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Get Up, Stand Up! – Arinzé Kene on bringing Bob Marley to the West End

Actor and playwright Arinzé Kene is fond of a challenge – but playing the lodestar of reggae is possibly his greatest yet.

Arinzé Kene is happy. In the last few days, he has been back on stage for the first time in more than a year in previews for new West End showGet Up Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical. It has been, he says, an emotional journey.

“Even on the first day of rehearsals there were some tears,” he says.

Kene is one of the most important and exciting voices in theatre in this country. Misty, which he wrote and performed, was nominated for Best Actor and Best New Play at the Olivier Awards in 2019.

The one-man show, a powerful, offbeat blend of spoken word, music and drama depicting modern London life, is one that still resonates, he says.

“I never knew it was going to be such an important piece. I swear to you all I was doing was speaking my truth,” he says. “It really chimed with people, you know? The story was the right story for the time.”

Kene went on to star opposite Wendell Pierce in Death of a Salesman (leading to another Olivier nomination), appeared in The Old Vic’s Girl from the North Country and Amazon film I’m Your Woman with The Marvellous Mrs Maisel’s Rachel Brosnahan. But now Kene’s taking centre stage as Bob Marley. It is, he says, once again the right story at the right time.

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The Big Issue: If it is emotional being in a packed theatre again, how is it playing such a revered, important figure as Bob Marley?

Arinzé Kene: The message we are bringing is Bob’s message. It’s one of universal love. Bob always spoke of himself as a messenger, as Jah’s messenger, and he fought for equality all over the world. So this is a very important time to bring this on to the stage.

If he was alive today, Bob would have been front and centre of the Black Lives Matter movement. Because this is what Bob Marley was all about.

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I was going to ask what it says to the times we are living in.

The world is in a certain amount of pain right now. But it’s necessary that we go through these changes. People are dying senselessly, racism is still alive. Xenophobia, homophobia and all sorts of hatred is on this planet. And it’s unwanted. And we have to do something about it. And I find what Bob stood for was equality and treating humans like humans, treating people equal and loving first, before anything.

All of his music is riddled with these types of messages, and with survival information – he’s telling us how to treat each other.

He was almost a religious figure for many.

Right. And it wasn’t just his music but it was also in the way he lived his life. He truly did sacrifice himself his entire life. He could have lived like a rock star if he wanted but he lived closer to a monk. If you can say anything about him that was slightly different to that you might tug at the many women who he ended up having babies with, but everything else… he gave all his money away to the poor.

His family didn’t really get rich until after he died because while he was there, he gave all his money away. People would queue outside his Hope Road home, saying “Hey, Bob, I need money for my daughter to go to school” and he would give it to them. That’s the type of man he was.

What was your relationship with his music before taking this role?

I loved his music before. I still love his music – it has more depth now I know more about him. So I’m a massive fan of Bob Marley. He’s one of my heroes. I try to remember his energy whenever I’m in a sticky situation. Sometimes I ask myself: What would Bob do?’ Because why not try to be great, you know?

What have you learned about him?

Bob had quite humble beginnings. He started with absolutely nothing. And he chose to have a dream and then spread that ambition with people he met along the way.

When he was making music in Studio One, he was homeless and sleeping on the studio floor. He would go out on to the streets and listen to people who could sing – young people his age – and convince them to bunk school so they could sing in the studio.

Many people became musicians and entertainers because of Bob. When he had nothing to give, he was still giving of his time and of his inspiration. He carried on all his life doing that.

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So did you have any trepidation taking this role on? 

What can I say, man? Huge waves and mountains of fear. Because it is Bob Marley. And if you’ve ever seen a Bob Marley performance, then regardless of whether you’re Denzel Washington or Daniel Day-Lewis, you look at him and go, how the fuck did he do that? Because it’s marvellous.

He’s tapping into another spiritual channel. He’s on a different plane altogether. That is why people speak about his performances and so often say they were hypnotised. I thought I could tell the story and bring my version of Bob to the stage, but the big fear was the performances.

There are moments in the musical that should feel like you’re at a gig. So the biggest challenge was how to rise up and be mighty on stage.

How is the audience reacting – are you feeling the love on stage?

I’ve never experienced such a responsive audience. They participate a lot, man. They sing, they shout out.

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It couldn’t be much more different from Death of a Salesman.

Oh, Wendell Pierce was honestly the best stage dad I’ve had ever. He’s quite a serious person – because of everything he has done in his life, for example after Hurricane Katrina, what he’s done for New Orleans – but he’s also a funny motherfucker. And he’s got a lot of stories.

I learn a lot on every job. And I took some stuff from Wendell. Watching him perform was like watching running water – and I tried to bring some of that into Bob here because I love musicals, I’m a big fan, but sometimes they can feel a little bit rigid. So I’m trying to keep my performance as Bob as loose and alive as I can. I’m trying to be running water.

You’ve spoken before about the need to expand the stories told in theatre to bring in a more representative audience.

There are people coming to this show who don’t come to the theatre much. The reason they come is they see one of their stories is being told. They feel included in the West End. It’s that simple – include everybody and we will come. That goes from the narratives being told to who tells the stories. Because it’s not OK to tell a story about Black people and have every single person on the production side be white. But we’re changing that shit. We’re not here just to please people, we’re here to make meaningful change in our industry. Ours. We share it.

Get Up Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical is playing at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue. It’s currently booking until April 3, 2022.
Visit getupstandupthemusical.com

@adey70

This article is taken from the latest edition of The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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