Arinzé Kene puts himself into his plays. Not, as some actor-playwrights do, with plum parts and killer lines, but by threading his own life into the shows he stages. “All these plays are part of my story,” he says. “They’re all part of the makeup of me.”
The thing that strikes you about Kene is his gentleness. For a big guy, 6ft and broad-shouldered, there’s something prim about the soft-spoken 29-year-old sipping peppermint tea. His eyes, deep chestnut and long-lashed, are quite disarming.
His plays are not. God’s Property, set against the racial tensions in Deptford, south-east London, in the 1980s, starts with a young skinhead pulling a knife on his brother. Little Baby Jesus has bullies pelting victims with stones and class clowns proving themselves gang-worthy. Kene’s next play, the monologue Good Dog, has the 2011 UK riots in mind. “It’s been, what, five and a half years and there are still loads of unanswered questions,” he says. Aside from a few verbatim pieces, such as Alecky Blythe’s Little Revolution, theatre has hardly looked at that moment. “It’s such an important thing that happened. I’m actually quite surprised no one’s really faced it down.”
That August weekend, Kene was in London in rehearsals for Decade, Headlong’s cycle of 20 short plays about 9/11. “I wanted to go down to Tottenham to see,” he says. Friends did and, for four days, his phone pinged with images and videos from the scene. “For half the country, it came as a complete shock, but I wasn’t surprised by it. If you were raised in the inner-city, you knew something was coming. There was a feeling, this tension building. You could smell something was going to happen.”
Good Dog, which opens at Watford Palace theatre before going on a UK tour, shows a London community over 10 years or so through the eyes of a teenage boy. The monologue seeks out underlying tensions in the community. “Recession and gentrification, these things accumulate pressure,” says Kene. “Something was always going to tip the scales.” You see all these small-scale symptoms dotted throughout Good Dog – bells fitted to corner-shop doors, groups of young men growing in size – and bit by bit they escalate until the play erupts. There’s a rhythm to it, says Kene, with people “doing something to someone else if something’s done to them”.
Good Dog “plays on that age-old platitude we’re told when we’re young: if you’re good, good things will come to you. It’s a journey towards disillusionment.” Kene and his family moved to the UK from Nigeria when he was four and, though he thinks his dad “hit the jackpot” by landing in Hackney, he’s aware how easily his life might have been different. He joins the dots all the way up. “Age-wise, I’m not that far apart from Mark Duggan or other characters the boy [played by Anton Cross in Good Dog] could be. I felt quite confident in writing about that journey. It was one I missed out on, but I saw growing up.”
The way Kene tells it, he stumbled into theatre. Seeking shelter one rainy day, aged 13, on his way to basketball practice and found himself joining the Arcola’s young company. “All I saw was a group of girls my age and I was like, ‘What’s this? I want to be part of this…’”
Next day, he returned to the basketball court, but something niggled. “I knew I was meant to go back.” It took him all summer – “and everyone was like, ‘Where have you been?’ That feeling, right? You’re 13 and people remember who you are. At that age, you have two worlds: home and school. This was a whole other world.” Five years later, he quit his physiotherapy course to give acting a shot. His first professional job was at the Arcola.
That was in 2008. Within two years, he had joined EastEnders, playing the wayward Connor Stanley, led Che Walker’s musical Been So Long at the Young Vic and started writing his own plays. “It’s taken a while for me to figure out how the two work together,” he says. Good Dog is his first new play in five years. “Before, I’d put on the writer’s hat, then take it off to act. I realised it’s better not to separate the two. It’s all part of one thing, woven together.”
You can see that, perhaps, in increasingly political parts, from a closeted footballer in John Donnelly’s film of The Pass, for which Kene won an Evening Standard film award, to Sam Cooke in the Donmar’s production of Kemp Powers’ One Night in Miami. He was on stage as the singer and civil-rights campaigner on the night after the US election, singing A Change is Gonna Come. “There were a lot of tears in the third act that night. It was very eerie. The whole play asks whether we’ve moved forwards or backwards and on that day, it felt like we had gone backwards.”