Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Jahmar Ngozi: The Lost Generation

By | Published on Friday 13 November 2020

I was immediately intrigued when I heard about ‘The Lost Generation’, a play focusing on the late US born artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and featuring a fictionalised array of other well-known creators – the likes of Frida Kahlo and F Scott Fitzgerald. The piece, written as part of the Oxford Playmaker scheme 2019/2020, will be livestreamed this month via Poetry House.

‘The Lost Generation’ is by playwright, director and spoken word poet Jahmar Ngozi, winner of the Emerging Artist Award from Arcola Theatre in 2016. I arranged a quick chat to find out more.

CM: Can you start by giving us an outline of what to expect from ‘The Lost Generation’ – what is it about? Does it tell a story?
JN: Expect a diverse showcase of brilliant British actors, an original narrative with poetical undertones, and a window seat into the world of art and artists. It’s a fictional story about Jean-Michel Basquiat painting his most successful painting, surrounded by his contemporaries: Frida Kahlo, Charles Bukowski, Gil-Scott Heron and F Scott Fitzgerald.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
JN: It’s an exploration of cultural diversity, life experiences and creative outlooks. It also looks into drug abuse, the black experience and police brutality in America.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the characters that appear in it? 
JN: There’s a diverse cast of notable artists, all very different, though equally respected with a significant following and portfolio of work. A mixture or genres are involved from painting to language and literature. It is a celebration of the art forms as well as the artists.

CM: What inspired you to tackle this subject matter? Did you have to do a lot of research to inform it?
JN: The original ‘lost generation’ were a group of artists that formed in Paris after the First World War. They drank a lot of alcohol and partied very heavily, whilst creating art and socialising. Some very prominent artists came out of this movement, which I found very inspiring.

For this play I selected my own collection of artists. I choose a diverse range of creatives, who bring a sense of creative and cultural diversity, which made it interesting to write and very engaging to watch. All the artists are well-known in their respective fields and communities, though not many people have a knowledge about all the artists. I hope to bridge that gap and generate interest for people to look into each artist on their own terms.

For me the ‘lost generation’ in Paris was quite comparable to the modern poetry scene in London. I was able to draw on my own experiences as a poet, to try and convey the atmosphere for the setting, though a significant amount of research had to be done on each character.

The cast have also been amazing, researching into their characters. They have really managed to bring a sense of authenticity and integrity to each role, which is really enjoyable.

CM: Was the play written recently, with the COVID restrictions in mind? Or did it have to be adapted to suit the Zoom format? 
JN: The play was written between November 2019 and April 2020. Initially it was scripted for a theatrical stage, though as time went on I began structuring it for an online platform.

CM: How challenging has it been to put the play together in pandemic circumstances? 
JN: With the support of the Arts Council I have been able to put together an amazing team that have been both hugely supportive and innovative. Everybody involved has really helped to make the project a productive and forward thinking process. I couldn’t ask for more.

CM: Lots of theatre companies have been creatively using online platforms such as Zoom to deliver theatrical pieces during the last few months. Do you think there’s a place for this sort of digitally delivered culture to continue burgeoning in post-COVID times? 
JN: I think this is a genuine opportunity, for creatives to invest in sharing their work with a wider audience by going online. That said, performing arts often depend heavily on public interaction, engagement and the social experience of going to see a show. The challenge to create work that breaks through those boundaries is real and something that we will get greater insight into as time goes on. The artists and the audiences are both going through challenging times and I think this will be a way in which we can support each other and keep art being created and shared.

CM: Can we talk a bit about you, now? How did you begin your career? Did you always want to work in the arts? 
JN: I used to write and record music with my flatmates whilst at university, though I never studied English past GCSE, preferring instead business and eventually sociology. After graduating I returned to London and began producing my own projects.

These ranged from fashion shows to short films and documentaries. My first theatre script was finished in 2015, it was called ‘When Harlem Met Kenya’. It won me an Emerging Artist Award from the Arcola Theatre and I put it on at the Camden Fringe in 2016 at the Cockpit Theatre.

It was such a great experience, I felt so inspired by the whole process. With support and advice from my parents and siblings, I continued, going on to write and put on shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, in 2018 and 2019; Voila Festival in 2018; and Camden Fringe again in 2019; before having my first run of shows at the The Tristan Bates Theatre in 2020, which sold out.

Being a creative entrepreneur is something that I loved the idea of, though it’s something I found quite abstract as a profession and has taken me time to really develop and mature into something credible.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future? 
JN: I would love to travel and see more of the world. Get drunk on love, laughter and romance, then wake up with a hangover filled with success, good memories, inspired ideas and lots of joy.

CM: How would the last year have been different if there hadn’t been a lockdown? What has helped you get through it?
JN: Without lockdown, I’m not sure what would have happened. I had wanted to do Edinburgh Fringe again, as that would have been three years in a row and I love the Edinburgh Fringe!

My faith in God has been key to getting me through this lockdown with a positive mindset. My family and friends have allowed me to return to a place of humility and gratefulness.

Art and alcohol have been great companions. London is a beautiful city with lots of wonderful people, though it’s so busy we don’t always take the time to acknowledge simple things. I think the lockdown made me slow down and appreciate people and nature a lot more.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
JN: I look forward to hearing the response from people about this project, from both the performers and the audience. Following this, I would like to look at the Poetry House ethical fashion line.

‘The Lost Generation’ will be streamed from 20-21 Nov, via this Facebook page here, and via the Poetry House website here.