In the latest look at a show that should have opened this week but could not because of the coronavirus lockdown, Lyn Gardner talks to Dexter Flanders about his debut play and how he is sanguine about the crisis putting paid to his fairytale start in the industry
What is it?
Foxes, the debut play by actor and writer Dexter Flanders, was due to open at Theatre503 in London this week with a press night on April 28. Flanders began writing it after he graduated from RADA’s acting course in 2017. Despite securing an agent, it was five months before he got his first job. “I didn’t enjoy having to sit around waiting to be creative, so I started to write a play. It became Foxes,” he says. “RADA was really supportive and it got a small sharing. As a result, I met James Hillier from Defibrillator, who was keen to direct it.”
Flanders’ acting career began to take off, and he played Mitch in Chelsea Walker’s intriguing 2018 English Touring Theatre’s revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, Edward in Queen Margaret at the Royal Exchange in Manchester and Mister in King Hedley II at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Foxes was a finalist for the Alfred Fagon Award and as a result Flanders joined the Royal Court Writers’ Group. He admits that it had all been a bit of a fairytale start.
“I had always been told that it could take years to get your first play on, but for me it has happened so quickly.” He’s saddened that the production is on hold, but is sanguine about it saying: “I grew up poor, so I’m preconditioned to setbacks. I’m pretty resilient.”
Flanders thinks it helps that he had already had a career as a drug and alcohol counsellor before he turned to acting. “I’ve had lots of life experience, so I know about the disappointments. In the grand scheme of things, not having your play go on as you had expected isn’t a great situation to find yourself in – but it’s not the end of the world. I believe that what is meant for you isn’t going to pass you by in the longer term. Maybe I have a different perspective on the theatre industry because I haven’t been in it all my life.”
Who was involved?
Hillier was to direct, with Verity Quinn on design. Simisola Majekodunmi was the lighting director, Malakai Sargeant was assistant director and Gabrielle Nimo was on movement. The cast was to be Doreene Blackstock, Michael Fatogun, Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea, July Namir and Tosin Alabi.
What is the play about?
“Around the time when I was trying to write a play, someone in my family came out as gay. My family were pretty relaxed about it, but for many from a Caribbean background, being gay is a taboo. I wanted to write about black men who look and sound alpha but who are gay and who don’t feel they can come out,” says Flanders.
It tells the story of Daniel – a young black man with a child on the way – and his close friend Leon. Daniel is a man who holds family, faith and community dear but who finds all those things challenged. “It’s an important story and it’s one that needs telling. Being gay isn’t talked about in the Caribbean community,” says Flanders.
How far did they get?
The production had been cast and was due to go into rehearsals on March 23. “But of course, it became clear when the theatres were closed that it wasn’t going to happen.”
It’s not certain that Foxes will go ahead when theatres reopen, however Defibrillator is committed to trying to make it happen. But like many artists of colour, Flanders worries that diversity in the industry will be impacted by the financial effects of Covid-19.
’Fear does some scary things to people and it’s never good for diversity’
“Even before Covid-19, diversity was spoken about in the industry with caveats all the time. There was a lot of talk but less practice. The reality is that theatre is a business and when businesses are losing money – which is happening to theatre during the lockdown – they try to protect themselves. In theatre, that probably means projects with names attached and audience appeal. Fear does some scary things to people and it’s never good for diversity.”
What is Flanders doing during the shutdown?
“I’m just trying to put one foot in front of the other. In the first few days of lockdown I wasn’t getting up until 3pm, but I quickly realised that what I needed was a structure, and it’s got me back to writing. I don’t think in the current situation I could have come up with a brand-new idea, but I am lucky I was already working on a play about interracial relationships and am on my fourth draft. I’m also writing a TV script. But it is such a strange time. The shared experience of community that you get in theatre and in everyday life in London is gone. I quite like being in the supermarket queue two metres apart because at least it makes you feel as if you are among people.”
Foxes was due to have its press night at London’s Theatre503 on April 28, with the run continuing until May 16. Visit: theatre503.com
Nine Night, by Natasha Gordon, opened in the Dorfman at the National Theatre with a press night on April 30, 2018. It subsequently transferred to London’s Trafalgar Studios that December, making actor-turned-playwright Gordon the first black female playwright to have a play staged in the West End. “It’s an honour that comes with a string of complexities,” Gordon said in an interview with The Stage before the show opened.
What is it?
An exuberantly funny comedy about legacy and grief, which follows a Jamaican family in the wake of the death of grandmother Gloria who emigrated to the UK as part of the Windrush generation. Gloria left her oldest child behind in Jamaica and subsequently started a new family.
The clan gathers for the traditional nine-night ritual to encourage the deceased spirit to leave the house. Cue the opportunity for family resentments and secrets to come to the fore in an explosively enjoyable evening.
Who was involved?
The show marked the NT debut of Roy Alexander Weise – now co-artistic director of the Royal Exchange in Manchester – and its brilliant design, which made you feel as if you were in a 1970s time warp, was by Rajha Shakiry.
The standout turn was by Cecilia Noble, as Aunt Maggie, who had the audiences in fits with her performance and a host of great lines; when faced with the suggestion that Gloria might be cremated Maggie replies: “We don’t cook our people.”
Noble, described by critic Susannah Clapp as “a one-woman stampede of talent”, has since become a fixture at the NT appearing recently in Alexander Zeldin’s Faith, Hope and Charityn, as well as Downstate and Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin, which ended its run early due to the coronavirus crisis.
When the play transferred to the West End, Gordon herself took on the role of put-upon daughter Lorraine. An irony because, she admitted, one of the reasons she wrote Nine Night was because she was frustrated by the few meaty acting opportunities coming her way.
Was it the right play for the right time?
Undoubtedly. It landed at just the moment the Windrush scandal was all over the news, with the press night taking place the day after the resignation of Amber Rudd as home secretary.
Does it still resonate?
It does, particularly at a time when it has become so apparent that our NHS and care services are reliant on the contribution made by immigrants.
Also, because at a time when social distancing is having an impact on funerals, this wise and wildly funny play is a reminder of the importance of the rituals surrounding death and how crucial they are as a way to deal with grief.