TBB Talks To… Joseph Black Actor In Pravin Wilkins’ Moreno

Recently seen as Tunde in Ifeyinwa Frederick’s Sessions

Joseph Black is set to hit the stage again this March as Ezekiel in Pravin Wilkins’ Moreno, winner of the 2020 Theatre503 International Playwriting Award.

Moreno is set in August 2016, as the NFL is shaken by Colin Kaepernick’s monumental decision to take the knee. Star running back Luis Moreno is all about his game – and his paycheck. A record-breaking season is in sight – but America’s leadership is changing. When a destructive new reality hits close to home, Luis is forced to ask whether politics have a place on the field, and if he is willing to risk his career to take a stand for his own community. But does, and should, this movement hold a place for them?

We spoke to Joseph to find out more about Moreno and what this play means to him.

Please introduce yourself [your name, heritage and how you’d describe what you do]?

My name is Joseph Black, my grandparents are from the Windrush generation and I’m an actor. The best way to describe what I do – a great question – simply put, I help tell a story with the rest of a team, and try to evoke emotion from an audience. If we educate, give new perspectives or simply make people laugh and/or cry, the job remains the same. Story and emotion.

Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now.

London weather. But from this perspective: Whether the sky is clear or grey, the wind blowing or still, it’s warm or it’s cold, the sun is always shining. I always acknowledge its presence is forever there and I feel blessed and grateful, but definitely looking forward to the next season 😉

So, let’s go back to the beginning; how did you first get into acting?

The beginning! 

My wonderful mum wanted me to do something after school and got me with a youth company called Greenwich and Lewisham Young People’s Theatre (GLYPT- then GYPT). An outlet I was grateful for.

In 2015 the National Youth Theatre (NYT) invited me, and a couple of others, to do a show with them on Olaudah Equiano, and off the back of that I did their summer course and, subsequently, ten more shows with them. 

At NYT, I learned what a drama school was, and though at one point I was at university studying Law, I always knew I wanted to be an actor. After hearing my first ‘No’s at an audition (every drama school I applied for), I realised how bad I wanted it and the next year I got into a few. I heard Patrick Stewart (my dad’s favourite Starfleet captain), Daniel Day-Lewis and the incredibly talented Naomi Harris went to Bristol Old Vic, so that’s where I went.

Okay, so let’s talk about Moreno. The play is set in August 2016 as the NFL is shaken by Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take the knee. Do you remember when this happened? What were your thoughts on Kaepernick’s gesture?

Unfortunately, I found out about Kaepernick’s incredibly brave move later in the movement. He stopped sitting and had been kneeling for a while. Maybe because I wasn’t following the NFL, I only looked into it once news of Nike not dropping him hit the press the following year. 

I believe there is something known as black exhaustion. Years of gaslighting – being asked if racism is even still a thing – yet living as a black man, and being in increasingly white-dominated spaces, I lived it constantly, and my list of examples are long and extreme. Then watching Black History Month starting to get replaced by Stoptober. Then watching Lenny Henry give that lecture for Bafta in 2014, highlighting the fall of black presence in a growing industry. “For every black person who left, two white people were hired”. I didn’t have hope that Kaepernick could make any change. The world would go “that’s interesting” and move on like they always have. But it was always inspiring to see someone try. Especially in spite of their career or comfort. All I did at the time was post black history figures every day in October on Twitter, but Kaepernick’s protest movement did open conversations in my world. They just always ended in “but that’s all the way in America”.

Joseph Black Moreno Rehearsals

In Moreno, you play Ezekiel. Tell us more about his character.

Ezeikiel, also known as Zeek, is a gift of a character to play. He’s the oldest on the team and has a very interesting history to me. But beyond that, starts the play in a very uncomfortable position, with his mother unwell. Both of his parents were black activists, and I believe that had a hand In Zeek’s ability to constantly self-educate, break perceptions and walk in self-pride. However, the climate in the NFL, much like the world, has its ways of morphing what is important.

Do you see any similarities between yourself and Ezekiel?

Every day in rehearsals I found more and more until even my castmates were commenting on the similarities between me and Zeek. What someone’s size can do to the way you carry yourself. The responsibility we take on for others. The loss of a parent. Diving more into our heritage and culture in spaces where we feel it’s not acknowledged, accepted or respected. But like every black person in the western world, the ability to code-switch and the constant self-policing are more than what you observe from your peers. Accepting black tax is just what it is. 

The rest, you’ll have to see the show and talk to me after. @JosephBlackCanAct on insta. I genuinely love the conversations on issues brought up in this play, like my previous one, and I will reply.

What about in terms of the fact that Ezekiel is an athlete? Could you identify with this part of his character at all? Did you have to do any intense physical training to get in the right mindset for the role?

Before acting, at University I did get into the American Football Team but quickly found martial arts was more my thing. However, I left the traditional form of jiu-jitsu I studied because I only really came alive during our annual national tournaments. Competition is in my blood. Being on the coach back with our medals we won against other universities, hyping each other up, looking after each other (definitely not in that order), and (then) collecting gym records definitely helps with the athlete side of Zeek. 

I’ve continued cycling, I’m now boxing and hope to get back to MMA soon. But this is no different from before the show. But it is nice in those moments with my cast doing workouts backstage. A team that sweats together… etc.

But there’s more than the physical and mental prep in competition. Zeek is the captain of the defence, and I was President of the jiu-jitsu club at my uni. Again, there’s a responsibility you gain with that, that definitely helped with the mindset of Zeek. I hope I answered your question.

At the end of last year, you got nominated for an Offie for Lead Performance in a Play for playing Tunde in Sessions. At the forefront of Sessions were explorations of Black masculinity and mental health. Do you see any of these themes present in Moreno?

That is still a wild thing for me that I was/am truly grateful for. I can’t wait to finally see it myself now the 60-minute film version is online, as the last show on Soho Theatre on Demand’s Film Festival 2022 (running solo – 4th – 13th March).

Themes of masculinity in a play about 4 men, in a show with a subject this important, that emotionally hits us all very differently; it’s unavoidable. And I’m glad it’s there. 

Joseph Black in Sessions – Image Credit: Rebecca Need-Menear

I do believe Toxic Masculinity exists but I do not believe it is synonymous with Masculinity. I believe the meaning of what masculinity actually is has been muddied, misunderstood and warped by the media, including socials. All from the point of view of observers or men who don’t feel safe and may not have the best coping mechanisms. Being a man has stipulations, and everyone has an opinion on what you should do to be seen as such. The same goes for being black, so doubly as a black man, but let me stick to the point of masculinity.

The exciting thing about this project is that you get a peek into a locker room! We all know the levels of fronting amongst men can be high, humour can be vulgar and ego can play a factor, but we all know many women and people around and between who fall into the same category. The beauty of the locker room is that you get moments of realness in a place where men trust each other, sometimes with their lives. A place where men can open up without fear of judgement or emotional instruction. Toxic masculinity does exist, but so does the beauty of masculinity, and there are moments in this play where you will definitely see both. And our director Nancy Medina has orchestrated it beautifully with the help of an incredible creative team.

The events of Moreno are set in the US. How do you think the themes of the play will resonate with UK audiences?

As I mentioned earlier, there has been a separation between US issues and those in the UK. However, the climate has changed now that social media is much bigger and everyone has a camera (it also means it is happening less – think about that).

Now the stories of Trayvon Martin, Eric Gerner, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Jamar Clark, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile (that video still haunts me as it was the first I saw the week It happened) and of course George Floyd, and others, shook the world, it has made many people rethink the issues that affect black people.

But lack of value seen in black lives is not just an American issue! Mark Duggan, Sarah Reed, Zahid Mubarek, Edson Da Costa, Rashan Charles and Christopher Alder to name a few.

There’s no denying that the death of George Floyd shook the world, possibly due to larger attention by the movements that were already happening, and a pandemic that gave everyone a lot of time to think. For the first time in my life, I felt like as a black British man, the conversations on racial inequities have finally been heard and some people are starting to listen. I know this is not an African-American issue, this is a world issue, and on a human level, it should resonate deeply with us all. If black lives matter.

Have you got any other projects on the horizon that you’re excited about?

All I can say is watch this space. I have a few projects I’m developing and maybe joining but all far too early to announce anything. Also, simply by the nature of the acting business, we find joy in continual auditions.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

  • A book you have to have in your collection?  Black And British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga

  • A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date?  That is a very hard question. There are so many songs that make me feel, that have been me at different points in my life, different genres etc. But History by Michael Jackson made me want to be a performer.

  • A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? The Matrix Trilogy, Coming to America, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill Vol. 1.

  • The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)?  The Lion King when I was 13 is probably the one that stands out to me the most. I loved theatre but didn’t ever see myself as a lead, or that there was a place for me. And then I saw a staged production of a story close to my heart and childhood, with a sea of black performers from the emotional leads, to the comic relief, to the dancers to the singers etc. It was most definitely a big moment for me to see that. Shout out to my godmother.

  • What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? It’s pretty personal, so without going into too much detail, Sad that I was unable to help my brothers better, Livid at the cause and very Glad that this show is taking shape. And that shape is something special.

‘Moreno’ plays at Theatre503 from Tuesday 1st-Saturday 26th March. Book tickets and find out more here.

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