TBB Speaks to Clarke Peters About Owning the Black Narrative and His Role in New ITV Series Jericho

I’ve wanted to speak to Mr. Clarke Peters since I fell in love with Treme, the 2010 series by David Simon which takes an introspective look at life in New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina. Of course I’d watched and loved Simon’s cult series The Wire and was a fan of Peters’ character Detective Lester Freamon, but it was in Treme and through his role as Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux – an African American Indian that I was introduced to a piece of African and Native Indian cross cultural history I’d never heard of.

Now with TBB, the chance to finally have that conversation came about after it was announced that Peters had been cast as a central character in new ITV series, Jericho. Described as the UK’s first western, Jericho is set in 1870s Yorkshire and focuses on the lives of a community living in a shantytown under the shadow of a viaduct they’ve been brought together to build… My interest was piqued when I read Jericho’s premise, Clarke Peters as Ralph Coates a ‘self-styled African American railway agent’... An African American, who is not a slave, who is in a pretty important position, existing in an all-white town in Yorkshire, in the 1800s! I wondered how ITV was going to pull this off and more importantly how authentic would it be? It was also interesting to note yet again Peters was bringing us another piece of unknown history… 

At a preview screening of the first episode I was pleasantly surprised that most of the questions I’d written on my ‘Black Checklist’ were answered. It was also refreshing to speak with Jericho’s writer Steve Thompson about how open and honest he was about his limited knowledge of African American history, especially in the UK at that time and that he’d collaborated heavily with Peters to authenticate Ralph Coates’ existence…

When I asked Peters what attracted him to the role and how he was able to establish Coates’ right to be in Jericho, he at first laughed when I asked if he took the role to be in the privileged position of being the only black in the village then went on to say…

I didn’t take this because I’d be the only one! I didn’t want to just be a black face. We spent the first half of this shoot in and out of books and finding bits and pieces of Afro-American and Caribbean history… We realised there were more African Americans in Europe before the Civil War than after it. Some were certainly in the service industry. But some were left over from the Lancashire cotton famine which was triggered by the American Civil War. It makes sense because of abolition and the whole movement towards the end of slavery that you would have had more here… What I found most generous about Steve was that he allowed me to employ my point of view as an African American in this situation. Because seeing a black face here [at that time] is something that needs to be reckoned with… we were all supportive of mining the truth of history… because that’s where the nuggets are. Not somebody’s imagination trying to be politically correct; that is incorrect for everybody…

Clarke Peters as 'Ralph Coates' in ITV's Jericho Photo Credit: Stuart Wood
Clarke Peters as ‘Ralph Coates’ in ITV’s Jericho Photo Credit: Stuart Wood

Ralph Coates is a powerful character in Jericho, yet with all the talk of diversity on our screens, seeing a man in Ralph’s position, even I found it a little difficult to suspend the mind-set that in those days there was no way a solo black man would be able to get away with manipulating a town in Yorkshire to his benefit without suffering for it. I wanted to know if we’d get to see Coates’ back-story to give understanding as to why it appears he’s the baddie of the series …

We all have our stories and our history which determines our actions. The delicate balance is shaping him so that he’s not evil. To make sure he’s a rounded character and some of his actions are looked at in the context of who he is in this space, rather than having the bad guy, who just happens to be black. We do find out over a period of time…

I tend to find in quite a few mainstream productions, they may adhere to the diversity checklist but then the diverse person tends to be alone in their diverseness (see Luther) … There are other black characters in Jericho and what’s surprising is that we will see Coates and a Caribbean maid played by Martina Laird interact. I asked Coates if this was another one of his contributions…

It was a case of Steve knowing that he wanted these two people from a common mother to come together but wasn’t too sure how exactly to do that. The conversation of plantation life was a shared experience between both England and the colonies in America; the methods of control were the same. With the maid, it was trying to figure out how we honestly communicate with each other – someone from The House in Jamaica to a free black man from America who’s never been enslaved… There’s a lot of scope for conversation and bonding, as well as that conversation of being paid for ones’ worth.

I called Peters an honorary Brit because he’s been working in the UK since the 70s and has enjoyed the privilege of being a part of the British arts industry across theatre, film and TV. I wondered if this was all a part of his master plan, and what was it about Clarke Peters which kept him in work in a country which is losing its African Caribbean talent to America… First he evil laughs at my reference to a master plan, and then goes on to say…

There’s been conscious structure to it for sure, and there is that aspect of being in the right place at the right time. I know how I want to use my craft, and I think that I’ve been blessed from God, the ancestors and pointers from friends. When I came here I was doing voice over after voice over, I was doing African, West Indian but in the end, I told my agent that somebody else can do that Jamaican or Bajan accent because by that time I knew a lot of actors in the African Caribbean community and I knew that I was being targeted. In about 1984/5 I was asked to play a role in Mona Lisa, the character I was playing was named Anderson, he did these terrible things and at the end of it he just walked away.

I foolishly said [to the casting agents] black people do more than play pimps and drug pushers. I said I don’t want to talk myself out of a job, but he’s gotta be seen to be destroyed; he just can’t commit these crimes and walk away. You have to start looking at us as doctors, barristers, estate agents… They said but this guy is a pimp… I don’t know whether it was my conversation with them, but I didn’t work in England in a film for about 10 years until Notting Hill. I suspect it had to do with me opening my mouth, but I’ve always opened my mouth. Things really opened up for me in America in 2000, the only reason things worked out there was because of my age, because of my experience and for having not been there. Nobody in my community in America has had my experience with me being on stage here, not only commercial theatre, but fringe theatre; The National theatre. [But] it’s been a negotiation all the way through.  Most of my brothers here are going to America to try and get into shows there, which has a lot to do with how our counterparts look at each other’s culture.

I thought it interesting that back in the 80s when opportunities for black actors were scarce Peters wasn’t afraid to speak up regardless of consequence. Navigating this environment today there is a clear divide between creatives who don’t give a damn and those who distance themselves from their fellow black peers in the industry so as not to be perceived as a risk, or ‘troublesome negro’ 

I really don’t care. I’ve had a really good run. I’ll be 64 this year, if I’m worried now then there’s no hope for me. It’s a conversation that needs to happen. There’s more black people been shot than ever before on the streets by police, don’t tell me this is just some whimsical thing. If I don’t use this platform every once in a while, to make these statements then I feel that my life has not really been what God put me here for. I would have let us down.

Speaking of America and British AfriCaribs flocking to find work there; Idris Elba, The Wire, perfect segue… Throughout our conversation Peters mentions the importance of people of colour owning our stories. As a massive fan of David Simon’s The Wire initially I couldn’t fault this brutally honest piece of work, but over time, especially with the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and general heightened race sensitivity I’ve started to look at The Wire as an intelligent, extremely engaging reinforcement of negative stereotypes. With creatives like Simon and even Quentin Tarantino becoming the go to voice for the disadvantaged black experience…

First of all, I agree with you particularly with those two writers being the voice that validates our experience. I wouldn’t necessarily put Tarantino and David Simon in the same basket, simply because David is a legitimate reporter who researches the truth. Whereas Tarantino is making that shit up in the sense of comparison. My son just saw The Hateful Eight and was concerned about the n-word all the way [through it] … I think we are all pretty much aware of how delicate the whole situation was. I remember David commented he never wanted to be the voice of the black community, but as a man who grew up in Baltimore around people of colour on both sides of the class divide, he was just regurgitating what he saw from his point of view. I take my hat off to him because prior to The Wire we did The Corner, and in The Corner what he did was stand on that corner as a white dude with a tape recorder interviewing people. That takes a lot of balls.

(l-r) Clarke Peters as  Ralph Coates in Jericho (2016); Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse in Red Hook Summer (2012); Lester Freamon in The Wire (2002-2008)
(l-r) Clarke Peters as
Ralph Coates in Jericho (2016); Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse in Red Hook Summer (2012); Lester Freamon in The Wire (2002-2008)

I agree that sometimes we can get caught up in the angry rhetoric, and I concede that there is room for those who want to tell our story but, it’s imperative that anyone wanting to breathe life into a world outside of their culture or race, they must treat it with respect. Especially as the industry tends to ignore stories from the authentic source, preferring to give outsiders free reign… Peters, agrees and goes on to say that during his research he’s uncovered a rich history of black writing… 

Every year I see yet another publication pre 18th century that is written by black people – accounts of their lives, not necessarily in slavery but just writing about lives. So what one finds themselves doing is fighting against the rhetoric that you’ve accepted subconsciously about our own people, and say it’s all their fault, we need to write, but we have been writing actually. So now the objective is to make sure there’s continuity and keep our voice active, to remind people that there were people of colour writing in the 18th century, 19th century.

Finally I get to ask Peters about his involvement in bringing this character in Treme to life…

Jericho and Treme have that connection of the movement of people of colour around the world. Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux is loosely based on the great Donald Harrison the jazz saxophonist’s father who was an Indian Chief. The movement itself has been sort of adulterated and those who participate now are not necessarily endowed with the vibrations of the ancestors. But the tradition of sewing those [Mardi Gras] costumes that’s man’s work; that’s how men were communing with the ancestors when they sat down and sewed in the sewing circle. Everything is symbolic; the feathers are our closest way to get to get to the nether world, the beads, the shells and seeds.

Ned Sublette who wrote, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square, revealed that this person from New England in late 1700 maybe early 1800s came to New Orleans and saw Africans who were dressed up and dancing with the feathers and the beads and things like this. Well those were those same Afro-Indians. So when white anthropologists say this was something that the freed men decided they were going to do because of a European religious idea, they have the wrong perspective.

But that’s always been the way, even the idea that Voodoo is some weird magical black magic thing, is a Hollywood construct of a very sacred religion that might be Afrocentric, but is as universal as Catholicism. This moment is the forgotten chapter in American’s history and it is the same thing that we’re trying to push with Ralph Coates… When we begin to put our story together collectively we’ll see how important and impressive we have been, even through the Diaspora.

A black creative who is renowned for pulling no punches when telling the black experience through film is Spike Lee. Peters worked with Lee on the polarising Red Hook Summer (2012) which takes a sharp dig at black churches in America, with Peters playing the lead role of The Bishop. With Lee in the news yet again with his latest controversial project Chi-Raq which addresses the vicious cycle of blame and accountability when it comes to black gangs, murder, poverty and politics, Peters said he hasn’t yet seen Chi-Raq but is glad that Spike is making noise. He reflected that working with Lee on Red Hood Summer was a really good experience.

With our time almost coming to end, I ask Peters what he’s hoping the audience comes away with after watching Jericho from Ralph Coates’ perspective?

Ralph Coates in the story is pretty provocative and I hope people say why is the black guy always the evil one? I hope they say no black person would ever be there, are they kidding? But more than anything else I want them to enjoy it and come away with a conversation about it.

Coming up next?

Next for me is a play that was at Bush last year called The Royale. I’m doing that in New York at Lincoln centre. I wish I was doing it with Nicholas [Pinnock – who starred in the Bush production of The Royale] but I’m doing it with someone else. I do hope me and Nicholas can do something together. That would be fantastic.

Jericho begins on ITV tonight at 9pm.


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