The Kaluuya challenge

A long time ago, in 2005, Daniel Kaluuya came to study for his A levels at the school in Camden where I taught Drama and Theatre Studies. He is an outstanding actor – way beyond anyone else I have worked with before or since.

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Kaluuya as Posh Kenneth in Skins. E4.

In his practical exam he played Mark in Roy Williams’s Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads.  The play is set in a pub and the visiting examiner and I sat at a table on set.  At one point Daniel walked through the door and up to the bar.  He took a phone call.  The examiner looked at me anxiously but I was calm.  Afterwards she told me that she thought he was just a random person wandering around.  He did not seem to be acting.

He scored full marks for this performance.

images.pngThe play deals with football tribalism as well as racism.  Daniel’s character, Mark, is an ex-soldier from the British army.   The regulars at the King George Public House can’t get their heads around his Englishness.  His colour is more apparent to them than his place of birth and his service to his country.  I won’t say that this was an astonishing piece of casting by me but it was prescient in terms of what being black has been like for Daniel.

Purely coincidently the same playwright, Roy Williams, became a mentor for Daniel.  He selected him from among the young performers at Hampstead Theatre‘s now defunct Heat and Light Company to co-author a short play, It ain’t that easy.  This was performed in the Downstairs theatre in May 2006.  This was not Daniel’s first piece of writing. He had already won a competition to have a play produced by the same company when he was nine.  And when he was 16, also at Hampstead, I saw him act in a one-man show, which he had written himself, about an evangelical preacher.  It was an astonishing monologue delivered with panache and punch.  Around about this time he was also writing episodes for the E4 cult programme Skins, in which he played Posh Kenneth.  In an interview Daniel states “I was into acting, I just knew it was for me.  But I was poor, so if I failed, what did I have to lose?  I don’t think I could have been any poorer – I was eating McDonald’s sauces.’

Roy Williams wrote a play, Sucker Punch, about boxing.  The sport was, he says, the escape route for impoverished black boys when he was young.

Williams told me when I met him at a performance of Sucker Punch that he wrote the part of Leon for Daniel.  I said that I thought it was a bit like Hamlet in that Leon, the central character, is on stage for almost every minute of the full-length play.

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Kaluuya as Leon in Sucker Punch. Photo: media.westendtheatre.com

Williams replied that it was a huge risk for a 21 year old actor but that he had been confident in Daniel’s skill.  Performed in a real boxing ring at the Royal Court Theatre in London, the 2006 production received great reviews and won Daniel awards. Before starting rehearsals Daniel and his co-actor, Anthony Welsh, had trained with professional boxer Errol Christie for six months.  I think that is an indication of what sort of young man Daniel was and is.  The play, as do most of Roy Williams’s plays, tackles racism.   Welsh’s character, Troy, calls Leon ‘a white man’s bitch’.  Williams, according to Simon Hatterstone who interviewed him for the Guardian, does not see racism as simply black and white.  Hatterstone writes ‘ In his 2001 play Clubland, British-born blacks discriminate against immigrant blacks, and African-Carribeans against Africans, while whites talk patois and aspire to being black in all but skin colour’.

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Kaluuya in Sucker Punch.

 

I felt entirely comfortable watching Daniel in Sucker Punch as although Leon suffers from racist oppression, Williams, as a black man himself has the actor’s back. As in Sing Yer Hearts Out Williams is looking at tensions between blackness and Britishness.  His writing is not racist and neither was Sacha Ware’s direction.  But in terms of Daniel’s theatre career this relaxation on my part was not long-lived.

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Kaluuya as Tom Wrench in Trelawny at the Wells. onestoparts.com

In 2013 Daniel was cast by Joe Wright in a production of Trelawny at the Wells presented by the Donmar Theatre, London.  I was horrified by the way he’d had been directed.  I would have left the theatre had I not been expecting to meet Daniel at the stage door after the show.  Susannah Clapp, on the other hand, in the Observer, found him ‘beguiling‘.  Michael Billington, for the Guardian, recognises my issue with the production.

Daniel is a great comic actor but I felt that he was completely betrayed by director, Wright, and designer, Hildegard Bechtler, into resembling some sort of organ grinder’s monkey.  I do not think this was at all malicious on Wright’s part and he obviously respected Daniel’s work as he cast him as the supporting actor in his next theatre production.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kaluuya in A Season in the Congo. Photo: Official London Theatre

Also produced in 2013, this was  A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic.  Daniel loved the experience, especially working with Chiwetel Ejiofor.  It was great to see Daniel in an ensemble with an entirely black cast. If the play is about racism, which it is, the argument focusses on the vile behaviour of the Belgian imperialists, described by Billington as ‘colonialism’s tainted legacy’.  Daniel is, for once, not the character suffering racism although he does play a vile ‘turn-coat’ dictator.

 

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Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kalauuya (in military uniform) and ensemble in A Season in the Congo 

It will be clear by now, to the attentive reader, that this blog is about Daniel Kaluuya and his career as a stage actor.  It is also about his being a black man and about how he is cast and directed.  Most people will know Daniel only as a TV and film actor.  They will remember his work in Skins, Silent Witness, Black Mirror, Dr Who, Psychoville, Johnny English Reborn, Sicario, etc etc. But they will no have had the pleasure of watching his development in the theatre.

The next and, to date, final, stage play that I saw Daniel act in was Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall, also at the Young Vic.  This is a play on which I have written at length in my previous blog, Is it ‘cos I is black?  I do not blame Joe Penhall, or director, Matthew Xia, but I found this play and production quite disgustingly racist.  

It made me consider whether any white director or playwright could avoid racism when writing black characters or directing black actors.  And I fear that my own concern over racism in terms of my ex-student, it racist itself.

But I was excited when I discovered that Daniel was in the film Get Out.  Here is a piece written and directed by Jordan Peele, a black comedian.  And the fallout from Daniel’s work in Get Out will be the subject of my third Daniel Kaluuya blog.  Watch this space…

Works cited (many are cited within the links)

A Season in the Congo. By Aimé Césaire. Mobutu. Performance. Young Vic theatre, London. 17 Jul 2013. Performance.

It ain’t that easy. By Daniel Kaluuya. Hampstead Theatre, London. 9 May 2006. Performance.

New plays from four fresh young voices. By Roy Williams & Daniel Kaluuya, Besna Musaddaq, Marie Osmand & Aitha Sen-Gupta. London: Hampstead Theatre. 9 May 2006. Performance.

Sucker Punch. By Roy Williams. Daniel Kaluuya as Leon. Performance. The Royal Court Theatre, London. 11 June 2010. Performance.

Skins. Daniel Kaluuya as Posh Kenneth.  Performance. E4, 2008-09. Television.

Williams, R. Sing Yer Hearts Out for the Lads. London: Methuen. 2002. Print.

—. Sucker Punch. London: Methuen. 2010. Print.