Some recognise Lucian Msamati as JLB Matekoni from the television series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Game of Thrones aficionados – and there are plenty of those – know him as the pirate and smuggler Salladhor Saan. Comes this summer he’ll be attracting international attention in Othello when he becomes the first black actor in the history of the RSC to play Iago.
It’s the latter which perhaps sits most uncomfortably on Msamati’s shoulders. While he’s clearly looking forward to another spell in Stratford and at 38 he’s relishing taking on one of Shakespeare’s most complex and interesting male roles, Msamati seems less keen on being held as some kind of trailblazer for black actors.
It’s an issue which has been hard to avoid lately. While Benedict Cumberbatch’s response to questions about diversity in Britain’s acting industry was overshadowed by the use of the word “coloured”, he is not alone in fearing that lack of opportunity has forced many to look to the US of A. Similarly Lenny Henry has bemoaned the decline in black, Asian and minority ethnic people working in the UK television industry – figures show numbers fell by almost a third between 2006 and 2012 – and has called for the BBC to set quotas to ensure proper representation both in front of the camera and behind.
“Yes there is an issue, but let me tell you what that issue is. When I came to this country I was an actor, then suddenly I was a black actor. The colour of my skin is not something I wear as a badge, it’s not something I want to be defined by. I don’t read Arthur Miller because he is a white playwright, I read Arthur Miller because he is a brilliant playwright.
“The fact that we are living in a country which has had such influence across the world and we are still talking about these issues is embarrassing, plain embarrassing.”
While born in the UK, Msamati grew up in Zimbabwe and says he knew early on that he wanted to be on the stage. However, at that time – and possibly still so today – there was no obvious entry point for a teenager from a comfortable, if ordinary, family. However, Msamati was not easily deterred. Neither were his friends and together they set up the influential Over The Edge theatre company.
“I am proud to say that I have been drunk and broke on three continents thanks to that company,” he laughs on a break during rehearsals at the West Yorkshire Playhouse where he is directing the theatre’s 2015 opener Boi Boi is Dead. “Zimbabwe was culturally vibrant, but there was no active entertainment industry. Hollywood was million miles away, it was another world and unless you were incredibly lucky, acting was still viewed as a hobby.
“I went to Prince Edward School in Harare which had a fantastic cultural programme and for me and group of friends that’s where it all started. School gave us a foundation to believe in ourselves, so when we saw actors on screen we didn’t think, ‘I would like to do that’, we genuinely believed that we could do it.”
Over the Edge quickly became known for its biting political satire and its desire for social change was reflected in the make-up of the company. While many Zimbabwean arts companies said they were racially mixed, Over the Edge was one of the few which was.
“We did bring all the tribes of the rainbow together. We worked together, we played together and I do remember when we walked down the street, some people would stop and stare. They had never seen a white one, a black one and one wearing weird shoes together before. Maybe in our own small way we did change things a little.”
While off-the-wall comedy was Over the Edge’s trademark, so was the company’s determination to stare the pressing issues of Zimbabwean society in the face. In one typical production, Born African it tackled black on black violence, mixed-race relationships and colonial hangovers. However, after 10 years the company appeared to have run its course. A few of the original founders still live in Zimbabwe, but many left, including Msamati who relocated to Britain in 2003 partly for work reasons and partly because of the political climate back home.
“Our performances were becoming more and more pointed and it became pretty obvious that we perhaps couldn’t continue. If we did some of the material now that we did back then we would be locked up and possibly worse. Looking back we got away with a lot. I don’t know whether that was because we were preaching to the converted or whether the freedom we were given was politically motivated, but things changed.”
Since moving to Britain, Msamati has worked closely with the Tricycle Theatre, appeared on most of the big London stages and made the move into television. However, without the grounding he got with Over the Edge he knows none of it might have happened.
“It was in Zimbabwe where I learnt my trade and when you run your own company you do everything. And I mean everything. I remember when I first went on stage at the Almeida. Afterwards I wrote home and said, ‘You are not going to believe this...’
“At the end of a rehearsal I stopped, ready to pick up the props when all of a sudden an army of stage hands appeared.
“I remember thinking, ‘What, you don’t need me to paint something, clear something away?’ It wasn’t naïvety, just joy.”
While it’s 20 years since Over the Edge formed and a decade since they last performed together they haven’t ruled out a reunion. The difficulty will be getting everyone in the same place at the same time and for the moment at least, Msamati’s thoughts are in Leeds and with the debut play by Zodwa Nyoni.
Zimbabwe-born and Leeds raised, Nyoni’s talent has been nurtured by the Playhouse over the last few years and it was the theatre’s associate director Mark Rosenblatt who brought Boi Boi is Dead to the attention of Msamati.
“What I really loved about it was the fact that it was unapologetically poetic and theatrical. It didn’t wear its cultural significance on its sleeve and there was a sophistication to the writing. At its heart it is a drama of a family battling with grief, secrets and lies.”
Boi Boi is a jazz trumpeter, father, lover, playboy, husband and rulebreaker. He’s also dead and it’s the ripple effect of his passing which is played out on stage.
“It is pretty exhausting bringing a brand new work to the stage. I have a fantastic team, but with a new script on the first day of rehearsals the cast come in with all these insights, ideas and what ifs? As a director it’s my role to play the bad cop. I am the uber parent who has to say, ‘No, this is how we are going to do it’.
Msamati has also been working closely with designer Francisco Rodriguez-Weil on a set which shuns stereotypes.
“There has been a glut of kitchen sink African dramas and I know I’ve had my fill. The difficulty is how do you avoid staging a piece in a living room when it’s, well, set in a living room. I’ve worked with Francisco before and when we first spoke about Boi Boi is Dead I said, ‘Right, let’s imagine there is a room with these people in it, then let’s imagine it tomorrow after some major trauma has taken place’. Everything is still the same, nothing appears to have changed, yet everything has. There has been a quantum shift and that’s what we needed to capture. If I could sum it up in one word, it would be ‘discombobulation’.”
Msamati is reluctant to reveal more for fear of spoiling any opening night surprises, but as the cast return from lunch it’s clear that three weeks into rehearsals he is enjoying himself: “When I am acting I want a director who believes in me, who trusts me to be able to use my creativity. I have learned something from every director I have worked with and I hope that when I’m in the chair I can pass some of that knowledge on.”
• Boi Boi is Dead, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, February 14 to March 7. 0113 213 7700, www.wyp.org.uk