Let’s start with what it’s all about. It’s obviously about race and a time in America where it was at it’s highest point of tension but can you tell us a bit more?
Sundown Town is a musical based on true story, the Cicero race riots that took place in a suburb of Chicago in 1951. Basically what happened was there was this white land lady called Camille De Rose and she rented one of her apartments in her apartment building to a black family and the neighbours did not stand for it and they rioted and burned the building down essentially.
With them in it?
No but with all their things in it. Yeah so it’s one of the lesser know catalysts of the civil rights movements in America.
So when did you find out about this story and say you know what this needs to be a musical?
I was browsing in a used bookstore on Charing Cross Road and I found this book; Camille De Rose, written by Camille De Rose; self-published so it was never through a real publishing company and I just stumbled across it and thought I’ve never heard of this before growing up in America or in history class and as I read it I thought it would make a good musical. It’s a great time period for music, very jazzy, just the dawn of rock-n-roll but still very much the big band era. I just found story really captivating and the characters in it really captivating. So I did more research beyond her own book, which is very biased and the story got more and more interesting.
When you pick up that book and you look at that time period, you’re obviously thinking what about the music and the writing. So where did you go? It’s going to have that big band kind of score with the rhythm and blues coming in as you said so what were the inspirations?
I listened to a lot of Louie Jordan, kind of trying to broach full period authenticity with also musical theatre milluex because I usually write very musical theatre stuff. So it was a question of what can I do to keep this music my own and have these influences of the time, so it sounds like something that could have come out of that time but didn’t.
Were there any particular artists?
Probably. It was all so long ago.
How long ago have you been working on it?
We started that book in October or November and wrote the first 15 minutes of the show and presented that in February and then everything else from February onwards. I did a couple of months early on in the musical style and all the research and from then i just said I’m going to forget all that and write it as myself with that now having influenced me.
In terms of process, are you “let’s get the book and the score down and give it to a cast” or are you still workshopping it as a devised piece?
No I’m very much an I write the entire thing note for note, word for word in the comfort of my own room and then give it to a cast but then I make changes from there obviously and because we’ve had our advisers looking in on every step of the process a lot of their comments have come into it and changes have been made.
So what draft are you on now?
Good question! I mean certain scenes maybe the tenth but as a whole, I’d consider this the first draft of what we’ll present in September.
With the festival being a presentation of new work and you showing a section of your show rather than the full piece, where do you see it going from there?
You know, it depends how it goes! If you’d have asked me earlier today i probably would have said “oh I’m going to finish the full two and half hour musical and then workshop it further and send it to theatres” but after the workshop today maybe it’ll just be what it is and we’ll never see Sundown Town again! I really don’t know, it all depends on what happens in September and how it’s received and then, given some distance, how I feel about it.
Do you think that with it being a race based musical and we’ve seen a few in the last few years, Scottsboro Boys springs to mind obviously a different time period but there is a political prescient and are you feeling engaged more so because of it?
Yeah, I think it’s an important topic to keep revisiting and we should never get complacent about where we are in society with regards to racism because it’s always there and even as things do get better, we’re seeing, in a America, a step backwards. This MAGA idea and it’s like: When was it great? Are you talking about how it was pre-civil rights, slavery times – so when? Any good story is good material for a musical and I think there are only so many themes for storytelling and racism is one of them. There are good musicals about the topic and some not so good ones so hopefully this will be one of the more successful ones. I think this has an interesting point of view because it’s really about this relationship between a privileged white woman and her coming to terms with this idea of racism where she’s been living in her bubble and has never been forced to deal with it before so you see her completely awaken into this idea of “oh my god, this exists and now people I care about are being affected by this” rather than “racism is here and isn’t is bad and how do we deal with that”.
Do you think that Camille is the protagonist for you as a white man and having that lens? Is that who you’ve used to come at the story from?
Possibly. I don’t think she’s the main protagonist of the story actually but more about Jeanetta Clarke who becomes her maid and it’s through her that Camille starts to experience all this so it’s really about the two of them because Jeanetta has all these ambitions and is trying to make changes and coming up against all these oppositions as a black woman in particular but certainly because I’m a white man I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate to write entirely from a black point of view because I don’t share that point of view just in terms of my own history and my own race so I want to be sensitive.
That was going to be my next question. Obviously it has a sensitivity as a white person writing about race that’s got it’s own problems to face and do you think that you’ve encountered that? Have people questioned you to say “well, why are you writing about race?”.
Definitely, they have and I think they will continue to and I think they should do. I think it’s a totally fair question to ask, I think that the more we all engage with the topic of racism the more we can start to make more headway into the ultimate resolution even though that obviously far off sadly, but I think it’s something we shouldn’t be afraid to write about but I think that white people specifically have a responsibility to be sensitive and to engage with black artists and collaborators and just be aware.
Have you got a pool of collaborators that are more diverse that you’re bringing into the project?
Yea, one of the two producers is a black woman and the cast is all racially mixed.
I wasn’t asking in a pointed way.
No, I understand. I think it’s important and I’ve constantly been thinking through writing – what is my responsibility and it’s just having the awareness of knowing that it’s not my story to tell so what’s the best way to tell it that takes all that into account.