Walking To Obama by Grant Buchanan Marshall
Regarded as one of Britain’s foremost black-led theatre companies, Talawa Theatre has introduced emerging writing talents like Micheal Bhim, to the British theatre landscape over the years. As Talawa Theatre celebrates 25 years of work that has engaged theatre audiences and practitioners in the UK, and helped to shape the way stories about BAME communities are told, it returns with Flipping The Script, its annual showcase of play readings. This year’s line up includes: Walking To Obama by Grant Buchanan Marshall, Take Me To Manhattan by Maxine Quintyne-Kolaru and The House Of Zerquera by Atiha Sen Gupta. Writers, whose stories – though set in different eras and different countries – all have families at their heart. To get the season going, is Walking To Obama – a passionate evocation of black struggle in the Southern states. Walking To Obama, vividly recaptures pre-civil rights America. In his own words, Buchanan Marshall, on why it is important for the stage and plays like his, explore the struggles experienced by black and ethnic minority communities wherever they are.
Where does your passion for theatre come from?
My passion for the theatre came from watching friends perform on stage when I was student in Huddersfield. I was fascinated by the story telling and the way theatre draws into a world of whatever it wants to make. I knew one day I wanted to be a part of that world; I wanted to be a part of that story making process and to engage an audience with something that has evolved from my thought and creativity.
Your play, Walking to Obama is described as a passionate evocation of black struggle in the Southern states, what compelled you to tackle the subject of the Southern Struggle before the civil-rights era fir the stage?
For a long time now, I have been interested in the civil rights movement in America. I think it’s a writer’s duty to write about what moves him/her. To write about a subject you’re so passionate about that you are willing to do extensive research. I tackled this particular subject because it is based on similar stories and events that occurred before the civil rights movement. It is based on real people and I like writing about real people and putting them into a scenario of my own invention but staying within the confines of that reality. As a writer I try and do something different for the stage, something challenging and evocative.
The title, Walking to Obama is equally as interesting. Why that title and what kind of impressions or reactions do you hope it makes or the audience or gets out of them?
“Walking to Obama” I wanted a title that acknowledged change and the struggles that eventually makes change possible; through determination and resistance against all odds. However unequal society is, there is something within us all, there is a core resolve that makes us unique. “Walking to Obama” is a title that reflects this. It reflects our drive; ambitions, hope and fears. Above all, I chose the title as a tribute to those who showed us the way during their struggle, their trials and tribulations. The impression on the audience is something they alone can obtain. I can only write the play, they can hopefully engage and make up their own mind. If the play makes the audience think and discuss what they have scene or experienced, the work of the writer is complete.
Why is it important for plays which explore, examine and of course, expose the black struggle like you are doing with Walking to Obama, , are presented to audiences across the board, age/generation and of different races today, especially since that era is so different to this era?
As somebody once said: “and the struggle continues”! It might be a different struggle. The black struggle, I explore in the play is happening to today, maybe in a different shape and form but it is still going on. The murder of Stephen Lawrence will tell you that! The injustice was their, the racism almost palpable. Have we learned anything from that time in April 1993? Has the system changed? Has the institution changed? Of course it hasn’t. The era in the play is different, but they rules of engagement are the same. Politicians will only talk about immigration when they have a weak mandate or when they are sliding down in the polls. I would hope the audience would recognise the association from then and now.
The plays in this series of readings are all focused on different themes but held together by the strand of the ‘black experience,’ what gives joy in exploring the stories that arise from the black experience either here in the UK or from the US, perspective through your work?
I like to research a subject and try and find out as much as I can. What I do find interesting is starting off at one while the research takes me to another intriguing aspect. Another very little known black hero or heroine (to some of us) such as Harriet Tubman finding out these brave people gives me immense pleasure and utter respect and admiration for what they have achieved or what they tried to do.
Given that that era represents a lot of pain and at present, the US is still heavily divided along the lines of race with its first African American experience, whose is aptly in the title of your play, what gives you hope about the future?
I don’t have a lot of hope for the future. I still see pain; I still see division along racial lines. I see children in this country and the US living on the breadline, I see black kids here and in the US shot and killed. I see people still living on the breadline and still living on the frontline. In the year 2011 we still have the homeless, in the year 2015 we will still have the misery of 2011. However, what I am looking for is a light. I am looking for that chink of light that gives us a vestige of optimism. Weather I acquire it, is a different matter.
The themes of injustice and inequality, family, relationships, socio-economic status/mobility among others come to mind reading through the description of your play. What kind of emotions about the era you have written about and present through your character, Merla, do you hope this play evokes in those who come a long to the reading?
I hope that within the character of Merla they see a determined woman as well as that enduring female condition that allows Merla to see things from a perspective of her struggle. Merla saw her right as an individual to be where she is without fear or hindrance. Rosa Parks had the right to sit on the bus and just go home. I hope the play evokes all these things and for people to remember that there was a time when the human right was luxury and not a right!
You have worked with Talawa Theatre Company on this production/play readings, how crucial are theatre companies like Talawa Theatre Company in Britain’s theatre landscape today?
Very few theatre companies have achieved what Talawa has done for writing, in particular black writing. Once upon a time, we writers approached companies and told then we wanted to write. Those theatre companies told us to come back when we found our voice. When we found our voice; not only through story telling, but through poetry and music there was still a guarded reluctance to show our work. Talawa is important because it encourages the voices and gives us the support to develop and not to be afraid to speak the truth no matter how uncomfortable it might be to others.
How would you like this play to evolve after the reading?
If there are theatre companies out there who are brave enough, I would like to see the play develop and commissioned.
What do you want the audience to take away from it based on the interpretation that you present to them?
The audience will take away what they want from the play; weather it’s the injustices, the racial divide, the brutal treatment of women within the penal institution or that chick of optimism. But what I do want them to takeaway after the reading is the fact they have seen a little magic through dialogue and storytelling.
Flipping The Script open on 10 May at the Young Vic
To find out more go to: Flipping The Script