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(c) Dr. Ernest C. Withers, Sr. courtesy of the WITHERS FAMILY TRUST.

Interview with director Roy Alexander Weise on ‘The Mountaintop’ at the Young Vic

2 October 2016 Natasha Sutton-Williams

Katori Hall’s Oliver-award-winning play 'The Mountaintop' transports us to Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. It is April 3rd 1968, the eve of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who has just delivered his renowned oration, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”. London Calling caught up with director Roy Alexander Weise to discuss the political gesture of this humorous, powerful and even fantastical play.

London Calling: You recently won the James Menzies-Kitchin Award receiving £25,000 to put on this production. Why did you choose The Mountaintop as the play you wanted to direct?
 
Roy Alexander Weise: I remember reading it the first time. I got up really early, had breakfast whilst reading it, made my way to work, got on a bus so it would take me longer. I got towards the end of the play when King is at the mountaintop. He’s prophesying about the future of humanity. I looked around me and there was this sense of how everything is relative. It was like, ‘I’m here in London as a young black man as a result of slavery which is linked to the Civil Rights Movement. The experience of Black America ultimately impacts the black experience the world over because in America black people can be hugely successful and incredibly oppressed at the same time’. It was shocking how relevant everything was. Like Larry Pain, the sixteen-year-old boy who was shot in 1968 by the police. I remember the trauma of hearing about Trayvon Martin being killed with a packet of skittles in his hand and a can of ice tea in 2012. That scenario epitomises innocence. It’s unjust. They were both kids. I was overwhelmed by how loud the play resounded.
 
LC: What first attracted you to Katori Hall’s writing?
 
RAW: She’s hilarious. She’s bold. She’s confrontational. She’s unapologetic. She has a voice that is honest; a voice that comes from someone who understands pain and loss. She’s imaginative and isn’t afraid to stretch the form of theatre and the way we receive stories.
 
LC: How do we get more BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) artist’s work seen in the theatre?
 
RAW: There are lots of BAME artists but people are so closed-minded they don’t necessarily look to those artists as the people who are available for telling stories that exist outside of the black experience. You don’t get the opportunity to see who those artists really are because there aren’t enough theatres programming work by BAME artists not just about the black experience but about every experience. If you are waiting two years for an epic black play to be produced more often than not a white theatre director will direct it. I think some theatres need to do a lot more work seeking out those artists and giving them the opportunity to work on plays that are not singularly about the black experience. If we wait for only those opportunities to continue to develop and grow as artists, how many steps behind every other artist will we be? However, there are people who are doing amazing work with organisations like Artistic Directors of the Future which is becoming a brilliant hub of creativity and support for BAME artists.  
 
LC: With political activist groups like Black Lives Matter protesting across the globe, how does this play resonate for black people in the UK today?
 
RAW: I think we are in a place in London and all over the world where people are starting to realise again what the power of protest means. That it is an interruption, it should be an interruption, a bold interruption, because it shows firmly what your political stance is on an idea. It shows firmly that people are angry and that things are unjust. Peaceful march and peaceful protest were Dr. King’s way of making steps in terms of his agenda. We are in a very scary time right now because some of the leading Western societies are displaying a real fragility in terms of structure. That is something that makes people nervous.
Race has such a connection with economics. Capitalism has been founded on the idea of racism. King’s ideas are still so relevant when current conversations about our financial position as a society and as individuals push us to make decisions about who should be here and who shouldn’t. It’s all about fear, change and difference.
 
LC: Racism is still hugely prevalent in our society. What do you personally think we can do to fight against it?
 
RAW: We are in a privileged position being in London where women and men are proud feminists, people campaign loudly about Black Lives Matter, people campaign about the issues that affect the LGBTQ community, there are disabled people who are massive activists, but there is a missing link between those groups. That link is something King was trying to get people to realise: that the experiences of the marginalised altogether, that the collective voice, is the thing that has most power. Acting collectively is something we are so afraid to do in a society where we are taught to look after ourselves and our own.
 
The Mountaintop plays at the Young Vic Theatre from 7 – 29 October. For more information and to book tickets please visit the website.

For information on the James Menzies Kitchin (JMK) Award, please visit the website.

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