mon 08/08/2022

theartsdesk Q&A: Playwright Roy Williams | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Playwright Roy Williams

theartsdesk Q&A: Playwright Roy Williams

The prolific playwright talks about football and racism

Roy Williams is one of the most prolific, and most lauded, British playwrights. Born in Fulham, south-west London, in 1968, he had by his mid-30s already won a shelf-full of awards, to which he added an OBE in 2008. His debut, The No Boys Cricket Club, won the Writers’ Guild New Writer of the Year award in 1996. Two years later Starstruck won three major awards. In the early 2000s Lift Off and Clubland were also successes. In 2004 Williams won the first Arts Council Decibel Award, given to black or Asian artists in recognition of their contribution to the arts.

His greatest hits include the often revived Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads (National, 2002), Fallout (Royal Court, 2003/BBC 2008) and Days of Significance (RSC, 2007). Williams’s trademark is sizzling dialogue and a streetwise ear for racial conflict; if sometimes his work is a tad didactic, it is usually exciting and always watchable (but pass on his adaptation of Absolute Beginners). His latest play, Category B, is currently at the Tricycle.

ALEKS SIERZ: Let’s start by talking about your background.

ROY WILLIAMS: I was the youngest of four. My mother was a nurse. She’s retired now. My dad worked in an off-licence. My parents divorced when I was about two, my dad went to live in America, so it was just my mother to look after the four of us. I went to a boy’s school in Fulham and I left when I was about 16.

I believe you were a bit of bad boy at school.

That’s how I found a love for theatre. I was about 12 and I was performing really badly at school, big time, so bad that my family, particularly my mum and my sister, were really worried. I had a real problem focusing on what teachers were telling me. Because unless the subject was practical, I had a real struggle just listening. I used to daydream, fly into my imagination… English, History, Maths, Geography - I was pretty shoddy at all the important things. So I was faced with two options: either I buck up my ideas and study, and have private lessons every Saturday with a tutor who was a friend of my sister’s at the time, or be sent to live in Jamaica with relatives and go to school there. And I remember my mum telling me how disciplined the schools were in the West Indies, and not afraid to get the stick out. So I chose the Saturday lessons.

And who was your tutor?

His name was Don Kinch, and he still writes occasionally. And, at the time, it was early 1980s, there was a lot going on. Don’s group was called Staunch Poets and Players, and they used to rehearse very near to where I live now, in Ladbroke Grove. I used to go there every Saturday and do my lessons; sometimes we’d finish early, sometimes we’d talk, and sometimes he’d have to go and work with his actors. They were all part time, they all had jobs, so it was hard. Sometimes, I used to tag along and watch them in rehearsal. I was just at the age when I was ready to be influenced by something and that was it. I was struck by the power of theatre. It seemed like fun as well – they enjoyed themselves and they were committed to what they were doing, and I thought, I like this. It built up from there and I thought, Yeah, this is what I’m going to do.

And you realised it wasn’t just Shakespeare or a middle-class thing…

Exactly, because before then the only experience I’d had of theatre was going with my school and watching plays that were on the curriculum. Then, at school, a very good teacher, Mr McKenna, gave me two plays to read: Class Enemy [1978] by Nigel Williams and Barbarians [1977] by Barrie Keeffe. What I was struck by was the dialogue, and when I read them I thought, Jesus that’s me; I speak like that, I act like that, that’s me and those other characters are my mates at school. And that’s what really made me think that theatre was more than just Shakespeare; it could be about the contemporary world, and that in turn got me asking questions about why middle-class white writers write about me, and my generation. But I finished school at 16. I didn’t stay on because I wanted to get out and I just drifted, went to college, worked…

You did drama at college didn’t you?

That was my acting phase. Youth theatre at the Cockpit and then at Theatre Centre (a Theatre in Education group) in north London [in 1988].

I remember you once told me a story that one of your starring roles on TV was as a rapist in a Crimewatch reconstruction.

Yeah, I just underestimated the power of TV. I was in Covent Garden and I walked past this group of kids and they were like, He was on Crimewatch last night! And then I nearly got arrested when I was in HMV in Oxford Street: some security guard comes up to me and says, Excuse me, have you been in any trouble lately?, and I go, No, why?, and he says, It’s just that you were in the shop a while ago and this woman came to me and said, Excuse me, that man is wanted for questioning for a rape, you should call the police. Thankfully, the guard had common sense and said, No, madam, he’s an actor playing a rapist, he’s not a rapist. So that was my 15 minutes of fame.

After that, you decided to go to Rose Bruford College.

I always knew that writing was at the back of my mind. But I think I just didn’t have the will power or the initiative to actually write something so I tried acting. I was like most actors, out of work, and I was working mostly as an usher in a West End theatre, stage door-keeping – Crimewatch was the only job I had that year. So I thought, Nah, it’s time to look for something else. Then I was flicking through The Stage, and there it was, a three-year drama course at Rose Bruford, and I thought, Oh, I might give that a go.

Writing. That was my real passion. And I was glad to be in an environment where I would be motivated to study theatre, and watch as much theatre as I could. My first play, The No Boys Cricket Club, was written for the course. I didn’t quite know what kind of a writer I wanted to be so I chose to write about my mum’s past, rather than about my own life. I don’t think I was ready to write about me, or my generation, black British living in today’s society. I thought, You’ve got to look back before you can go forwards. And I felt I wanted to understand my mother’s generation, how it was for her. Although when I was actually writing The No Boys Cricket Club I wasn’t really thinking about that – I just wanted to get a play finished so I could get a decent mark and graduate.

What is the play about?

Well, it’s set in two different time zones, 1950s Jamaica and 1990s England, and it’s about a middle-aged woman called Abigail, who I loosely based on my mother. You see her as a 15-year-old, and with her female friends they have a club, they play cricket. No boys allowed. And they talk about their dreams, aspirations, what they want to be doing in 20 years’ time. Then you see her in London and you realise her life hasn’t panned out how she wanted it to. And she finds a way, don’t ask me how, to go back in time to meet her younger self, and she tries to persuade her younger self to change her life.

Then my tutor Gilly Fraser said, This is a wonderful play; you’ve got to send it to the Royal Court, Hampstead, Stratford East. I was two weeks away from graduation and I was completely skint. I only had enough money to send it to three companies. That’s how poor I was. And, remarkably, all of them responded. All of them wanted to meet me. And Stratford East wanted to put the play on. Paul Edwards, their literary manager, said, I love this play because you go against what all other writers have been taught: four characters in a black box. Your play is so theatrical. And he said it was very rare for young playwrights to do that. So my naiveté worked to my advantage.

I remember the theatricality of it – there’s a bit when the characters travel back in time to Jamaica.

Yeah, the set was very deceiving because at first it was just background, grey skies, and then the backdrop opened and you saw a beautiful sunny beach. The time travel element suited the story because I remember writing the play and thinking, Oh, it just keeps going back and forth, and then it hit me, Why don’t I just have them [mature Abi and young Abi] talking to each other?

It was staged in 1996, two years before the celebration of the Windrush generation, [named after] the first boat that left the West Indies to come to England in 1948. There was all that going on and I tapped into that. I also remember talking to my mum and seeing how her body and her voice changes whenever she talks about home. And one day I just asked her, Why don’t you go back to Jamaica?, and she said, No, I don’t want to do that, I want to stay here. And I said, When you talk about it your face lights up, and she said, Well that’s the past, that’s what it is, the past. And, years ago, she did actually go home and she said, That’s not the Jamaica I know, it’s more troubled now, very violent now. So I incorporated that into the play as well. It’s about belonging, which seems to be a common theme in all my plays, a central character who’s lost, looking for that sense of belonging.

I remember the night that I saw it, there was this wave of outrage because at one point Abi’s son hits her.

It’s scripted as accidental, but that was still too much for the Stratford East audience, which is very lively. They’re not shy about shouting out. Well, that scene touched a nerve. On the press night, during that scene, someone shouted out, Stab him with your knitting needle! A lot of people said, No black guy would ever treat his mother like that. Basically, it’s a question I have to answer about all my plays: I’m not writing about all black people, I’m writing about some black people. And, as much as I hate to admit it, I do know of instances when black guys hit their mothers. It’s shocking, of course, but I can’t say, Well that doesn’t happen. It does. And I think, Yeah, I have the right to put that on stage, to say that, and, in fact, it raises a debate. As I writer I can’t censor myself.

You once told me that one night an older woman came over and said, What’s all this swearing?

That’s happened to me twice. For No Boys and for The Gift [2000]. It was almost identical: You’re a good writer, it’s very important what you’re doing because you’re black, but do we need that kind of language? It’s like getting a dressing down from my mum. So I just say, Yes Ma’m, no Ma’m. I had a very good black actress, Donna Croll [as Abi], lovely, but very intimidating. And there they were talking about bad language and it was scary because it was my first play and I felt very intimidated. It would have been easy for me to bow to pressure and re-write it, but the director, Indhu Rubasingham, she said, No I believe in what you’ve written.

What was the next play?

Starstruck in 1998, the anniversary of the Windrush, and the twist in that play was that it was about a West Indian family who don’t go to London; they stay where they are. Like my mother’s siblings. And I just wondered, What is it, what made my mum and my aunt come here while others stayed behind?, so that’s what made me write that play. After that, I got my first commission to write for the Royal Court, with Lift Off, and then I thought, Now I’m ready to write about my own generation.

One of your preoccupations in these plays is identity. Would you agree with that?

Well, it’s a big theme even in Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads. It’s still a big question. I think that’s why I wanted to write about my own generation. In 10-15 years’ time, the Windrush generation are not going to be here. They’re dying out already. And when they’re gone, it’s just going to be all on us – we’re the ones who were born here, and I’m just asking, Well, where do we fit in in today’s Britain? How accepted are we? On the surface it’s changed; we don’t have signs saying ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’. Those days are gone. But, what I’m asking in my plays, is: have they really? Is it just all on the surface? Are we really as safe and well as we say we are?

Let’s look at Lift Off.

Yeah, it’s about two young friends, one black, one white, Tone, who copies and mimics aspects of black culture and adopts it for his own. It’s very much the way young people are now, all white kids are doing it. And that’s what I wanted to write about, and it’s about their friendship. They act like best mates, but then you realise they’re not as close as they think because all Tone is doing is imitating a form of black culture, and I’m asking, Isn’t that a form of racism in itself?

He’s thinking that it’s cool to be black, he’s good-looking, he gets all the girls, he does this and he does that. He acts a certain way, he likes this type of music and he thinks that’s what it is to be black, but no, that’s just not it. And I really wanted to explore this friendship which is put to the test when Mal pushes Tone to call him the N word, and towards the end Tone does that, he actually calls him the N word. Then you think, well that’s it, their friendship is fucked, and it’s about how they try to re-establish their friendship again, and how Tone is forced to maybe see Mal in not such a blinkered light. So I’ve tried to deal with it in a really complex way and not to make it obvious, and easy for the audience. Because both Tone and Mal are not nice people.

Also, Mal’s got leukaemia, and he’s just been diagnosed and that’s what’s pushing him to act differently. He’s afraid of dying. He’s looking at his whole life: I’ve done this, I’ve done that, slept with her, her and her. But I’ve got sod all to show for it. And then there’s his best mate, treating him like he’s the dog’s bollocks. But Mal’s saying, I’m not like this, I’m as fucked up as you are. Stop treating me like the bollocks. The more Tone treats him like a god, the more Mal wants to hurt him. And he does.

I think you’re arguing that when they destroy their friendship, it’s a preliminary to building it up again.

Exactly, it becomes a level playing field and they’re more honest with each other. I'm not saying they’re best mates, but they’ve got the potential to be friends. And, in a way, that’s my feeling about unsolved issues around race: let’s start asking uncomfortable questions. Often, there’s the attitude that, Yeah, he’s a racist but we’re not. Them and us. We’ll just close the door on that. So I say, No, let’s not close the door. Let’s open the debate because I think there’s something there.

I also remember you telling me that some black people walked out and wrote you a stinking letter about it. What was that all about?

They thought it was racist. They were black; they thought it was offensive; they couldn’t believe that I, me, myself as a black man was putting these words into the mouths of these white characters. I understood that anger, I knew where they were coming from, but you can’t be a spokesman for a whole culture. I’m not, and, I’m sorry, but any black writer who says they are is lying. You can’t be. All I can write about is the black people in my plays. Some people will look badly upon that, and there’s nothing I can do. I have a responsibility to myself to write the best play that I can. And ask as complex questions as I can.

Okay, the next play Clubland was one of your more personal plays – where did that come from?

Clubland came after Lift Off, and its characters could be the same characters, but ten years later. It’s all about the friendship between two men, one black, one white, Kenny and Ben, who go clubbing every Friday, and still hanging onto their 20s even though they’re knocking on 30, very sad... Couldn’t happen to me! Kenny is black, and he feels inadequate. But again, it’s talking about the stereotypes of black people because he feels, I’m black and I’m trying to play up to the stereotype that all black men are fit, well-endowed and every woman wants to sleep with them, especially white women. And you get frustrated that you’re not quite achieving that stereotype. And then Ben also wants to live up to that stereotype, and fails, and then there’s another character, Ade, who was at school with them, who’s black and he plays up to that stereotype big time. He’s got a black girlfriend and he constantly cheats on her, sleeping around to prove what a tough black man he really is. And it’s all about their relationships and how they’re all as fucked up as each other.

Well, it’s interesting because a friend of mine has problems with this play because it’s not shy in the way the characters, particularly the black characters, talk about white women. But it’s not about that. The way they talk speaks for itself. I’m not condoning what they do by any means. But the way they talk will be enough to show their own inadequacies. It’s really a kind of taboo about why it is that so many black men go for white women as opposed to their own. Now, I’ve had conversations with people about that and that was what made me write the play in the first place.

You have black friends with white girlfriends, and they were squirming in their seats.

Exactly, they squirmed all through it. So why is that? I didn’t want to make it simplistic because I remembered the film by Spike Lee called Jungle Fever, which I didn’t like; I just didn’t think he made it as complex as he thought he did. He’s got a black man who goes with a white woman then goes back to his wife and she chucks him out. I just thought, It’s too easy. I thought he bottled out. It’s a bit deeper and murkier than that. But what I’m trying to show in the play is Kenny’s journey, and where he ends up.
I’m not trying to say black men shouldn’t be with white women – I ain’t got time for that rubbish. That’s not what the play’s saying. And some of my friends say, Well you’re contradicting yourself, and I say, No I’m not, read the play. All I’m saying for Kenny is love who you want but make sure you’re with them because you want to be, not because you’re trying to play up to some stupid stereotype that’s been handed down to you.

Remember that anecdote about the club?

That was one of the reasons I wrote the play. I was in a club with my mates in South London, and in the toilet there were these white guys, and I think they were taking cocaine, and one of them saw me and he said, ‘Oh, stand up boys, he’s going to embarrass us.’ And I just felt this face looking at my crotch [while I was urinating]. And I thought, Go away! Aw man... So I wanted to go more deeply than the stereotype of the well-endowed black man. These two black men, particularly Kenny, play up to the stereotype, and then find it’s weighing them both down. Ade does it as revenge for the way he was treated at school because when he was a kid he didn’t speak much English, and he was teased by everybody, particularly white kids. Because his girlfriend’s black, he feels that sleeping with white women is a way of getting revenge: Hey, look at me white man, I’m shagging your woman, how do you feel about that?

Your next play, Fallout, was loosely based on the Damilola Taylor murder [in November 2000].

I remember following the Damilola Taylor case because it was the first case that the police were going to be really scrutinised because they’d fucked up the Stephen Lawrence case [in 1993]. So they arrested those boys, then the [underaged] girl [codenamed] Bromley. Then it all fell apart. And I remember the feeling of anger: I was angry at the police, I was angry at the girl as well, although I understood her. And I was angry at the boys killing him. And angry at whoever let those boys down.

I was angry generally. And particularly any time I read a paper: black youths do this, black youths do that. It’s all headlines, and no one’s going deeper. So I was just trying to show where these kids are coming from, and to say that this concerns everyone because these are British kids, and that’s what made me write the play.

But didn’t you get some criticism from black people because you showed black kids as muggers?

Exactly, and again, I was writing about this world that these boys come from. And I just thought, If I’m going to put these boys in a play, I’ve got to show their behaviour. I remember I had to take a deep breath before typing, but then I thought I’ve got to do it, I can’t censor myself. Although I don’t think it should be a playwright’s intention to offend, it should be to provoke, to light the match...

Your Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads is basically an all-white play, with a couple of black characters. Where did the inspiration come from?

As well as theatre, I love football, and I remember being in a pub in Birmingham, watching an England match. And this whole bunch of people burst in, chanting, Enger-land, Enger-land! And I just thought, Much as I love football, it is just a game. Where does all that xenophobia come from? And I already wanted to write a head-on play about the state of the nation that looked at multiculturalism. And when these guys came in, I looked around and I thought, This is it, this could be my stage set. So the play is set in real time, during the 2000 World Cup Qualifier between Germany and England. It was the last game at Wembley as it was, with the two towers, and it was when [team manager Kevin] Keegan lost the plot, and resigned after the match.

Did you chose it because it was a defeat?

When I started the play, I knew I wanted to set it around a real match and I knew that game was coming up, and I knew it was the last day [before Wembley was rebuilt], but when we lost and Keegan resigned, as a dramatist I was thrilled. I wanted to put that world on the stage and explore it in many different ways, with very different levels of emotion, from casual to extreme. One character, Lawrie, is from that extreme fascist side, and Alan is the more acceptable face of racism. A jacket and tie man. Very calm and collected. He reads and tries to educate people: if you want to get anywhere you’ve gotta start using your head instead of your fists. And I just put all these people in a confined space and watched them do battle. In a way, they’re all battling for what they perceive to be their England and that’s what the debate is about. And it’s still going on today with all the questions about asylum-seekers – what kind of England do we want?

One of your characters, Barry, is black, but he comes on with St George flags on his cheeks and he behaves like a white racist.

Well, he’s taking what Trevor Phillips [chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality since 2003] is saying, about abandoning multiculturalism, to the extreme. He’s saying that all of us should adopt English culture, and that, rightly or wrongly – well, it is wrong – he’s adopting it as his own. It’s his right to do that, and I thought that was a nice contradiction, and nice complexity to put on stage. Seeing that black character acting like a white fool. It’s all about lifting the plaster up, and saying, OK, we’ve put a plaster on the surface but we’re not going deep down – otherwise what happens at the end of the play is going to keep on happening.

In Days of Significance you show the white working class behaving badly.

Well, I like to think I know the world of the white working class as much as my own background because when I was growing up, a lot of my friends at school were white, and I went to their houses for dinner and grew up with a lot of them. So how they spoke stayed in my head, and I understand where they’re coming from, especially the idea that, We’ve been sidelined, no one’s sticking up for us. Nowadays, it’s all about being right on, but no one’s speaking up for us. I don’t agree with that, but I understand it, and I thought it would be interesting to put their point of view. Also, I stopped worrying about labels long ago. Once, there was a big thing about whether to be called a black playwright, and I thought, Do what you like, just don’t miss out the word playwright! If you want to worry about the label black, go ahead, but I’m not. I just do my thing, whether you like it or not. If I had an idea for a story which would need an all-white cast I’d do it. But the story has to come first.

  • Read Veronica Lee's review of Days of Significance.

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