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Lucian Msamati: ‘Some people still see the colour, not the actor’

Msamati in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Lyttelton, National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

In one of the more notorious critical faux pas of recent times, a critic enquired whether, in this politically correct era, it would still be possible for Laurence Olivier to black up to play Iago. It goes without saying that the black character in Othello is – usually – the title one. But last year at Stratford-upon-Avon, Lucian Msamati became the first black actor to play Iago for the Royal Shakespeare Company, opposite Hugh Quarshie in the title role.

As Michael Billington noted in his review for The Guardian: “I had not anticipated how many fascinating ideas such an imaginative piece of casting would provoke. For a start, it reinforces the historic bond between Othello and Iago, and helps to explain the trust the former places in his ensign. By making Othello the commander of a multiracial unit, [it] also exposes the unresolved tensions in the group.”

The actor involved, 39-year-old London-born Msamati, who was brought up in Africa, reflects now: “A part of me thought it was about time! I’d been offered Othello in another production, and I said thanks, but no thanks. Iago is the far more interesting character.”

Hugh Quarshie with Msamati in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Othello, 2015. Photo:  Tristram Kenton
Hugh Quarshie with Msamati in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Othello, 2015. Photo: Tristram Kenton

But he found himself at the centre of a particular challenge: people’s preconceptions. “There wasn’t so much a wave as a tiny ripple of people who’d already decided how it was going to be. And I thought, isn’t it sad in this day and age that people are still having these kinds of discussions. Of course I understand why and where, but I bet it wouldn’t be the case if the actor had a skin tone that was different to mine. Is that all I am? Is the only thing you can bring up is that I’m a couple of shades darker than a cappuccino?”

Great strides have been made in colour-blind casting in the past decade. That there is still a long way to go was underlined last year when veteran Shakespearean director Trevor Nunn (a former artistic director of the RSC and the National) publicly defended his decision to cast an all-white company in his production of The War of the Roses at the Rose Theatre in Kingston for what he called reasons of “historical verisimilitude”.

Msamati is understandably wary of entering into the argument and calling Nunn out publicly, but he comments more generally: “There are still some who do not see the actor, they see the colour, to which my response is that the limit is in your imagination. In this world of make-believe and fantasy that we create, where it’s perfectly fine to create a boarding school that is reached by a train from platform 9¾, there’s a block to your assumption that they can’t be black.”

Encouragingly, the actor cast as Hermione in the forthcoming stage premiere of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the wonderful Noma Dumezweni. The colour of her skin should have been unexceptional, but it didn’t go unremarked by the popular press.

“We are very quick to label, and not so quick to champion and discuss,” says Msamati. “Let’s have a  healthy, active, critical, robust dialogue as we go forward. I embrace and appreciate and criticise all forms of art – because of its quality, not because of its cultural or political constituency.”

The National Theatre has done a lot to promote the dialogue around diverse casting – Rufus Norris’ debut production as artistic director of Everyman starred Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role – as well as produce stories by black playwrights. Before he took over the National, Norris directed The Amen Corner. Now the theatre has just revived August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and will soon be staging a new production of Lorraine Hansberry’s rarely seen Les Blancs. Meanwhile, in October, Msamati will appear as Salieri in a revival of Amadeus.


Q&A: Lucian Msamati

What was your first job? My friends and I wrote sketches at a Friday night drama club, and then we got an invitation to a summer arts festival at a local shopping centre. That was the beginning of my realisation that I could do this for a living.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? It’s going to be all right – keep going.
Who or what is your biggest influence? My parents and my two children. I would also throw into that mix Stevie Wonder – you watch him and you go, “Wow, I don’t know what it is you’ve been given but it makes me feel something and I want to take that away with me.”
What is your best piece of advice for auditions? Speaking entirely from experience, having had the privilege of working on both sides of the table, I know that what every single casting director or director is doing on the other side of the table is saying, “Please be the one.” So be the one. But if you’re not, don’t take it personally, as hard as that is – so many times it has nothing to do with talent or ability, but having to put a puzzle together and someone doesn’t fit into it.

Msamati currently has a leading role in Ma Rainey, opposite Sharon D Clarke in the title role – a play that brings him back to the National for the seventh time, and also reunites him with director Dominic Cooke, formerly of London’s Royal Court, for the fourth time.

“I have been very blessed and I hope it continues,” he comments of his track record with theatre and director. He is back on the Lyttelton stage, where he made his NT acting debut back in 2003, and says now: “We were doing voice exercises on the Lyttelton stage a few days ago. As I walked on, I remembered that this was the first stage I stood on at the National, and to think how far I have come and the journey I have been on from then till now was amazing. If I could have told myself then to stick with it – you’ll be fine – I wouldn’t have believed it at the time. It’s a wonderful privilege and a great place to be. It was like the Hollywood fairytale fantasy come to life – and part of me still can’t quite believe it.”

When Cooke approached him with the idea of the play, Msamati tells me: “I knew the play and it’s an absolute classic – it has life and soul.” It is part of the late Wilson’s great 10-play cycle, each set in a different decade of the last century, that turned him into Broadway’s first mainstream black playwright, who consistently and repeatedly found a home there (he now has a permanent home there in a theatre named after him on West 52nd Street, where the musical Jersey Boys is running).

Msamati remarks: “It is testament to his particular brilliance and genius that he became mainstream without compromising his story and the core of his message and ideas. That’s the power and beauty of a true artist – he never had to compromise. He told black stories in a way I don’t think had ever been presented for a mainstream audience before, in a fully rounded, complex and human way. In the way of all the best stories, they may be incredibly local but their reach is much wider.”

As an actor, Msamati found that he needed to work on a larger stage, too, than the ones he first worked on in Zimbabwe where he grew up. “It became clear early on that there was only so much that could be achieved in Zimbabwe. I say without shame or trying to be too modest that by the time I was 22 or 23 I had tasted what one might call stardom there: I may not have been splashed across the great distance of the world, but there I had all the trappings of it: everyone knew who I was, they called me by my name in the street, everyone wanted to buy me a drink and to know what I was doing next.”

He found a like-minded group to move on with: “I was blessed and fortunate that I fell in with a group of friends who all had a shared love of the theatre, and we started touring. At one point we were doing so well internationally that we were out of Zimbabwe for nine months of the year, enjoying the life of being drunk and broke on several continents.”


Lucian Msamati’s top tips for aspiring actors

• Take the work seriously but don’t take yourself seriously in the work.

• You must never stop learning.

• When you stop loving it, stop doing it.

The company was called Over the Edge, and it visited the Edinburgh Fringe several times between 1998 and 2001: “It was a baptism of fire to dive into this massive ocean. The first venue we performed in was an abandoned school that has now been turned into a block of flats, and I remember the dressing room floor being covered in green gunk.”

Then came a big break: one of those shows transferred to London’s Battersea Arts Centre as part of the Time Out Critics’ Choice season there.

“One Sunday afternoon, Maggie Lunn, the casting director of the Almeida, came to see the show, and she was casting Antony Sher’s first play, ID, that Sher was also starring in. She called me in to meet him and I couldn’t believe I was meeting him.”

Guided by his agent – “The mighty Lesley Duff, who is my champion and friend and mentor and adviser and butt-kicker when needed” – Msamati has become a leading actor and occasional director, who was artistic director of the British-African company Tiata Fahodzi from 2010 to 2014. He says of moving on from there: “I had taken the company to a place where I felt they needed someone else for its next level of development – a career director – and one mustn’t outstay one’s welcome.”

Right now he’s also tasting popular fame again as pirate Salladhor Saan in TV’s Game of Thrones: “I get recognised in the most random places and it’s brilliant – there’s no greater review or affirmation than a complete stranger stopping you in the street to say: ‘You’re the pirate, I love you!’ Our work does reach people.”

CV: Lucian Msamati

Born: 1976, London (raised in Tanzania and Zimbabwe)
Training: University of Zimbabwe (BA (hons) French and Portuguese)
Landmark productions: ID (Almeida, 2003), President of an Empty Room (National Theatre, 2005), Pericles (Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006), Death and the King’s Horseman (NT, 2009), Ruined (Almeida, 2010), The Overwhelming (NT, 2010), Clybourne Park (Royal Court, London, 2010), The Comedy of Errors (NT, 2011), Othello (RSC, 2015), Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes (Tricycle Theatre, 2015), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (NT, 2016)
Agent: Lesley Duff, Diamond Management

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom runs at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, until May. Read The Stage review here

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