In a mysterious alcove at the Battersea Arts Centre, Josephine Balfour Oatts talks to Lekan Lawal about his show Superblackman, the first in this season’s Up Next Programme.
In a mysterious alcove deep within the Battersea Arts Centre, remnants of Punchdrunk’s Masque Of The Red Death creep across the walls. The door is framed by licks of white paint – small, haphazard arcs pushing themselves into a maroon décor. They reach around corners, and graze the frame of a staircase leading to nowhere. Some continue, bleaching the edges of an electronic keyboard that is tucked away, gathering dust. Lekan Lawal turns to the window in thought. It is cold today, and he brings his green scarf closer, pulling a beanie down across his forehead.
“I’m really interested in the stories that get told, the stories that don’t get told, and why that is,” he says, with a rueful smile. For Lawal, this is an observation of power. A concern that becomes significant when considering the point of view of a protagonist, where this character gets their agency from, and what shape their enemy takes. In order to examine this further, his most recent play, Superblackman uses a very particular blend of mythology, pop-culture and graphic novel. With myth, Lawal observes a curation of history – which legends are kept, which are cast aside, and how this process affects the way one experiences the world. As a mode that has evolved from myth, pop culture, “irrespective of medium, follows (a) similar pattern.” Then, propelled by an evolution of its own, modern storytelling explodes into technological fields, with blockbuster movies such as X-Men and Spiderman channelling the comic book industry. These are manufactured using a successful equation, and Lawal has become fascinated with the notion of a ‘hard reset’ – how taking one superhero franchise and beginning from issue zero (under a separate title) disrupts its fictional lineage. This creates, “fault lines in [the] chronology of truth,” he says, with a slight frown, while also tapping into “how stories are connected to profit”.
It seems that the media giant Marvel has created a modern way of employing ancient ideas. Take for example, the character of Thor (a well-known figure from Norse Mythology) who is now an Avenger. It is the people behind these stories that Lawal feels are connected to the subliminal influences that become archived within the fabric of society. With consistent exposure to the online world, the act of choosing which narratives are advertised or destroyed can be found guilty of leading to unconscious bias and institutional prejudice. Particularly, if they are told by homogenous organisations or consistently feature similar personalities:
Power + Unconscious Bias = Discrimination.
However, “we don’t all have power,” Lawal says, knowingly. If this “echo-chamber of stories” is to change, those who are doing the storytelling must be diversified.
Lawal has recently become one of three Artistic Directors to take part in the Up Next programme, with Superblackman marking the opening of its first season. It is a prestigious scheme that witnesses the partnership of Artistic Directors of the Future, the Bush Theatre and the BAC, with ambitions to look into the responsibility of publicly funded buildings, as well as how the theatre industry can better represent artists of colour in leadership roles. Ultimately, the BAC is aiming to become a relaxed venue, collaborating with artists such as Jessica Thom to realise this objective. Lawal is already championing this within his work, meaning that audience members will be offered the freedom to come and go from performances as they require, with the option to escape to a quiet room should their environment become overwhelming.
Superblackman also focuses on the disproportionate representation of people of colour in the UK mental health system. The play is rooted in “perspective rather than fact,” Lawal adds, with the narrative working to identify another statistical inequality – how black men are more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act (1983) than those who are white. The character of Al is used as a vehicle through which to explore Lawal’s conceptual framework – a young man on a journey to create a feature film that promotes a black superhero as its central focus. Lawal speaks in code, hesitant with any anecdotal details as the piece is still in the early stages of development. He does acknowledge his minimalist approach to setting though, and confirms the immersive nature of Superblackman, with the space tailored to fit the image of a film studio. It is a hybrid in this sense, taking inspiration from the gig-going experience, cinema and nightlife culture.
“I thought I would have a couple more answers (at this point),” Lawal muses quietly, his eyes fixed once more on the scene beyond the window. However, despite the looming deadline, his drive to stage Superblackman is not a symptom limited to the state of our nation. “How has it taken so long for this type of story to be explored?” he says, exasperated. There is some comfort in the more sophisticated discussions that are emerging around mental health, but taboo continues to stretch as wide as the spectrum itself. “One piece can’t cover everything,” he continues, sitting back into his chair, “ (but) having more conversations (like this) can’t be a bad thing.” He asks me the time and we say our goodbyes hurriedly, leaving the door ajar. It clicks shut behind us, like a lid sealing our conversation inside the barrel of Punchdrunk’s prehistory.
Superblackman is playing at the Battersea Arts Centre until December 1. For more information and tickets, see the website.