Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Paula B Stanic: Messiah

By | Published on Monday 25 November 2019

Heading to Stratford Circus Arts Centre this week (and to other London venues in the coming months) is ‘Messiah’, an excellent sounding new play from Bear Trap Theatre focusing on Fred Hampton, a young civil rights activist who, back in the late sixties, was killed by police officers in his Chicago home.

I was really keen to find out more about Hampton and what inspired the play’s creators to make a show about him, so I arranged to speak to said show’s co-writer: the award-winning Paula B Stanic.

CM: Can you start by telling us about the subject of the play, Fred Hampton? Who was he?
PBS: Fred was an incredibly intelligent and charismatic 21 year-old political activist who believed in revolution. He strove to improve the lives of black and all oppressed people, through the Black Panther party. He was head of the Illinois Chapter of the Panthers and about to be made National spokesperson of the party. He was assassinated by the Chicago Police on the 4 December 1969 in his home.

Everyone who met him said there was something special about him. His ability to lead, to make people listen and understand, scared the police/ FBI who wanted to prevent the rise of what they saw as ‘militant black groups’. He believed in using solidarity to fight racism. As part of the Panthers he set up free health clinics, clothed and set up free breakfast programs for school kids, and was trying to negotiate non-violence pacts between all the gangs in the city. He was an incredible personality who did a lot on a short time.

CM: What is the play about? What events does it focus on?
PBS: We were keen to do more than re-tell the story of Fred’s murder. So though we do see some of the events of the 4 December 1969, the show also takes a different turn so we really see Fred’s intelligence, wit and energy. We see his relationship with fellow activist and girlfriend Deborah Johnson, plus some of the conversations he was prevented from having.

We want to bring Fred to life for a contemporary audience and really use the live experience to take us somewhere else. We were really interested in the fact Fred wanted to be a lawyer. At one point he was arrested for stealing ice creams. He staged a mock trial so he could clearly layout the reasons he and fellow Panthers were targeted and incarcerated.

In addition to this, when the police version of the events of 4 December were challenged, the police did a televised reconstruction aimed at proving their version of that night was true. These two events gave us starting points and took us in a certain direction with the play. So you have some of the elements of a trial. You hear two versions of the raid on their home that night and you see situations we’ve created around these characters.

There’s a lot of playfulness in the piece because there was a playfulness about Fred. We’ve really tried to capture that in the style of the piece.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
PBS: The power of young people to change things. The sacrifice involved for Fred. Fred believed in revolution and it’s apparent in some of his speeches he knew what the cost of that belief would be, but that didn’t matter. We also look at what it means to be targeted, what a threat intelligence and education can be, betrayal and love.

CM: What made you decide to write a play about him? What was your inspiration?
PBS: The co-writer and director Jesse Briton approached me with the idea. He asked if I’d be interested in working on the piece with him. I had such an emotional reaction when I read more I knew straight away I wanted to work on it. I knew a bit about Fred and just wanted everyone to know about him too.

CM: What kind of preparation did you do for writing the play? Did you have to do a lot of research?
PBS: Yes, to start with I did lots of reading, watching documentaries, and watching clips online. But the process was also really collaborative. The play is devised and there’s some verbatim mixed in too. We worked in the rehearsal room with actors who each heavily researched their characters. We improvised different moments and worked from this. The actors were brilliant, all equally invested in it. They did an equal amount of research on who they were playing. At points you’d just go to them if you wanted to know anything about a particular character.

CM: So you have been involved in the production of the play throughout?
PBS: Yes, because it’s a collaborative piece, so I was at every rehearsal. Plus we’ve all been asked about certain decisions like the flyers/ posters, set, costumes etc. It’s the most involved I’ve been in a production. We all worked together.

CM: Can we talk a bit about you now? Did you always want to be a writer? How did you end up becoming a playwright?
PBS: I originally trained as an actor. I loved it when I was working but hated the business side. I started writing because an actress friend asked me to help on something she was working on. I loved it and went on to do a Masters in Creative Writing to learn more. After graduating I wrote a play that won an award and got me quite a few meetings and I’ve worked – and not worked – since.

CM: What were the key things that helped you to progress?
PBS: Winning the Alfred Fagon Award was the thing that began it for me. I got asked in for meetings because of it and other work was offered. I had the support of a couple of good theatres and literary assistants, which is the thing that most helps you progress.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
PBS: Winning the Alfred Fagon Award. I just couldn’t believe it and felt very lucky they saw something in my play. Also seeing my first full-length piece ‘Monday’ staged. Red Ladder Theatre co did a beautiful job of it and despite seeing holes in what I’d written, sitting watching I could feel there was something different there.

CM: What aims or ambitions do you have for the future?
PBS: To keep working on projects I really care about. I had a real raw response to Fred Hampton’s story. I still get it when I read anything about him or see bits of the show. I like having that response to material. You can’t live on that edge forever but it does do something to you waking up every morning and working on something you feel that strongly about. It was an important story and those are the ones I want to work on.

CM: What do you have coming up next? Any new projects in the pipeline…?
PBS: A few things in the pipeline but I don’t really name things before I know they’re definite. I’m working on a stage adaptation of a non-fiction book. And am set to start two new pieces in 2020 – also based on real experiences.

‘Messiah’ is on this week at Stratford Circus Arts Centre from 27-30 Nov. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

The play also calls at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre from 5-6 Dec, and at Streatham Space Project from 8-11 Jan.

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