.’”
There is a good reason why he abandoned the game. The son of Jamaican-born parents, Dyer grew up in the east London of the 1980s and felt loyalty to the local team, West Ham – until he went to see them play. “My dad took me there and, bless him, he didn’t realise how much it would scar me – 30,000 people throwing bananas at the only black man on the pitch. I was abused to the point I stopped going – and playing – for 10 years.”
Upton Park, where he was born, was seething with racial tension back then. The Brixton riots had happened and protests over the Newham Seven had erupted on his street. “I’d see rioting out of my bedroom window,” he says. “It was a horrible time. As a kid, I didn’t understand how someone could hate me if they didn’t know me. It’s the most bizarre thing.”
Luckily, he found theatre. At 51, Dyer’s second passion has proved fruitful, first as an actor, then as a director and writer. In 2005, Dyer became the first black British artist to direct a musical in the West End: The Big Life, an Olivier-nominated production that took inspiration from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost in its stories of Windrush-generation Brits.
The Big Life was also the first West End musical about black British lives – and another first will come later this month with Death of England, a play Dyer co-wrote with Roy Williams and directed. The work will make Dyer the first black British artist to have acted in, directed and written a full-scale production for the National in London (he starred in the acclaimed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 2016). These are landmarks not only for Dyer but also for British theatre. Death of England promises to draw yet another line in the sand, given that the two black dramatists have chosen to interrogate what Britishness means to the white, working-class family at its centre. “Yes,” says Dyer. “It’s radical for black people to write about white people.”
The play came out of a short film commissioned by London’s Royal Court theatre and the Guardian in 2014. Its theme was sport and it is a darkly comic microplay that careers into a car crash of family dysfunction as a son gives a drunken, disorderly eulogy at his father’s funeral. This longer version examines the toxic inheritance left by his father, who wants to see the country taken “back from the blacks”. It has plenty of dangerous edges, unfolding on a stage designed in the shape of St George’s cross.
Written as a dramatic monologue, the play stars Rafe Spall and returns to the hate-fuelled terraces of Dyer’s teens. But while some speak of a re-emergence of racism there, Dyer challenges the idea that it ever left. “I bet if you ask any footballer from 1970 to today, they will not able to think of a time when they could say, ‘Oh yeah, I never got any racial abuse from fans then.’” In the 1990s, he adds, “there was a conversation that racism was over but it wasn’t for any black people, it wasn’t for Asian people, and it wasn’t for any other people of colour. I remember thinking, ‘How is it over? Is it because we’re not being chased down the street any more?’”
He struggled to get commissions in those years. “I was handing in plays and films that were depicting the type of racism I was encountering and they’d say: ‘Oh, no, there are no worries about this any more. Shouldn’t you be worrying about your own community because you’ve got loads of gun crime and knife crime?’ The people who were commissioned to write the stories that said nothing was going on any more weren’t the people actually living it.”
After the success of The Big Life – all the more of an achievement for being his directing debut – not one theatre called him up to offer work or talk about future projects. “A certain amount of bias occurs when talking about black men in power. A black man in power is another level of intrigue. I was the unknown – that would be the polite way of saying it.”
We try to count the number of BME men in the higher echelons of British theatre. There is Kwame Kwei-Armah and there would also have been Madani Younis if he were not leaving for New York. “Yes, there’s Kwame, but he had to go to America. Even though he had shows on here, he wasn’t in a position to guarantee himself a living so he had to go to a country that could.”
Dyer has known Williams for decades. “He’s an inspiration for me. It’s easy to forget the lack of black British writers at the time I was starting out who had the same experience of England as I did. There were only a few allowed to get through.” The success of all his firsts has been hard earned, he adds. “I’m immensely proud of them but none of it has come easily and sometimes the shine is taken off because it’s been a hard slog.”
Theatre seems to be taking inclusivity more seriously, I suggest, with growing visibility of black actors and playwrights on mainstream stages. Does he think it is a watershed moment? “It might be, he says, “but what we have got to be wary of is that we don’t just support those whose names are bigger than their colour. We have to keep the door open for more to come through but also not pat ourselves on the back. As soon as we do that, it’s back to what happened in the 1990s. Everyone thought it was solved. Suddenly the teaching stopped.”
These days, Dyer is writing at a dizzying rate across films, TV and stage. He is co-directing a play called The Happy Tragedy of Being Woke with Simon McBurney. It is a reworking of a play about cross-cultural adoption. Dyer has two mixed-heritage teenagers with his wife, also an actor, but the idea did not come from personal experience. In the first incarnation of the script, the family was white. In this version, the adopting father is black and has mental health issues. “Black mental health has been urgent for the last 30 years,” Dyer says. “It’s just taken a long time for society to acknowledge this.”
He is directing a film by Rachel De-lahay, and co-writing a series about the life of the singer Goldie. Dyer has also made a short film, Dim Sum, as part of the Guardian’s new series of short dramas about Europe: a monologue delivered by a black British bailiff hollowing out the houses of those in debt and reflecting on what modern Britain has become.
Dyer grew up in a staunchly working-class household. His father was a foundry worker at Ford’s “sweating his heart out every day” and his mother was a nurse. They were as supportive of the acting as they had been of the football. Dyer carved out a career path while he was still at school: he worked a Saturday job to pay for professional actor’s pictures, found an agency to represent him and started doing part-time workshops at Theatre Royal Stratford East, a bus ride from his home.
His pathway into the overwhelmingly white, middle-class world of theatre was made easier by Philip Hedley, the former artistic director of the theatre, who Dyer cites as a seminal force in his career. “He was a white man who was completely engaging with the whole community no matter who they were. I’ve been involved in theatre since I was 16 and a lot of the stuff I’ve learned is through him. He wrote to my drama school to tell them to take me on, he trained me on his director’s course, he gave me my first gig as a director.”
For years while Dyer was an actor, he yearned to be a writer. He grew up “dyslexic and insecure” and thought it simply wasn’t on the cards. Then he was directed by Mike Leigh on stage and that changed everything. “The play was It’s a Great Big Shame. It was improvised and became one of the great experiences for me in terms of how to create dialogue, scenes, stories.”
Class is still central to his identity. In fact, he says, Death of England is as much about class as it is about race. “My kinship with Roy is based on our understanding of being working class and British. It’s the most important conversation in Death of England. We’re trying to highlight that what some people consider as the ‘changes’ taking place now were always there. As a working-class man hanging around in working-class areas, I could feel the tensions, concerns, issues, but they weren’t being played out in the arenas in which the people that have the voice were existing.”
So did he see it all coming – the demonising of immigrants, the pulling up of the drawbridge and the landslide? “You can see that from the pieces I’ve written. The thing that the guy in Dim Sum finds so shocking is that people are surprised by any of it. Of course this is what was going to happen. We stopped listening to the working classes. This is why we are where we are now.”
• Death of England runs at the National Theatre, London, from 31 January. Dim Sum, from the Guardian and Headlong series Europeans: Dramas from a divided union, premieres on 16 January at the Curzon Soho as part of the London short film festival.