"Kick him in the balls, Ruby. Kick him right in the balls". It's eleven days until curtain-up for the new production One Love: The Bob Marley Musical and the hugely likeable writer-director Kwame Kwei-Armah is giving notes to his cast, who are in near-constant laughter. Not content with wading into closed rehearsals, we also deny Kwame his hard-earned lunch, to hear about the man from Jamaica who changed the world with music.
"When I was asked to write and direct Bob's story," says Kwame putting down his Jacob's Cream Cracker and leaning in, "the first question I asked myself was: What are the most important moments in Bob's life? And for me, they revolve around three concerts. Smile Jamaica took place two days after the attempted assassination of Bob, his wife and manager. And I thought, to get on stage after being shot, that's heroic. The second is when Bob returned from exile for the One Love Peace Concert, with a sense of déjà vu, probably asking himself — could I be shot again? And the third is when he played to mark the independence of Zimbabwe. That was huge. And so significant because while the guerrilla fighters were in the camps of the hinterland, before going into battle for freedom, it was Bob Marley's songs they would listen to."
Kwame is a Marley encyclopedia. But this isn’t a womb to tomb story. Its focus is on an intense three years of Bob's life, in which those first two events occurred. "While I would have loved to get the third concert into the production, you'll have to look out for One Love Two," he jests. "And to include the later part of his story would be to produce something akin to a Bob sing-along, rather than a concentrated hero’s journey. But these earlier years, that's exactly what they were. A hero's journey." Kwame's rarely without a beam, but this production has been no easy ride. The biggest pressure has been presenting the songs the audience want to hear, whilst telling the tale of a huge man that was so much more than his music — what hurt Bob; what inspired him. "The key to pulling this off is two-fold," says Kwame. "First, it’s in the construction of the narrative — it’s not a jukebox musical, nor is it a play with music. It's about walking the line that sits between the two. And the musical rule of thumb? Sing only when words no longer suffice. Second, we've cast very good actors. Very good actors who can sing. Then we spent four weeks building a family, and creating an environment where the cast are also part of the big task we still have to accomplish. That's the concept anyway."
On the subject of his protagonist, Kwame is at his most thoughtful, speaking deliberately and with feeling. "It’s really hard to talk about any icon and not say something everyone has heard before. But ultimately I think of Bob in a beautiful marriage of politics, inspiration and melodic inspiration. Even if you don't know the words, the texture and the tone of his voice, and the melodies are sweet — they just work." Kwame pauses, then looks dead on, eyes dancing. "And when you do get round to the words, it just deepens the experience ten-fold, and you understand that he is speaking to a fundamental truth of our time, which is inequality and how to find peace. How to speak truth to power. How to not be defined by one's environment. How to rise and be one’s true self. I think wherever I’ve travelled in the world he’s meant something, because he is the articulator of the downpressed, whether spiritually or emotionally."
Previews for One Love: The Bob Marley Musical start at The Rep on March 10, with the show running right through until April 17. Tickets are from £10.
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