Recently seen in the West End’s Girl from the North Country, the versatile actor and writer is now starring in his self-written play Misty, a personal take on racial and cultural stereotyping. He tells Bridget Minamore why, despite the severity of its themes, he finds work a joyous experience
Arinze Kene — writer and actor of both stage and screen — enjoys his job even when it is difficult. Sitting in the cafe at London’s Bush Theatre the morning before the first preview of his new play, Misty, Kene reaches for the metaphors of his African heritage to explain just how much he enjoys it.
Making theatre is a joyous experience. I love what I do
“There’s an old Nigerian saying: ‘If you draw blood instead of milk then you’re milking too hard.'” Kene pauses, smiles. “We’re milking, you know? It should feel like milk is coming out. I know it’s my job, and I know the responsibility that an idea I had has created a job for a lot of people. But it’s also a joyous experience. I love what I do.” For Kene, work should always feel good, even when there’s a lot of responsibility attached to it.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, the actor arrived in the UK aged four and was raised with four siblings in a working-class household in east London. Finding acting in his teens, he “trained on the job and at theatres – joining young companies and initiatives. I just wanted to know how theatre worked”.
In the years since, Kene’s name as both an actor and a writer has risen higher and higher. Early screen roles in EastEnders in 2010, and later, alongside Russell Tovey in The Pass – a 2016 independent feature about a homosexual relationship between two footballers – brought the actor to a wider audience.
In the past few years, Kene has, once again, made waves on stage. First as Sam Cooke in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s lauded Donmar Warehouse production of One Night in Miami, and then as an original cast member of the Old Vic’s Girl from the North Country.
“One Night in Miami was incredibly important, politically, and it’s changed me forever,” Kene says. “You really delve into the minds of those great people [the play’s characters include Cooke, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and a young Muhammad Ali] who, at the time, created change that we live with now. You can’t not be changed.”
Kene creates his own change through his status not just as an actor but also as a writer who doesn’t shy away from politics.
Past plays such as 2013’s God’s Property looked at the relationship between two mixed-race brothers against the racial tensions in early-1980s Deptford; similarly, 2017’s Good Dog looked at inner-city black life, this time in the lead-up to the 2011 London riots.
What was your first job? I was a runner at 750 MPH, which is a sound studio on Golden Square, for about six months.
What was your first theatre job? Torn, at London’s Arcola Theatre. I played a young Nigerian boy who wanted to date a West Indian girl, and his family weren’t into that.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Worrying is a waste of time. Get busy – write in your spare time as much as you can. Be proactive, don’t keep score or count, just crack on.
Who or what is your biggest influence? I’m influenced a lot by sound. I used to write lyrics, and the artists that inspired me at the time were people like Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Common, Pharoahe Monch, Slum Village. Music was my first love.
What is your advice for auditions? Over-prepare.
If you hadn’t been a theatremaker, what would you have been? I would like to think I would have become an Olympian. I love sports, and I love competing. I’ve never been beaten in a 200m race.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I have new ones all the time. I always kiss my stages. I know it’s a silly thing, but I don’t know who I’d be if I wasn’t on stage, and it’s me just reminding myself to give thanks.
In his new play Misty – “the first I’ve ever done that I’ve put myself in” – Kene explores how the city he grew up in has changed and how that fits with his own status as a creative.
“The play is my way of exploring things further,” he says. “It’s about gentrification, about what it is to be a playwright that looks and sounds like me, to be from Hackney and working class, having parents who weren’t into theatre. [Misty is] one of my responses to all the conversations in the papers about lack of diversity and representation or misrepresentation. The ideas all connect.”
Speaking about the work, it’s clear Kene is excited about bringing a “really personal” play to life. One of the main characters is Arinze, he explains, a “fictionalised, absurd version of myself, and he lives in an absurd world, which is an extended metaphor of the world I live in as a creative”.
Misty’s other character – and here is where it gets meta – is the character from the play Arinze is writing. “He goes by a couple of names: Virus, and then he goes by the name Blood Cell. Arinze in the play gave birth to this person, and that person is also connected to Arinze.” He pauses. “It’s a play about me.”
However, Kene wants to emphasise he “doesn’t work alone”. He speaks a lot about the importance of having a good team around him, how much he enjoyed the development process with the Bush, and how his work behind the stage as well as on it has informed his artistic process as a whole.
When you have more autonomy, you can invest more in the performance
“As an actor I found myself looking at [theatre] as a hierarchy, and seeing the director up here” – Kene points up, and then to the floor – “and myself somewhere down here. But if you see it as more of a collaboration then you have a little bit more autonomy, and when that is the case, you can invest more in the performance. We perform better when we feel like we’ve put something into that character, don’t we?”
In Kene’s career, the usual separations of the stage don’t apply. “I struggle to draw a line between performing, writing, directing and producing, because I don’t think in boxes. I think in projects. An idea will come to me, and whatever serves the idea best is what I will do in order to get it made.
“Because Misty was written in a certain way, I felt that it would need me. Somehow all of the creative minds involved in Misty have managed to make one of the hardest, driest conversations about diversity in the arts entertaining, and make it land.”
Of that, Kene says, he is both excited and very, very proud.
Born: Lagos, Nigeria, 1987
One Night in Miami, Donmar Warehouse, London (2016)
Girl from the North Country, Old Vic, London (2017)
Misty, Bush Theatre, London (2018)
Best supporting actor, Evening Standard British Film Awards (2016)
Most promising playwright, Off West End Awards (2015)
Agent: Fay Davies at the Agency (writing), Sarah Spear and Grace Clissold at Curtis Brown (acting)