AN INTERVIEW WITH FEMI OGUNS AND KELLE BRYAN
By Shaun Hutchinson
Wednesday, June 25, 2008.
Sandwiched between upmarket Islington and Stoke Newington, there’s always a buzz around Dalston’s vibrant and friendly Arcola Theatre. The large and airy converted factory - all exposed brickwork and wooden and concrete floors - is well-suited to this rundown but slowly gentrifying part of London.
As I meet Femi Oguns and Kellé Bryan, both stars of the upcoming production of Torn, Arcola Theatre was preparing for an evening session of live music, as workers and stagehands flit around, setting up the tiny stage and surroundings for the night.
In the final weeks of rehearsals, Femi and Kellé are buzzing with enthusiasm. We meet upstairs via Arcola’s three-storey iron staircase, built on the outside of the building and overlooking Dalston’s tumbledown back streets. It all adds to the authenticity.
Rehearsals room and administrative offices share the building’s top floor and are - like the venue’s two performance spaces - being renovated. The offices are cluttered, untidy – like a makeover show where you know the work gets done just in time. It’s a good visual metaphor for Femi Oguns’ debut play, which was critically-acclaimed across theatreland.
Both Femi and Kelle are familiar with the stage and television, and each with an interest in the business side of the industry.
Femi Oguns is on a mission: Actor, producer, playwright and the director of Identity Drama School, he has a lot to say and the forum to say it. Though well received by critics and audiences, the perceived weakness of last year’s production of Torn, first showcased at the Arcola in 2006, have been ironed out. Femi says confidently “The play has changed a lot; writing about such a subject you have to be sensitive”.
As for the production's thorny subject of strained relationships between Londoners of Caribbean and African descent, he states boldly that: “Prejudices can't be justified and the story is told from two sides”.
Kellé and Femi, who play the anguished lovers at the centre of Torn’s intra-communal conflict, make a good team. There’s an easy rapport between them. Emerging from rehearsals, assuring me that they are no longer ‘in-role’, they look the part.
"You got the Whites – they’re a collective. Then
there’s the Asians – they’re unified. And then
there’s us. Divided. It’s deep."
Femi and Kellé
Despite being in their 30s, both Femi and Kellé look many years younger. They answer questions in turn, elaborate each other’s statements and are visibly excited to be performing roles they believe in.
With women’s and men’s magazines, comedy, drama and literature all highlighting male-female differences in the game of love, Femi is convinced that this apparent Caribbean-African division is both false and harmful. He does acknowledge the complexities of the issue though - ‘Does Love have a Colour’ – was an alternative title for the play.
Kelle says her career has insulated her to some extent from the most open and crude forms of prejudice. She sought advice from friends when researching the role. The multi-media artist acknowledges growing up during an era when many people of Caribbean descent doggedly refused to acknowledge their African heritage.
For her, however, this limited outlook was countered by her parents' determination to resist such misconceptions using TV shows such as Alex Haley’s blockbuster mini-series Roots, as a cultural teaching guide.
Femi is more animated on the subject of tensions between those of African and Caribbean descent, and the hostility mixed relationships sometimes cause. Highlighting the role of the shared history of those from the Caribbean and the Motherland, he stresses “it is a major issue – and it’s derived from slavery, the continuing legacy of that period of history”.
Both highlight the hidden pain - which they’re convinced is common in our community - caused by intercommunal hostility borne ironically of white supremacist racism and Eurocentric notions of beauty.
Femi points out that the issue of heritage, culture and identity is indeed a minefield. In Nigeria, to his consternation, he is often referred to as an Englishman. But Femi the writer thinks we should all “call ourselves New Africans with roots in Africa and branches in the Caribbean as well”.
CASTING AND DIRECTING
Kellé, who has transitioned from pop music to acting – and has had TV roles such as presenting Love Island, reflected in an assured demeanour that the script, the directing and the casting are excellent in Torn. These qualities convinced her to join an ensemble cast that also features Will Johnson [Waking the Dead, Babyfather] and Jocelyn Jee Essien [Three Non-Blondes, Little Miss Jocelyn].
The ex-Eternal star – who made a dramatic recovery from a life threatening illness - has recently performed in historical epic Rebellion at London's Hackney Empire, and has also played both lead female parts in Angie Le Mar’s The Brothers’
Expecting a less intense role, the director of artist management company Red Hot Entertainment, was surprised at the texturing and layering of Femi Oguns' professional writing debut, which addresses so many challenging core issues.
Both performers are optimistic about the future especially in terms of creating more unity amongst those of African and Caribbean descent. According to Femi, "plays such as Torn, The Brothers, and Rebellion, helped toward that journey we all take."
Kellé takes up the theme further, emphasizing that the playwright has unwrapped a hidden subject for discussion: "He’s created an open forum for the play to feel like it’s up for discussion and OK to talk about it without being judged or criticized and that discussion is where change happens."
Femi has the last word. It’s important he concludes for him to be ”telling stories about us in a more human light which shows world how complex we [as Black People] are; how many levels we have; and our humanity …it’s writing about life.”
Torn is on at Arcola Theatre, Dalston, London E8 2DJ -24 June 2008 – 02 August 2008.
Torn by Femi Oguns
Directed by Raz Shaw
Designed by Hannah Clark
Jocelyn Jee Esien
Image by Arcola Theatre.
Shaun Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.
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