Above Romance is a play written and directed by Hackney’s own comedian, Kojo, and is about a woman who has given up on love and believes Valentines Day is just a media hype until she finds herself being the last single person in her circle. With a cast that boasts a slew of the best of UK African Caribbean talent, Above Romance promises to be the romantic comedy of the year and the perfect friends night out.
I’m here some of the cast and the writer director of ‘Above Romance’ Charis Agbonlahor who plays lead character ‘Chelsea’, Rachael Williams who plays ‘Sasha’ and Kojo (the comedian) who wrote, directed and plays Chelsea’s ‘love’ interest Anthony.
Above Romance, you wrote it, you act in it, and you directed it as well and it’s the first play you’ve directed, you’re a bit of a one man army…
Kojo: [Laughs] Yeah sort of. My team’s helping out. But I’m directing and yes, first play. It’s weird because when I was in secondary I actually wrote a play, then we did it and everyone got an A+ so that was the first time I wrote anything. Of late I’ve just been writing a whole bunch of scripts and short stories. I thought it would be cool to spend the first 6 months of this year as a writer. I wanted to kind of show people that I can write because it’s not a profession that people associate with me. Yeah you write material and jokes, but it’s a totally different format to film and plays…
What was the inspiration for Above Romance and why a play not a film?
Kojo: I think the inspiration is more me not being happy with what I’m being entertained by. I’m not really somebody who wants to go to America because I’m not happy here. It’s easy to join that line of people complaining. But it’s more difficult to actually do something about it. So I wrote about five different short stories I put them all out on Instagram. Monday would be chapter 1, Tuesday would be chapter 2…and they were all like a couple of paragraphs; I put them out to see what the vibe was. Wasteman diaries was the first one that I wrote, and that got mad reception. So I thought okay, that was cool. I’ve had meetings with Film London about some other projects, so they were like ‘give us something small first’ so that’s shot and will be out in the summer. Then we had the play ‘Above Romance’ and that was more about women…
This was going to be another thing that I filmed. But I thought, look at Tyler Perry. The difference between him and Will Smith is that he owns his stuff and Will Smith’s a ‘player’. It’s a simple format, and I thought there’s a gap here. So I said let’s make it a play.
Did you guys see the short stories via Instagram and say hey we have to be involved?
Charis & Rachel: Yes
Charis: I think this is like the third audition I’ve done for Kojo. The first one was for Wasteman Diaries and I didn’t get the part. But I got the part in this.
Kojo: I’ve known Charis for about a year…When I was writing this, I had her in mind.
Charis: I missed my 22nd birthday celebrations so I could prepare when I auditioned for you…and I didn’t get the part…
Wow! You missed…your birthday…and you didn’t get the part. Wow!
Kojo: Don’t do that. Don’t start! I wasn’t casting for birthdays. She’s here now.
You’re known for your modelling so how did you get involved Rachael?
Rachael: I answered a casting call. So it was simple as that for me. But I’ve known Kojo for a while now. I’ve never done any acting so it’s my first acting role. I always say though that sometimes in modelling you have to become a character so it is similar in a way. But in this instance it’s live, and you have to learn, and you have to rehearse and you have to feel the rapport of the rest of the cast as well. I’m finding it fun. The rest of the cast are easy to get along with. I thought it would be a lot harder. The most difficult thing would be learning the lines and getting into character. The character I play, Sasha, she’s very much how I thought I was, so I would think just be myself, but Kojo keeps reminding me to be like her. So it’s making that separation. That’s the difficulty.
What did you find appealing about the script?
Rachael: It’s real. It feels like everyday issues that people go through, and everyone I’ve spoken to they’ve been able to relate to at least one of the characters.
Charis: Yeah. It relates to everyone. We are an all-black cast but I think everyone can relate to it. Which is what I like as well. It’s not something which shuns a certain group of people.
Was it a trick to appeal to the ladies, because you know once women get behind a project like this…?
Kojo: No it’s not a trick it’s called common sense. Name a female character that women would wanna be in this country? None. There’s not one. Name one…we’ve got time…
Rachel: There are a lot of actresses, but no identity. I can’t say I want to be like her because she’s done what? Yeah great for them to get to where they are. But I can’t relate. I would prefer to go to America, or even somewhere now in Africa and look at the women there and that’s where I can see myself…
Charis: Even Hollyoaks. The only black woman in it, and they make her a man. What is that about!?
What inspired the story of Another Romance?
Kojo: I came up with the story, because I know Chelsea. I know that woman. Chelsea is the lead character. She’s been through stuff in relationships and she’s taking it out on everybody else. But ultimately who’s she really hurting? Herself.
Is she based on anyone?
Kojo: She’s based on maybe, 70% of the women I know. Remember this is a woman written by a man. So it’s not necessarily a male perspective. But I talk to a whole load of women and they talk about guys and what guys have done to them and my opinion is, what are you going to do about it? Are we talking about the problem that’s always gonna be there or are we talking about the solution?
So is this play going to help women find the solution?
Kojo: I guarantee it.
Let me be clear! You’re saying every single woman who comes to see Above Romance will leave with a man?
Kojo: [Laughs] No, no not necessarily. But anyone who can relate to any of the women will find clarity. There’s one thing to tell somebody your opinion, and there’s one thing to write it down. When I wrote it down, I put it on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, over 20 thousand people, there wasn’t one female that denied the story. I know that girl; it might not be me, but that’s my friend. People were just tagging, tagging, tagging, you don’t do that, if you don’t relate. So for me that was my template to say ‘is this story real?’. I test it online first and if it’s good feedback…
Charis: When I was reading the snippets that Kojo was putting out. I thought this was just like my friend. But now I’ve read the whole script, I think certain parts of my life, not necessarily now, but I can say when I was 20 I had that mentality. So at certain times I can relate to my character Chelsea.
How did you guys work as a collective, and with you Kojo directing and acting in it?
Rachael: I think it’s just about being professional in every instance. Making sure you know your lines. Making sure you attend rehearsals. It’s just about being attentive to everything.
Kojo: This is a thing I brought to the table. But it’s all of ours. We spend a whole session saying is this right, is it wrong? I don’t claim to know every woman, and I’m not a woman. I listen to these lot. They have to also listen to what I think is right.
There’s a lot of focus on what women will get from Above Romance, what about the guys? After all it’s a guy who has caused Chelsea’s madness…
Kojo: Anthony he’s a dad. He’s struggling. He’s got hidden ambitions to better himself. It’s that thing of your routine’s broken one day and it really crashes your whole world and that’s what Chelsea experiences. Their bond and their relationship is one that I think a lot of people have, between you and your best friend, or someone who likes you and you don’t like them like that…You don’t know them, and you judge them on what you see and that’s what their relationship is like.
I play Anthony, and Anthony is like who I was before I got my heart broken. I believe as a man, you don’t become a man until you’ve had your heart broken. Because you have to understand the pain you could potentially inflict on someone else. It takes a man to put himself in someone else’s position as well… Anthony is the image of a black man who does look after his child and that will resonate with everybody.
With Sasha and Lamar, if you asked most women what kind of men they want they’d pick Lamar. In the sense of him being a gentleman. He dresses sharp. He’s comfortable in his own skin. He’s an all-round charming guy.
Then you have Kimberley and Calvin, who are just fun. Kimberley’s not really interested in the whole lovey dovey thing. She’s just like he’s fit and I like him and there’s women out there like that…
So we’ve got a wide spread of women.
WHAT. ABOUT. THE GUYS?!!!
Kojo: The guys. The guys are gonna come and watch this, and I think a lot of male secrets are gonna come out. There’s gonna be a lot of uncomfortable guys at this play….
Are you going to get cussed, like Steve Harvey was for his Think Like A Man book?
Kojo: They probably will. But only a bad man would get offended and he will expose himself when he’s sitting next to his woman. I put lines in there that girls are going to look at their man and say ‘see what I was sayin’. I wasn’t going crazy’. But guys should come and watch it as well because what I’ve written is real. The characters go through hardships but they’re aspirational. I grew up on Cosby Show, A Different World, Fresh Prince I wanted to be a part of all those families. Same dramas same problems they just embellished them and gave them aspirational jobs. These are three women who are doing well for themselves, but there’s also that independent woman now that doesn’t believe she needs a man, who will find out why there’s still that boy in your life…
Hmmmm…woosah, I was about to go into debate mode…
Kojo: There will be huge debate after this. The idea this year is to sell it out, for everybody to come and watch this because it’s real. The debate will come. It’s a powerful story I believe. The first thing which people said when I put out, not even the flyer, just the images of the cast was that they were all good looking. Which at first I took as a little bit of an offence because it was like name all these stars that you so called like, you’ve never said that they’re good looking? It’s something that you’re used to with American black entertainment.
It’s true that in the UK we have a lack of faith in ourselves…
Kojo: Agree. I am in an amazing position career wise. I’ve been in loads of meetings and when they’re like ‘ we’re not sure’…I’m like fine. Don’t say I didn’t come to you with it. On radio we do this thing on a Friday where we ask listeners to send a picture of how they’re listening to us and sometimes I get ignorant in my head because I think I’m talking to black people. You get Asian nurses, you get a Greek man in a shop, these guys are listening to me in the morning. Sometimes I’m being small minded about what I’m putting out there. So for me I could complain or I could say here’s a short movie, here’s a play. I’ve got five more coming. I’ve got another one we’ve just got budget for Sky 1 called ‘West End Girls’ which is the UK Sex and the City. So don’t tell me I can’t do it. There was a gap and I did Comedy Fun house. With radio, people never stopped liking Choice when I went there. Jeff Schuman was there. I’m a Choice listener and I brought the energy back. You may not like the music or whatever but people will still listen to our show because they relate.
That’s what I wanna bring back. When you see your own people, love that and support that. Because you wanna learn black history here. It’s like we don’t have any. Everything is African or American history. But people have done things here. But no one’s writing those stories.
How have you found the industry with your journey as British black women?
Charis: With modelling I’ve found it a lot easier. Acting I think is a lot harder hence why I went into writing in the first place. I wasn’t seeing anything showing black people in a positive way. But yeah I think writing opportunities that’s been positive and a lot easier. But acting you just get the stereotypical roles, like baby mother, or female gang leader. It’s just negative images that I tend to shy away from.
Rachel: Initially for me, I thought it’s going to be easy for me, because I’ve won a beauty pageant, I’m going to be like Naomi Campbell, that’s what was being fed to me. Then I went to go and see agencies and castings for fashion, and I’m being told I’m not going to make it just because I’m black. From then I‘ve seen a lot of girls just stop. But for me it was more like I don’t want to just give up. So I said I’m going to market myself. I’m going to do my own cards. I’m going to go to open castings. I’m going to meet makeup artists, photographers, and designers and sell myself to them and maybe for three years that’s what I did. Then they were just booking me directly. Once I’d built up good pictures and good contacts, I went back to the agencies and they were like, let’s see what we could do with you. That’s where I thought I’d had my break. But no. I had to go to castings with bigger brands, and the same thing happened again. Oh yeah we like you, but we’ve already got a black girl in the show – and this girl looked completely different to me. They would say, your skin colour is African but you look and sound European so you’re in the middle so you either go this way or go that way because what you have isn’t selling. To me it was like, I’m working and booking jobs for me every day so what are you doing that’s wrong? It was more of an attitude where they just didn’t want to book you.
I didn’t want people to go through the same hassle as me so I opened my own modelling agency where I do book out girls and it’s more easy for them to come through me. Gain their experience, get their images and stuff that they need so then they can go on to bigger agencies.
Kojo: It’s the same thing with anything black. You get to a point where they make you doubt yourself. You start to question how you look and actually, there’s nothing wrong with you. So if I can sell me, why can’t you with all your money? With me, I was told to go and make a short film, I’ve done it now, now what? My CV is a very strong CV. I’ve been in the game for 14 years. When I see what Kevin Hart’s doing. It’s about adopting the engine and the mechanics that works.
I’ve got to the point where I can’t mess up because I know how to do it. For me everybody chips in, everybody wins afterwards. I think this is something now needed. When the flyer came out everybody went crazy over it, it looked like a movie. I wanted to sell images which will make you rush and go and see Think Like a Man, but you have to be able to show the same love to our own productions. Which is why I say to these lot. We have to deliver. Like Noel Clarke. He can do whatever he likes. But Kidulthood will always be in the equation because that’s the one which will open the doors.
Last words about Above Romance…
Rachael: It’s a feel good play
Kojo: It’s a great girl’s night out; guys can watch it as well. It’s a romantic comedy but there’s a whole heap of messages in there and it’s real. It’s really kind of deep, some people are gonna cry, some people are gonna laugh, some people will be emotional.
Above Romance shows at the Hackney Empire Saturday 2nd August 2014 @ 9pm.
To book tickets go to the Hackney Empire Website: http://www.hackneyempire.co.uk/3501/shows/above-romance.html