Award-winning playwright Ryan Calais Cameron’s Typical to premier on Soho Theatre On Demand-I AM History
Soho Theatre’s “On Demand” platform will premiere , the film version of the hit stage play from 24 February 2021. Written by award-winning playwright Ryan Calais Cameron and directed by Anastasia Osei-Kuffour, it follows the tragic true-life events of Black British ex-serviceman Christopher Alder and the injustice that still remains 20 years since his story emerged. Typical is the story of a Black man, who “in the comfort of his home is just a man, but as he leaves, he must navigate through society’s ideas and prejudices about what it means to be Black,” Cameron explained. I AM History talked to the playwright about his humble beginning, well-deserved success and his unique journey from a church in South London to Edinburgh’s theatre festival and Soho.
IAM: Ryan, you wrote this story, reflecting the deep impact of racism on Black men in the UK. The play retells true events, and the life of Black British serviceman Christopher Alder, how did you become aware of it yourself?
RCC: The story of Christopher Alder was part of my life very early on (Editor’s note: Alder died in 1998. A trainee computer programmer of Nigerian origin, former British Army paratrooper, he had served in the Falklands War, and died unexpectedly while in police custody at Queen’s Gardens Police Station, Kingston upon Hull, in April 1998, after a night out).
My parents saw the story in the news, the story of a Black man who died in police custody, and it really affected us, my mum especially. It was a news story, it may have been on the news for a week or so, but my mum really picked up on it. It stayed with her, so it affected me too, growing up. She was constantly thinking of how to protect me and how to help me succeed in life.
Years later, things haven’t changed at all. That’s what Typical is about, it’s about telling not only about a Black man, but about a man’s life, a life like any other, free to roam. But of course, he wasn’t, and had to constantly walk on eggshell.
I realised that this story hadn’t been told and especially not the way I wanted to tell it. I wanted it to be a story for everyone. Like, when you watch a television show like ‘Friends’, it’s made for everyone, not only for white people. That’s what I wanted to achieve. As a man, anyone should be able to identify with him. In the play, we see him, he lives a normal life, especially in his private life, in his house… He wants the best for his children, like everyone else. He wants to live just like you; he’s a human just like you. Then when he has to go out, that’s when we see how he’s going to be treated.
IAM: Which events, stories or personal reflections inspired your research and writing?
RCC: The story of Christopher Alder was always in the back of my mind. And it affected me constantly, especially when I became a father. Then one day in 2018, I was stopped, pulled over by the police while driving with my wife and children. I was stopped for no reason and bullied for no reason. And I know that every Black boy has been through this but I was a grown-up then. I wonder: Do I have no freedom? Am I not a man? I had enough and so I wrote the first draft for Typical in one night!
Then of course, there were many challenges, to get it from my mind to the paper then to the stage. I looked at the way to make the story alive, to retell all the many events behind it. I worked on the form and decided to write for only one character, Christopher himself, as not only a sad and traumatic death but as an entertaining story, celebrating a man’s life. It’s firstly about a charismatic character going on a night out.
I researched everything I could find about him, about that night, and also spoke to his sister. Then I took it from there and worked on the rest of it. I filled in the gaps, about the nightclub he went to, the hospital he ended up in Hull. It’s not a biography; it’s an emblematic story in the end.
IAM: How was the reception of the play? What sort of audience did you expect to touch?
RCC: Well, I wrote that play in 2018, then decided to produce it in 2019, and that was only the beginning of my job…I had to sell the play, to get people to come and see it. It was so much work that it’s only now that I can really take the impact it had! Casting was difficult, so was the rehearsals, as it’s based on someone’s real life… I had created my own production company, Nouveau Riche, a few years prior, and I was this man from a lower working class background with no means, no mentor, no guidance…
“we had planned to tour the UK with the play and especially to perform in Hull, where the events happened, but of course Covid hit.”
IAM: Can you let us know how you started in theatre and remind us of your first projects before Typical?
RCC: What really helped me was the success of my first plays, Timbuktu, about a Black man as well, and my second, Queen of Sheba, in 2017. I created a community, with friends, and we worked with no help apart from support from our church, from the pastor and his wife. All our meetings and rehearsal happened in that church in South London. There, we fostered our own community — the pastor and most of the churchgoers are Nigerian, I am from Guyana, and we had a really mixed group of people. We only worked out of love.
We had to raise money but we did it and performed Queen of Sheba in Camden for a week and then a woman came to us and suggested we applied for an Untapped Award at Underbelly Edinburgh Fringe, in 2018. We won and that’s how we ended up performing in Edinburgh’s theatre festival! There we sold out, won the Stage Award. And a year later, in August 2019, we performed Typical in Edinburgh.
IAM: Typical was first performed in August 2019 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe then at the Soho Theatre in London for four weeks in December. Now, you all performed, directed and filmed a new version during the pandemic’s lockdown, on location at Soho Theatre, how was this experience?
RCC: First, we had planned to tour the UK with the play and especially to perform in Hull, where the events happened, but of course Covid hit. Then when the death of George Floyd created such a movement in June, we talked about doing something again, but theatres remained mostly closed. So I was inspired by Spike Lee’s work Pass Over (from 2018), not a filmed play but a mix between film and theatre.
But we had to rehearse intensely. We felt like guinea pigs, as we were one of the first companies to get back to work! We had to constantly spray everything with cleaning products, to wear masks, to work from different desks to remain physically distant; we couldn’t be more than six people in the same room, so we worked with Zoom too.
Then we filmed and worked on the edit. To give the film this hybrid feeling, we filmed our performance twice; we filmed a first version in one go with three 3D cameras; and then we filmed a second version with more of a cinematic feel.
IAM: How do you feel it resonates now, after a year of debates and discourses about Black Lives Matter? Do you consider yourself a political writer? A “Black” writer? Does this mean anything to you? Or do you feel you’re just writing stories that resonate with your own experience?
RCC: For me, it’s mostly about being passionate about what I do and about my community. I write about things that matter to me and to the people who matter to me. And my scope changes. If I were to go to New York or to Zimbabwe, I’d want to be able to get inspired and follow my instinct, especially if I’m touched. So, am I political? I never saw myself as such but I want to talk about myself and that, in our times, is a difficult issue so it is seen as political, which in reality is crazy, but that’s how it is.
As for Black Lives Matter, and all the attention finally there, I can’t say it is helping. Is it a ‘moment’, will it have longevity? I can’t tell but I’m not a ‘moment’ person. Yes, it seems very topical now but we know that these issues are actually not new. So for us, at Nouveau Riche, we carry on. I can’t afford to trust in other people’s interest. My next project is about Black boys who have considered suicide. I’m looking to go and perform it internationally, in the United States, in Africa, in Europe. For instance, people often say that the United States is a dangerous place for Black people but it’s also where the best opportunities for them arise. We need to keep on doing what we believe in. And for now we get a great response to our work.
Watch the trailer here:
Originally published at https://www.iamhistory.co.uk on February 3, 2021.