Director Ola Ince: ‘I have an obsession with how power and race are interwoven’

Ola Ince Ola Ince

The story of Rodney King and the LA riots has as much resonance today as it did 25 years ago, says director
Ola Ince. She tells Nick Clark about her production of the Anna Deavere Smith play Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, and explains why she connects more with the US narrative on race, despite being British

During her nascent career as a theatre director, Ola Ince has never been afraid to grapple with big issues.

Ince applied for the Genesis Future Director Award in 2016 with a pitch to stage a play about society, power, inequality and race relations. Dutchman, the 1964 work she chose, was described as a “cry of rage” by its author, African-American playwright Amiri Baraka.

She won the award and staged the work, exploring the “traumatic black experience” and the reality of modern race, for 10 days in the Young Vic’s Clare theatre.

“I have a real obsession and concern with how power and race are interwoven,” Ince says. “That’s why I was drawn to the Dutchman, and the play I’m doing now.”

Almost two years on, and Ince – who is artistic associate at the Lyric Hammersmith and Theatre Royal Stratford East – is working on a play that explores similar themes, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, which opens at London’s Gate Theatre.

It is a verbatim play by Anna Deavere Smith, based on testimonies from people affected by the LA riots, which begun after the acquittal of the policemen accused of beating Rodney King.

“I was about three when the LA riots happened,” Ince says. “I don’t remember it from the time, but I do have the imagery of Rodney King’s beating from a young age. I was aware of who he was, but I didn’t know the extent of it.”

Deavere Smith, known in the UK predominantly for her acting in TV shows such as The West Wing, conducted close to 300 interviews but reduced them by a factor of 10 to create her one-woman show that premiered in 1994.

Ince has gone back to the interviews and reshaped the play, taking different testimonies to make it speak to today’s British audiences.

“I wanted to provide bridges to the present. I’ve picked things that are relevant to now and that are really urgent; that you don’t necessarily need to have lived through to understand,” she says. “It does not feel like a historical play, it feels like it comments on now.”

Indeed the show will be performed by someone who was not born in 1992. Nina Bowers, who is 20 and recently graduated from drama school, is to play the 24 characters of different ethnicities whose ages range from 15 to 60.

“For her it’s about things she’s inherited in terms of race relations and the baggage we carry as young people,” Ince says.

The Gate’s artistic director Ellen McDougall introduced Ince to the play. “The voices are so raw, unapologetic and offensive I had to do it,” Ince says. “There are voices you have never heard on stage before.”

Artistic director Ellen McDougall: ‘At the Gate, directors don’t have assumptions about what theatre is’

The play addresses society, power, diversity, government policy and how complex the issues of race and prejudice are, Ince says.

She points to: the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to police brutality, white nationalists in the US who were emboldened in 2017 and, on this side of the Atlantic, the spike in hate crimes after the Brexit vote, as examples of the need for the play today.

“It’s shocking how cyclical it all is,” the director says. “The same problems that existed 25 years ago still exist. And that is down to a lack of platform for a diverse range of voices. Not having that platform means we can’t have the right discussions.”

It is as much a British problem as an American one, she stresses. A 2008 Ministry of Justice report showed while black Britons make up 2% of the population, they make up 12% of the prison population. This is a higher disproportion than in the US. The figures were echoed in a review by MP David Lammy late last year.

“Reading that was a huge shock and so depressing. Nina even stopped rehearsals one day to ask what, in the face of such statistics, was even the point of making theatre about it.”

Was there an answer? “Maybe one person can make a difference. We can reach diverse audiences and start conversations. Hopefully people will be empowered by the show.”

Ince grew up in a south-west London household where her parents created a “cocoon of art” for her. She was long interested in theatre, inspired by Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, a 1997 picture book about a girl who refuses to listen when told she is the wrong colour and gender to be Peter Pan in the school play.

Ince took her first directing steps at school, before joining Polka Youth Theatre and then attending the Brit School. She completed her training on the theatre directing course at Rose Bruford College.

Ince landed a placement at the Young Vic – “it’s a mecca for young directors, it really looks after them” – working with Carrie Cracknell. Work at Islington Community Theatre followed – now Company Three – and then the Finborough Theatre as a senior reader and resident assistant director.

Over the past four years she has worked as an assistant director on shows at London’s National Theatre, including A Taste of Honey, Dara, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and the Donmar Warehouse’s Shakespeare Trilogy. She has been an associate director on shows including Bugsy Malone at the Lyric Hammersmith.

It was at the Finborough that she made her directing debut with Chris Dunkley’s play about domestic violence, The Soft of Her Palm. Two years later at the same venue, she staged Rachel, one of the first plays by an African-American woman to be publicly performed – Angelina Weld Grimke. This year was another significant production for Ince, directing Start Swimming at the Young Vic, which then went to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Start Swimming review at Summerhall, Edinburgh – ‘uniformly terrific cast’

Ince is repeatedly drawn to stories set in the US by American playwrights. “It’s not to say that sort of writing isn’t in the UK, but I haven’t come across material that has connected with me,” she says. “I blame myself rather than the landscape of writers.”

The US plays connected with her, she says, because “there’s something about how guttural the plays are that I haven’t found yet in the British canon. They’re bold and straight to the point,” she says, before adding: “They are not polite.”

CV: Ola Ince

Born: 1989, Norbury, London
Training: Brit School, Rose Bruford College
Career highlights: Rachel, Finborough Theatre (2014), Dutchman, Young Vic (2016), Start Swimming, Young Vic (2017)
Awards: Genesis Future Directors Award
Agent: Nick Quinn, The Agency

Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 runs at London’s Gate Theatre from January 15 to February 3