Roundabout’s first ever musical, Black Love is an explosion of form busting storytelling written by Chinonyerem Odimba, with music by by Ben And Max Ringham is being performed as part of PopOut Festival 2021 between 7-10 October 2021. We caught up with Chinonyerem Odimba, who also co-directed the play – to discuss the ideas behind the show.
“Of all the plays I’ve written, Black Love is a cumulation of lots and lots of different things. I think I spent a lot of time looking and talking about representation but that’s an easy thing for everyone to talk about. The harder things are about the damage that a lack of representation, a lack of seeing yourself out in the world does. I was interested in what that was.
I feel like Black Love as a play is something that has been developing in me for many, many years. It just comes from my desire to show familial love, to show black people in their fullest sense and also to show the ways in which our lives and our loves are interrupted on a day to day basis. I’d written two drafts and then the events of last summer happened and George Floyd and all of that changed my perspective of my approach to the story. I suddenly felt that I didn’t want to write a story that had loads of subtext but didn’t quite get to the point. I decided I wanted to write something more confrontational in tone I suppose, whilst keeping all the things that theatre can do that I love. There was definitely something for me about being much more direct about the pain that I was in, that so many people were in and about the harm that is done to Black Love in that way.
For me, the main theme is love. It feels like a trite thing to say. When we think about love, we think about romantic love. When we’re presented with love, we’re presented with a version of love and so the play’s title kind of gives it away. Ultimately, what I’m trying to show are the million and one ways in which you can see love in black lives and how we chose not to see that.
I’ve never written for Roundabout before but I’d heard so much about how intimate the space was. That was the thing I held in mind as I was writing the play and the story, that the distance between the characters and the audience may not be there in quite the same way as it is in other settings and other buildings. It means you can’t ignore the space when you are writing, because it’s so intimate and there is the opportunity to really engage with audiences in lots of different ways. It makes it quite exciting.
I do always hope that when audiences come out of my work, that they come out with more questions than answers. Or that they are able to share in a question that I want to ask the world. I’m not sure I have a prescription of what they should come out with but I would like them to come out with a sense of how that disruption happens outside of the buzzwords, you know? Outside of the words that we’re so used to using, outside of black squares, outside the things that people say. They should understand that there’s so much more to that than just saying the right thing.
Everyone works differently but for me each play deserves or even demands its own process. It really is just whatever feels right for that story and those characters. When I accepted the commission, I made it clear in my converations with Katie from Paines Plough that I was interested in writing a musical, she said it wasn’t something Paines Plough had done for Roundabout before, and that’s how it happened.
I’ve written lots of shows where I’ve written lyrics though none of them have ever been called a musical. For me, writing a musical was about not trying and recreate musicals I’ve seen in the past but to write a musical language and style that would serve those characters and the story. Sometimes I joke that I’ve broken the musical form. Some die hard musical lovers might come and see the play and say ‘This isn’t a musical!’ But, for me it feels like the musical form allows us to tap into some of the bigger emotions that my characters find hard to say. I think there is something so beautiful when a character shares something with us through song because they just couldn’t find the words to share that in any other way.”
THE GUARDIAN’s 4 Star review describes the play as a “GLORIOUS ODE TO BLACK CULTURE”. You can read the full review here