Interview by Heather Kincaid

On 3 December 1976, two days before performing in Kingston's Smile Jamaica concert, Bob Marley, his wife and his manager were wounded in an assassination attempt by unknown gunmen who invaded Marley's home. The attack prompted the singer to leave the country before the end of the year, spending a month in the Bahamas before heading for England. It was here that, over the next two years, he would record the albums Exodus and Kaya, featuring iconic singles such as One Love, Jamming and Is This Love.

Set against a backdrop of violence and corruption in Jamaica and wider Cold War conflict across the world, this period of self-imposed exile serves as the basis for Kwame Kwei-Armah's One Love: The Bob Marley Musical, making its UK debut at Birmingham REP next month. Speaking to us from Centre Stage in Baltimore, where he’s currently artistic director, the acclaimed British playwright, actor and director told us more about the show.

“The story actually starts about 10 years ago,” Kwei-Armah recalls, “when I was approached by Island Records to write a piece using Bob Marley's music but not his story. So I wrote that, it did the rounds, and everyone said, 'That's great, but where's Bob?' So about two-and-a-half years ago, they contacted me again with the rights to use his life story. I chose as my starting point the years between 1976 and ’78 because I wanted to look at the hero's journey - what made him the great man that he was, not just because of his music but because of his choices in life.”

A pacifist who actively cultivated a politically neutral public profile and frequently spoke out against the bloodshed in his country, Marley nevertheless found himself embroiled in both domestic and international conflict, targeted by those who saw him as a supporter of Michael Manley's socialist government. At the time, Western anxiety over the ‘red tide’ of communism was still running high, and the government's agenda was viewed with suspicion by many at home as well as abroad.

Thanks to Marlon James' Man Booker Prize-winning novel, A Brief History Of Seven Killings, interest in Marley's relationship with this period of Jamaican history has recently been rekindled, but what's unique about this show is how closely Kwei-Armah has worked with the Marley family and record label, providing him with unprecedented access to the personal stories behind the public persona.

“It's been wonderful but also pretty daunting. I spoke to many people in Bob Marley’s life and tried to use a lot of dialogue how they described it. I sent drafts of the script to the family. Luckily, they've been very helpful - all the criticism has been very constructive. They've allowed me to adapt the story and take artistic licence where I've needed, to change things to make the story work.”

Kwei-Armah is now an ardent and long-term admirer of Marley's work, but interestingly, this hasn't always been the case. As a teenager, he was more interested in soul music, reggae being more to his sister's tastes.

“It was partly just sibling rivalry, but though it sounds like madness now, it was actually a big thing at the time. In the black community when I was a child, you made a choice at about 12 years old whether you were going to be into reggae or American soul. If you liked reggae, that meant that you were rooted and cultured, and if you liked soul that meant you weren't really culturally conscious. It wasn't until I was about 19 that I heard Redemption Song, for what must have been about the 1500th time, but for me, it was really like the first time. At that moment, I just understood what he was saying, and from there he grew to become my own personal poet laureate.”

Years later, however, Kwei-Armah is still discovering new things about his hero as he digs deep into the details of Marley's fascinating life.

“One of the things I didn't really know before was that he was a very quiet man. And of course we know that he was deeply religious, but I think just quite how dedicated he was to his faith was an interesting thing for me to learn. I was also surprised by how many people in Jamaica really relied on him. He was like an industry, and not just musically. I mean, there were actually people lining up at his house, waiting to be given money. That was quite a humbling thing to read.”

Writing the story is one thing; attempting to adequately represent such an iconic figure live on stage is quite another, and in some respects, the weight of expectation on singer and musician Mitchell Brunings, who plays the lead, is even greater than that on the writer and director of the show.

“Casting is always the hardest part of any show, and I think we were quite fortunate that I came across Mitchell on the internet. This is his first time acting, so it's been really interesting helping him develop the skills to carry a character like this, but when he sings - you just close your eyes and think of Bob...”

Under its original title, Marley, the show premiered in 2015 at Baltimore's Center Stage theatre. But though it was popular and warmly received in the US, the version coming to Birmingham this year will be dramatically different.

“I would say there have been fundamental changes. We've used that first production to learn lessons and have taken the time to tell a much deeper and more complex story.”

Following the huge success of plays like Elmina's Kitchen and Fix Up (both directed by Angus Jackson), exploring the lives of immigrant communities in the UK, the London-born writer soon became one of the most prominent and respected voices in black British theatre. Now he’s taken his stories overseas - it's about five-and-a-half years since he became resident in the US after taking up his post at Center Stage.
“I think we're looking at a beautiful time in America for new writing, both in television and in theatre. It's a kind of golden moment, so I'm really pleased to be in America as an artistic director whilst the quality of the work is so good structurally and politically.”

Both Kwei-Armah and Marley's daughter, Cedella, are thrilled to be bringing the show to Birmingham, which the latter describes as a “natural place for its UK premiere” thanks to its “great mix of cultures”. In particular, she says, she's looking forward to introducing her father's story to a new generation, some of whom weren't yet born during his lifetime. Arguably, the mythology of Marley has rather overtaken the man behind it. These days, his image has become ubiquitous, plastered across a dazzling array of merchandise and increasingly disconnected from who he was and what he stood for. But Kwei-Armah maintains that Marley is as important now as he’s ever been, and that as long as people come to see the show, they won't fail to be moved by his music and his message.

“Wherever I've travelled in the world, I don't think I've landed on any continent where I haven't seen some young person wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt, and I think his image and his lyrics are still political. He is the voice of the oppressed and the downtrodden. I think people will see that this isn't just a story about a vintage star - it's about a man who stood for something and whose music made a difference to people's lives. And I think that, between our Brexit Britain and our Trump America, that's something that we really need.” 

One Love: The Bob Marley Musical shows at The REP, Birmingham, from Friday 10 March to Saturday 8 April.