Arinzé Kene on playing Bob Marley: ‘You can’t just sit back and enjoy my work. I want you to be challenged’

The actor and playwright is rapidly becoming one of the most exciting faces of British theatre. Now he’s stepping into the shoes of Bob Marley in the new West End musical Get Up, Stand Up!

Arinzé Kene’s life is usually one of perpetual motion: write, act, devise, repeat. Rest isn’t usually in the equation. During Misty – his 2018 play that became a sensation, melding a story about violence, gentrification and displacement – he didn’t leave the stage. The usual 20-second gaps, in which actors have a glass of water and take a breath as sets and costumes are changed, were removed. Kene just incorporated them into the action; frenetic is the speed at which he likes to live his life.

At 34, he has written half a dozen plays, appeared in EastEnders, cropped up in the starry BBC drama The Long Song, played Simba on stage in The Lion King, sung alongside Michaela Coel in the Netflix musical Been So Long, and been awarded an MBE for services to drama and screenwriting. It is his plays – which have consistently homed in on the tensions and pressures facing black men in the inner city – that have established him as one of British theatre’s most singular talents. The pick of them, the autobiographical Misty, opened at the Bush theatre before transferring to London’s West End. He is only the second black British playwright to have had work performed there, after Kwame Kwei-Armah.

But lockdown stopped him in his tracks. The wheels ceased turning, productions were postponed. For once in his life, Kene had to pause. While others embraced the change of pace, he didn’t deal with it well. “That was the first time in a few years where things just all kind of powered down,” he says. “I didn’t like it very much; it wasn’t good for my mental health.”

Most disturbing of all was that he couldn’t create. Misty took three years of writing, rewriting and workshopping, but Kene always enjoyed the process. “Lockdown wasn’t good creatively,” he says. “I feel like I do need to constantly have things to be working on.” Part of that is his love for his work, but it’s also practical: he knows success can be ephemeral and that not all ideas will succeed. Lately he has been feeling as if he’s put all his eggs in one basket. “I was talking to some cast members the other day just saying I need some new hobbies,” he says, smiling. “I would like to have some other shit to busy myself with, besides writing and getting on the phone with the lighting designer at 7.15pm after rehearsals.”

His current focus is the Bob Marley musical Get Up, Stand Up!, which opens in the West End on Friday. It follows the story of Marley, played by Kene, during his time in the UK with his band the Wailers and the lead up to the Smile Jamaica concert, which was held just days after a failed assassination attempt on the singer in December 1976. With official approval from the Marley estate and songs including No Woman, No Cry, Exodus and Three Little Birds, it looks set to be one of the autumn’s biggest openings as the West End begins to rebuild after a year of lockdowns.

Arinzé Kene Misty
Arinzé Kene in his autobiographical play, Misty, in 2018. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

We speak over Zoom from the Jerwood Space, London, where final rehearsals for Get Up, Stand Up! are taking place. It is 8am when we talk and, despite the early start, he’s still bustling with energy. “I’m obsessed with my work because I love it,” he says. “Bob Marley was very similar.” Along with Stevie Wonder and Fela Kuti, Marley is one of the big three musical influences in Kene’s life. “He saw himself as a messenger,” he says. “He was like: ‘This is my gift, Jah gave me this gift.’ So this is a story about a man who spends all his life just pursuing this thing and using his gift in order to heal the world. I don’t see myself as a million miles away from that.”

We are not a million miles away from where Kene says he first knew he was destined to be an entertainer. The studio is a 30-minute trip from his childhood home in Hackney. He had a spell in Queen’s Park, on the other side of London, for a while, and tried Los Angeles for a bit, but has been back in Hackney for a few years. There’s a pull he can’t ignore; Hackney for him, he says, is like New York for Spike Lee: “It’s just always going to be in my work. It was a central character in my upbringing.”

Born in Lagos before moving to London at four, Kene was one of four children, and grew up in a one-bed flat on the Trelawney estate when the borough was one of the most deprived in the country. His father was a taxi driver, his mother a nurse. At the time, Hackney council was notoriously mismanaged and faced a £40m deficit as basic services such as rubbish collection ground to a halt.

Since 2000, the borough has gone from being a byword for deprivation to being synonymous with gentrification, a topic he tackled in Misty. During a Q&A after the show, Kene says there would always be someone asking how they – as a middle-class gentrifier – could help. “I’d have to say: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know the answer.’”

Kene just creates the work, he says, and it is up to the audience to decipher it. But it’s clear he sees his writing as a way to change minds. There is a sense of duty. “I can sit down at home and enjoy a really meaningless comedy,” he says. “But it turns out that’s not the type of work I create. I end up making work that I truly feel.”

What does that look like? “I strive to change people, to transform people, to challenge their accepted values. That’s what my work does. It will interrogate you. You can’t just sit back and enjoy it; I want you to engage, sit forward, be challenged and leave for that interval and be like: ‘Oh shit, what’s going to happen?’”

Watch the Get Up, Stand Up! cast in rehearsal.

It is fair to say Get Up, Stand Up! won’t have the same tension, as a huge commercial musical that needs an audience from far outside the London theatre world to survive. But Kene still sees an opportunity to challenge the audience, however subtly. It will be directed by Clint Dyer after its original, white, director, Dominic Cooke decided to move aside last summer because “the conversation about race has changed in theatre, as it has across society”. The British-Jamaican Dyer, who is deputy artistic director of the National Theatre and became the first black British male to direct a West End musical in 2005 with the Olivier award-nominated The Big Life, describes himself as “a Marleyite since I could hear”.

A year on, Kene is convinced a black British creative team leading the project will make it better. “It’s not just about putting people of colour on the stage,” he says. “It’s about the people who make the work, too.” Kene always speaks with purpose, but as the subject of representation comes up, he shifts gear. There is an urgency, as if he can’t wait to get the words out: “Clint is a black director of Jamaican heritage, he’s bringing his authenticity to the project. You will be able to see that on stage via osmosis, it will get into you. Regardless of what country you’re from, or the colour of your skin, you will see that what you’re looking at is authentic.”

He thinks the musical could do what Ayub Khan Din’s play East Is East did for British Asian audiences in the 1990s, or what Misty accomplished three years ago: inspire more diverse audiences to attend the theatre. “It happens every single time,” he says. “It happened with Misty and [Natasha Gordon’s] Nine Night. It happens every time.”

Kene has spoken before about looking out from a London stage and being shocked at how the audience seems nothing like the city that is humming a few metres away outside the theatre walls. Unlike the knotty issue of gentrification, he thinks there is a simple answer to the problem.

“Let everyone play and share the stage, then everyone can just shut up about trying to find these audiences,” he says, sounding angry for the first time. “These people don’t come because you’re not putting people who look like them on stage. The problem with the West End is clear – and the answer is just obvious.”

• Get Up, Stand Up! is at the Lyric theatre, London, from 1 October.

• This article was amended on 28 September 2021. An earlier version stated that Clint Dyer was the first black person to direct a West End musical. He was actually the first black British man to do so.


Lanre Bakare

The GuardianTramp

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