When Roy Williams’ debut play was shown at Stratford East 18 years ago the odds were stacked against him, not least because few black playwrights at the time were enjoying mainstream success.
But ever since childhood, growing up in Notting Hill on a diet of seventies TV drama, Williams believed he had something to say, and his career to date has justified that conviction, with a string of celebrated plays about black British life, as well as an OBE, to his credit.
This month Williams returns to Stratford East for the first time, with Kingston 14, a play that looks beyond Williams’ usual compass of black Britain to Jamaica, the ‘sunshine isle’ from where both his parents emigrated.
“It’s a drama that deals with levels of police corruption in the Jamaican police force but it’s also really about people living in Jamaica doing what they do to get by,” says Williams.
Kingston 14 is the postcode of an area of Kingston called Denham, with the play the story of a British police officer who is sent there to investigate the murder of a British tourist. The investigation runs into difficulties when a gang leader, played by musician turned actor Goldie, is brought into custody.
“The play lifts the lid on an aspect of Jamaica I would say not many people have seen,” says Williams.
“If you put aside all the sun, the sea and all the stereotypes it’s quite a poor island actually and poverty breeds criminality and corruption so that’s what I’m pinpointing in the play.”
A lot of Williams’ plays are explicitly about race: from the racial tensions and football yobbery of Sing Yer Hearts Out For the Lads to the award-winning Sucker Punch and most recently his play Advice For the Young at Heart which looked into the 1958 Notting Hill race riots.
Kingston 14, however, is not overtly about race, and while featuring an all-black cast, Williams is ambivalent about the label ‘black theatre’.
“Naturally because I’m black that’s going to be my point of reference. But my plays are for everybody. I don’t just write for black audiences, I write for all audiences that are interested in theatre,” he says.
Williams’ recent plays have been staged at the Royal Court and National Theatre, but the playwright is quick to recognise his debt to Stratford East, who took a risk on him all those years back.
“They say it’s a people theatre and it really does live up to that. Audiences that see a play at Stratford East are very involved and supportive, and unlike any other.”
Williams, now 45, remains prolific – with a new play emerging nearly every year. He insists though that writing plays never gets easier.
“Once you’ve finished one play you go back to the beginning and stare at that computer screen and try and work out what’s the next thing that’s going to come flowing out of my brain,” he reveals.
“No it never gets easier and it shouldn’t – it’s flipping hard writing a play. But if I didn’t like it I would have stopped doing it long ago.”
Kingston 14 is at Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, Greater Theatre Square, E15 1BN from 28 March – 28 April