One Love: The Bob Marley Musical - An Aesthetically-Pleasing Show
Reviewed by Shola Adenekan
Thursday, March 30, 2017.
Kwame Kwei-Armah, is arguably Black Britain’s pre-eminent playwright and also one of the most talented playwrights in the world right now. In One Love: The Bob Marley Musical, Kwei-Armah returns to Birmingham Repertory Theatre, where he made his debut as a mainstream playwright with the play Elmina Kitchen.
One Love, is a testament to not just Kwei-Armah’s skills as a playwright but to his vision as an all-round artist and manager. Everything came together in this musical: the stage designer ULTZ, provided the perfect setting for every act. He seamlessly fused retro designs with the latest in digital technology. Phil Bateman’s arrangement also ensured that the music, the dancing and the texts were in harmony. If the technical crew members were at the top of their game, the actors and actresses were the heroines and heroes of the day. Kwei-Armah has picked a cast that contains people who can sing, dance and act.
The Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, once said that all good art is political; and Kwei-Armah foregrounded this musical in Jamaican and global politics. From his examination of Marley’s working class backgrounds and his mixed-rate roots, to the way in which Jamaican politicians sought to exploit the man and his music for their own political gains. And of course, this musical couldn’t escape being dragged into the Cold War politics that started after the Second World War until the early 1990s.
Above everything, what Kwei-Armah did so well is to give a voice to those history has silenced. Many people around the world know Marley as a musical legend and a cultural icon, but few people know the men and women who made him an idol. A good example is Pablo, the man who was a spiritual mentor Marley. Pablo, robustly played by Eric Kofi Abrefa, was arguably the person who made Marley see his own greatness and potentials. Pablo was the person who encouraged Marley to fully embrace the Rastafarian movement and lifestyle. And where will Reggae and Marley be today without Pablo!
And there’s Don Taylor - played by Delroy Brown - the manager who “took eight bullets” for Marley when a gunman tried to kill Marley in December 1976.
Kwei-Armah’s selection of the charismatic Mitchell Brunnings as Bob Marley, is arguably his best decision. Brunnings perfectly suits the lead role; he delivered his lines and songs beautifully, whilst also inspiring the rest of the multi-talented cast as well as the audience. Alexia Khadime played Rita Marley very well. She is a seasoned actress who has played Nala in The Lion King, Elphaba in Wicked; Eponine in Les Miserables and, very recently, Nabulungi in The Book Of Mormon at London’s Prince of Wales theatre.
The rest of the cast also provided robust performance, and one cannot but give kudos to Adrian Irvine as Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley.
If there’s any fault to be found in this upbeat musical, is that we actually did not get to see Marley’s relationship with the children the character says he cares about the most. Kwei-Armah also packed a lot in - politics, history, poetry - that you cannot but wonder if the audience can robustly understand the message within the musical.
However, in One Love, Kwei-Armah did not whitewash Marley’s story; he touched on his struggle with his mixed racial identity despite being one of the most outspoken Pan-Africanists the world has ever seen. We are told that he was “sometimes too white for the Black man, and too Black for the white man”. Marley also nearly lost his way in England as the pull of Babylon - money, women and the good life - almost made him abandon his great calling. What saved Marley at the end, was a trip with Pablo to Ethiopia - Zion to the Rastas - and a place for redemption for Marley. It is fitting that the musical ended with this pilgrimage to the ancient civilization that is Ethiopia, with Bob Marley being spiritually reunited with his idol Emperor Haile Selassie.
The audience loved One Love, and it’s no surprise that it was given a well-deserved standing ovation.
One Love: The Bob Marley Musical, is showing at Birmingham Rep until 15 April. Box office: 0121-236 4455.
Shola Adenekan is an academic at the University of Bremen and The New Black Magazine's Editor. He can be reached at email@example.com