As Boy with Beer is revived at The King’s Head Theatre nearly twenty-five years after its debut at The Man in the Moon Theatre, I’ve been on the media trail to drum up publicity for the production. Here’s a selection of Questions & Answers about the play, this latest production, and the writing process that first appeared on The Colourful Network website.
What was your first job?
I worked for Midland Bank International as a Currency Disposals Clerk in the City of London. If I knew then what I know now, I might have hung around to become a foreign exchange trader or investment banker. But I got bored.
How did you become a writer?When Channel 4 first started, they had a writing competition. I knew nothing about how to write a screenplay, but I got some self-help books out of the library and decided to give it a go. I didn’t win, but Channel 4 wrote back a lovely, long, encouraging letter, saying how they thought I had a unique voice and that I should keep writing.
How would you describe what you do? What are you currently working on?
I like to get things done. I’m all about getting your message home, which might explain why much of what I’ve written is commissioned material with a specific aim and audience in mind. I’m not a writer who writes for the joy of writing. I need an incentive. A challenge will do. I’m currently writing five fifteen minute audio episodes intended for radio and based on my mother’s diaries.
Why you decide to revive Boy with Beer now?
Many people have contacted me over the years wanting to revive Boy with Beer, but for various reasons, it never happened. When young director Harry Mackrill reached out to me while I was working in Ghana, I thought, oh well, another one. But it’s because of his perseverance and tenacity why we have this 25th Anniversary Production of the play taking place at the King’s Head Theatre. He said he had fallen in love with the story. And I’m delighted, of course, and so glad that it still feels relevant to a new generation.
What inspired the original story? Where did the characters of Karl and Donovan come from?
I was inspired by two minor characters in my favourite James Baldwin novel, Just above My Head. That book was so full of love. The affair he describes between Crunch and Red sparked my imagination many years after I’d read Jimmy’s prose in my early teens. Karl and Donovan were not based on anyone specific, just an amalgamation of various people I’d met or observed over the years.
Why was it important to tell this story?
Growing up, I rarely saw people like myself on stage or screen, or even read about such people in books. I only discovered James Baldwin because of the Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott controversy in the 1970s. It was in the News of the World at the time that one gave the other a copy of Giovanni’s Room as a gift. I sought out the book at my local library. Imagine my surprise when the novel turned out to be written by a black author. I went on to order everything I could find by Baldwin. I loved the old classics we read at school, but I now longed to see others like me centre-stage.
As a Sexual Health Promotion Specialist, how do you think attitudes have changed to sex since the 90s?
I think the biggest difference today is that HIV is no longer associated with death or considered “the gay plague.” That’s good news for both men who have sex with men and the wider society. A broader spectrum of sexualities is much more accepted now, too, so heterosexuals are not as hung up about other peoples’ sex lives as they used to be.
What play do you wish you had written and why?
Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet is a tour de force, and I’ve always admired his style of dialogue. With all that’s left unsaid, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is so black to me, you’d swear that Tennesse Williams was an African-American. Then there’s Lorrain Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun with all of its righteous indignation. I can’t choose just one. Can I have all three?
What has been the most rewarding part of working in the theatre, writing, or doing what you do?
I don’t much enjoy working in the theatre. I’ve never actually considered myself ‘a theatre person.’ I love films and great storytelling. So, I’m much more interested in the text and good writing than in the theatrical process of putting on a show. I find the theatre a bit remote and clique. When I first wrote Boy with Beer, for example, no one would touch it in 1991. They called it lewd and pornographic and said it couldn’t be done.
We’re only here today because I had some spare cash and decided to produce the play myself at the Man in the Moon Theatre. I enjoyed that experience because it was about getting things done, and I was in control. However, I do sometimes consider that we may never have had plays such as Shopping and F**king if Boy with Beer didn’t proceed it.
I think the most rewarding aspect of what I do is that I get to use my creativity. Whether I’m constructing adverts for brands or sexual health promotion material for a charity, writing a play or editing a magazine, it’s my creativity on which I can always rely. Without it, where would I be?
If you could give any advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Many things may catch your eye; follow those that grab your heart. And start a property portfolio early.
What advice would you give to someone who is striving to become a playwright?
Read. Keep a diary.
Whose work would you recommend for emerging writers to study?
I’m a big fan of the history of contemporary American theatre. So I’d opt for the realism of Eugene O’Neill.