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Arinzé Kene, Time Out
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Arinzé Kene: ‘I was an involuntary whistleblower’

The West End trailblazer on how London has shaped his work

Written by
Niellah Arboine

Arinzé Kene moved from Lagos, Nigeria to Hackney in the ’90s. He rose to fame with ‘Misty’, his one-man show about a Black man’s experience of gentrified east London. When it transferred to the West End, Kene became only the second Black British playwright to stage a play there. He’s appeared on screen alongside Michaela Coel in ‘Been So Long’, stars in the just-released film ‘I’m Your Woman’ and will play Bob Marley in new musical ‘Get Up, Stand Up!’.

Before anything, I’m Nigerian. That’s my true home. But London does feel like home. The older I get, the more I appreciate it. When you grow up here you take for granted how multicultural it is.

The first thing I noticed about London was how cold it was. I was four years old and I moved here with my three siblings. I hadn’t seen my dad for a year. He came to London first, working as a cab driver to pay for our plane tickets. We lived in a one-bedroom flat in Hackney.

London is my favourite city. It’s been a gift to grow up here, work here and be influenced by the city.

I had my first kiss in Hackney Downs Park. I was 12, her name was Amanda and we met in the park – she was my first summer love. I spent many days and nights playing basketball on the courts there too. It’s where I first dunked a basketball.

I could see a change happening in Hackney. Every time I came back to visit my mum when I got older, I’d have conversations with people I’d bump into on the street. A lot of people were moving out of the borough; they didn’t feel like Hackney was their home.

I wanted to speak about gentrification and the things that we’ve lost. That’s why I moved back to Hackney and wrote ‘Misty’. I felt like I needed to put pen to paper so I could tell that story.

I was an involuntary whistleblower. Being the second Black playwright with a show in the West End felt like something that was inflicted upon me, not bestowed. I don’t mean that I didn’t want to be, I just mean it wasn’t up to me. It felt like my show highlighted the fact that the industry needs to change. It was a rude awakening for theatre.

Performing in ‘Death of a Salesman’ at the Young Vic was a career highlight. It meant so much to me. [Young Vic artistic director] Kwame Kwei-Armah is like my uncle – he’s my mentor and one of my idols. I’ve looked up to him since I was very young.

‘Get Up, Stand Up!’ being delayed gives me more time to study Bob Marley and what it’s like to be a rasta. We’re fortunate that the show is loved by lots of people already, even though we haven’t had one performance yet.

[Diversity in] theatre is better than it was 50 years ago. But there were good times that went away before, like the Black theatre companies that existed in the ’70s and ’80s. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize, because while everybody’s on the dancefloor, someone could be nicking the freaking coats.

‘I’m Your Woman’ is on Amazon Prime. ‘Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical’ is due to open at the Lyric Theatre in June 2021.

Read more from this series:

Inua Ellams: ‘London is the closest I’ve felt to a home’.

David Lammy: ‘Tottenham is the beginning and end of me’.

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