As but I cd only whisper opens at the Arcola Theatre in London, AYT’s Laura Turner chats to director Nadia Latif and cast member Adetomiwa Edun about slippery politics, being global citizens and exploring their dark sides…

Could you tell us a bit about the play?

Latif: but i cd only whisper is a brand new play by a young American writer called Kristiana Colón. It is inspired by the work of Ntozake Shange, and tells the story of Beau Willie Brown, a black Vietnam veteran. Set in Chicago in 1970, the story revolves around Beau, who has committed a serious crime, being interviewed by a psychologist to see whether he is fit to stand trial.

Edun: It looks at being young, disadvantaged and disempowered. Everyone has an opinion on Beau and what he has done, but who can we trust? I play Beau, whom we meet in the middle of a psychological analysis: something has clearly gone wrong since his return from war but we’re not sure what until the final moments of the play. Beau is a man haunted by demons and with a history of violence, but he also has a playful, charming side, not to mention a deep need to be loved.

Latif: I think audiences so far have been surprised by the production – it’s an extraordinary narrative. The language is very poetic, there’s a lot of movement throughout, and quite a lot of information to keep up with as we meet the various people in Beau’s life. One of the cast described the play as “not so much a whodunit as a whodunwhat”. It’s a stellar cast telling a heartbreaking story.

What shape did rehearsals take?

Edun: The text is highly poetic in sections and the story jumps between past and present, so the challenge in rehearsal was twofold: we had to establish for ourselves the exact timeline and sequence of events, and then work out how to tell the story clearly without losing the lyricism with which it was expressed. After that, I just had to learn my lines!

Latif: This play deals with some seriously dark subjects, and it took a very brave cast to jump straight in. The challenge was actually not over-rationalising or over-reasoning some of the things that happen or get said in the play – remembering that in extraordinary situations, people do extraordinary things.

The play and writer are American and the cast, British. Does this make for an exciting cultural playground in rehearsals?

Latif: I really feel like in this age of almost total information transparency and accessibility, we have no choice but to become global citizens. I’m actually from Sudan – I moved to the UK for my education about 14 years ago – so maybe I have a particularly global outlook. But my point is that we should always choose the stories that are the most interesting, not just the stories closest to us. What was really great about rehearsing this play with a British cast was that we were all learning thousands and thousands of facts and details and stories about America in that period together. No one could bring any personal experience or recollection to that process, so we were all equals in that respect. I think it also kept us from being too sentimental about the things we found out – there was some healthy objectivity.

Despite being set in the 70s, the play feels very relevant to today. Did you try to emphasise the comparison?

Latif: No, because I think it’s much more exciting to let an audience forge those links themselves. That’s such an individual thing. I remember thinking after the first preview, “Bloody hell, this play is about the Hackney riots” – because in that instant, it had suddenly jumped out at me what the play was saying about anger as a destructive force in black communities. But that changes night to night for me.

Does the production try to evoke one particular thing in audiences?

Latif: I think part of the appeal of the play is that it will mean different things to different people – it sort of acts as a receptacle for each individual to pour their experiences and opinions into. For me, it’s about how violence crosses generations, the frustrations of disenfranchised black men now and always, the human costs of war and the transformative power of love.

Edun: The play looks hard at what it is that makes us who we are and what it is that makes us love one another. Does Beau Willie Brown turn out as he does because war changes him? Would things have been different if other opportunities had been open to him and he hadn’t joined the army? Do his problems start earlier– growing up in a broken home with a mother who seems to hate him? Or is he, as his psychologist in the play asks, “just a bad seed”? And counterpoised to this, what is it about him that inspires such love and loyalty from those he comes in contact with, in spite of how he mistreats them? Lots of questions – come see what answers the play provides…

It must be a joy as a performer to explore such a range of emotions.

Edun: Absolutely! You get to play with extremes of emotion that you wouldn’t ordinarily in daily life. And to explore aspects of your darker side.

Is this playfulness reflected in the staging and performance?

Latif: For the past few years I’ve been working a lot more with movement and dance, and one of the major excitements of this play was the potential to weave movement into the text. Kristiana always knew that she wanted movement to be an integral part of the play, but she really allowed myself and Imogen Knight, the choreographer, to find our own language. We wanted to create an entirely fluid world for the play, a sense of things happening in and out of real time, jumping between the past and future, a sense of menace. We tried to develop everything from the historical period the play is set in – so we looked at popular dances of the 60s, and grew from there.

The production has been described as “fusing the physical and the poetic”. Was this a deliberate directorial choice?

Latif: To be honest, not really. Sometimes a text sort of tells you how it wants to be done – I don’t mean that literally, but in some sort of sensory way. Like you read the words, and you just begin to hear music or see colours. This is that sort of text. Every member of the creative team had very strong gut feelings about what the text needed. It all felt very instinctual. I think the job came with balancing the various elements – and a lot of that was quite late on – we were chopping things up, switching things around and coming up with new bits throughout previews. But that was never scary – it just felt like the show was constantly growing and telling us what it wanted to be.

Edun: One of the characters describes the play’s story as one “whispered between dark dreams”. I think amidst the darkness audiences can expect to find surprises, some joyous, some tragic. Studio 2 at the Arcola [where but I cd only whisper is being performed] has just been redone; it’s an intimate space with the audience on three sides so there’s a strong sense of complicity; the audience is very much a part of the action.

So this is a play that’s both intimate and global, personal and political.

Latif: For me, the political is personal. Just the act of choosing a play to direct is political. Why are you choosing to tellthisstorynow? The way Kristiana has written this play, the politics are quite slippery, but ever-present. Just things like the fact the psychologist is black has such an impact on the story – how has he managed to get an education? Is this the birth of the black middle class? In the heat of the black civil rights movement, what does it mean for one black man to send another black man to the electric chair?

but I cd only whisper plays at Studio 2 of the Arcola Theatre until 1December, presented by Sophie Watson for Tabula Rasa Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.arcolatheatre.com/production/arcola/but-i-cd-only-whisper.

Image credit: Richard Davenport