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Black Lives Playlist: Track One Preview

James Newbery interviews Sam Spencer about his upcoming project.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Sam Spencer and watching the first part of his new project Black Lives Playlist. Having watched the first part (which Sam both wrote and directed), all I can say is that this is a piece that simply cannot be missed. Sam’s script is perfectly suited to the zoom-format. The setting of a video-conferencing platform lends a powerfully claustrophobic sense of unease to the play, causing the audience to (somewhat paradoxically) as if they are actually sitting in a theatre. In terms of direction, Spencer also makes excellent use of simple but effective visuals throughout the play, such as the clever use of mirror in the background of shots that add visual richness to particularly the climax of the play. Track One is beautifully underscored by an original soundtrack by Georgina Lloyd-Owen, who is currently studying music at Abbey Road. Lloyd-Owen and the team have sourced a number of black singers to recreate “Oh Freedom!”—a popular gospel song that was first sung on slave plantations. I must also commend the actors Kaitlin Horton-Samuel (Terri) and Suen Matiluko (who plays the mysteriously named ‘The Caller’), who both deliver their performances with real subtlety and emotional honesty. This is a project that puts the black creative talent of the Oxford drama scene centre stage—and I for one can’t wait until it is out for people to see!

What inspired you to make the Black Lives Playlist?

Hilary 2020: I had written a full two-act play, Quartet. I was so excited! It featured a live on-stage jazz band throughout; it felt was a contemporary response to the hope we had for a 2020s Gatsby-era Renaissance; I had it workshopped with SOTA… And then the pandemic hit.

I wrote Track 1 this time last year. It was born jointly as a reaction both to the pandemic and to the murders of Black Americans that rocked 2020. It was my Lockdown Project to get me through Trinity term. Adapting to online technology was a necessity but I also felt that recent events provided a long-due kick in the backside to get narratives about Black experiences into the Oxford drama scene. Sure, we have ‘inclusive casting’, but this inclusivity isn’t currently extending into the voices being produced as far as it should.

When I showed the Track 1 script to Sruti Basak (co-founder of our production company, Strikes Back) she loved it, but we felt that there was more to be said. There was more I wanted to write about what it means to be Black – in all its complexities and diversities – in modern Britain.

And so the Black Lives Playlist was created! The Playlist exists as an anthology series that can be added to endlessly with additional “tracks”. We want it to be creative and responsive, deploying different mediums and genres and narratives. It has so much potential!

Is there anyone who has particularly influenced your writing style?

I could list so many. Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat, Tony McNamara, Michaela Coel, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jordan Peele, Zadie Smith, Ari Aster, Armando Iannucci…

This is probably heretical for someone in OUDS, but television drama is where my heart lies! I like to draw my inspiration from all sorts of writers though. Like literary pick’n’mix. I agree with what a teacher of mine always used to say: “content dictates form”. Once I have an idea, a form will naturally present itself as the most appropriate, and from there I draw from all the different sources I have until the best style for the project emerges.

In terms of Track 1, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s Inside No.9 was very important. Each episode has a very theatrical quality: a tightly knit drama in one location with a limited cast, often claustrophobic as comedy descends into dark thriller. I wanted this for Track 1. Once I had a rough plot and concept established, I placed my two characters in a Zoom meeting and just let them talk. It was such a refreshing way to write. Usually, in my experience of writing predominantly for television drama, everything is very methodical and broken down into beats, structure, and an ABC plot. Track 1 was very different – the beats didn’t come from plot but character, led by their conversation. It became a 27-page dance between Terri and the Caller, sometimes pulling apart, sometimes stepping closer. Our actors, Kaitlin and Seun, play this fantastically!

How has working online during the pandemic affected the project? What do you think the future of theatre holds after we come out of lockdown?

The pandemic really slowed everything down and complicated the whole process. The original plan was for the Black Lives Playlist to be a feature-length film, with three “tracks” joined into a triptych, but the pandemic stopped this from happening. In a sense though, this was a blessing in disguise. Now, we have much for freedom to approach the Playlist as an ongoing project that we can add to, rather than forcing out it as one singular unit.

As for the second question: Christ, I have no idea! Not a clue. I think the rest of 2021 will be a difficult chess match between our desperation to finally get back to normal life (and hug people again!) and acknowledging that COVID will still be here even when the government tells us we can open up again.

But I can’t wait to be back in theatres. I want cast parties. I want warm-ups to 80s disco. I want that collaborative, sparky atmosphere in the rehearsal room that Zoom just can’t replicate. And I want to hear a live orchestra in a big blockbuster musical!

Can you give us any hints about what lies beyond Track 1?

Track 2 is written and ready to go. At the time of writing, I’m hunting out a team to help produce it. Track 2 is a one-man monologue in which The Speaker jumps between past and present as a tells us his story of family tension, painful hook-ups, and closeted romance. I drew a lot from Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michaela Coel on this – with just a touch of Lil Nas X sliding down a pole into hell. It feels very personal and very scary but very exciting. If all goes to plan, Track 2 will be ready in time for the end of this Trinity term.

Me and Sruti are keen that the Playlist continues even after we step back from it to focus on Finals. If there are any Black creatives reading this who would be interested in creating their own “tracks”, please do get in touch as [email protected].

Go to Spotify playlist?

I made my own “Chill” playlist – perfect background music for a boozy but relaxed night in with mates. Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse, Blondie, Etta James, Plan B. It slaps.

Black Lives Playlist in three words:

Much-needed melanin.

Black Lives Playlist: Track One is free and premieres Sunday 9th May, 8PM. 

To see more details, please see the Strikes Back Production Company page on Facebook. 

Image Credit: Peter Miller.

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