Arinze Kene’s play good dog comes to Sheffield and Scarborough this month. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.
It is quite a complicated thing, what I’m about to explain, but I’ll try and keep it simple.
Madani Younis used to run the Asian Theatre School, which was an off-shoot of the Leeds-based theatre company Red Ladder. In 2007 Madani left to set up Freedom Studios, a Bradford-based theatre company. In 2012 Madani left Freedom Studios and became the artistic director of the Bush Theatre, an organisation with an already impressive reputation, something Madani grew exponentially, until it became one of the most vibrant and impressive, leading theatres in London. No small feat.
While at the Bush (he’s now stepped down because he’s going to run the Southbank Centre) Madani brought a play by Arinze Kene to the stage. The play, Misty, opened at the Bush in March 2018. Stay with me, this is going somewhere.
Misty became only the second play by a Black British playwright to make it to the West End when it moved to the Trafalgar Studios late last year following its original Bush Theatre run. That’s why the news that an Arinze Kene play is coming to Yorkshire made it into my highlights of 2019 published at the start of the year in The Yorkshire Post.
It also demonstrates quite beautifully the complex ecology of British Theatre. Without Madani’s training in Bradford and Leeds, would Misty have existed? Without Misty’s enormous success, would we be able to enjoy another of his plays on a national tour?
We’d need parallel universes to help answer these questions, but I don’t think it really matters. What matters is that another Arinze Kene play is going on a national tour and that it comes to Yorkshire on that tour, visiting Sheffield first then heading up to Scarborough.
The play is good dog and, like Misty, it is a one-man play, performed on this tour by Kwaku Mills. It is being brought to the stage by Tiata Fahodzi, a theatre company founded in 1997 to bring stories of the African diaspora to the stage.
Director Natalie Ibu first came across the play in 2014 ‘just after Arinze Kene had powered out the first draft’. The play was written while he was on attachment at the National Theatre Studio and was a response by the playwright to the London riots.
Ibu says: “What struck me about the play was it felt like a chronicle of a multicultural community and the people and geography that leave their fingerprints on your life. good dog is an astonishingly written monologue following a 13 year old boy – our narrator – over many years. It’s about community, about growing up in a multicultural borough, about trauma and about what happens when you lose faith in being good. I think, ultimately, it’s a celebration of the resilience of people.”
It is interesting that the play is visiting Sheffield Theatres where it will be staged in the Studio and Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph. In Sheffield the audiences are from a busy metropolis and are in the habit of seeing challenging work. In Scabrorough the beauty of it is that it will speak to an audience who may find an unexpected connection with the story and material.
“We at Tiata Fahodzi are in the business of multiplying the singular narratives that exist about so many of us and championing stories we don’t normally get to see.
“I felt that we didn’t often get to see the multicultural characters that Arinze writes in the way he imagines them – as fully realised, living and breathing honest characters who are more than a stereotype, more than a shortcut. This play goes back in time to the early noughties but rather than feel nostalgic, it feels vital as we face similarly difficult times – when the UK’s ethnic and class divides have rarely felt as wide. It feels to me that we all have a job to do to promote empathy, compassion and humanity and Arinze’s play is a real gift.”
It is also perhaps a help that Kene is known to a number of audiences for several different reasons. In 2010 he joined the cast of EastEnders and found himself an award-nominated popular new character before moving on to Hollyoaks and most recently the BBC1 drama The Long Song. This is in addition to the high-achiever’s writing for theatre and screen. Ibu believes that Kene’s writing has the common touch.
“We’re particularly interested in exploring the mixed experience because Britain is full of people – whether African heritage or not – who feel in the middle, a bit of everything and yet somehow nothing at all.
“good dog is a great example of a Tiata Fahodzi play because it places the African heritage person at the heart of the story but is actually about really complex identity politics that we all share – no matter your particular combination of experience and heritage.”
good dog tells the story of a 13 year old boy whose mum has promised him a bike so even when school or home life bites, he knows to keep his chin up, his head down and his shirt clean. No harsh word, no sudden push to the ground will distract him from growing up to be a good man. Set during the early noughties, good dog tells the story of growing up in a multicultural community, and the everyday injustices that drive people to take back control.
Sheffield Studio, February 7, 8. Tickets 0114 2496000 or sheffieldtheatres.co.uk
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, February 12, 13. Tickets 01723 370541. sjt.uk.com