Sam Steiner on Kanye the First: Why I cast a white woman as the rapper

Published in The i on September 25, 2017

What if you woke up one day in the body of Kanye West? That’s the attention-grabbing idea behind Sam Steiner’s play, Kanye the First.

Following the death of the hip-hop star, a 27-year-old white British woman named Annie finds that everyone – including Kim Kardashian West – thinks she is the reincarnated Kanye. Once she gets over her shock, she begins to see the advantages of becoming Kanye the Second…

The play started with the name: Steiner says he had long wanted to write Kanye the First “just because I thought it was a funny and slightly epic title. I’ve always been fascinated with him as a character.”

Well, “long” is relative: the playwright is only 24, and this is his second play – although his first, ­Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons – about a world where speech is limited to 140 characters a day – was a break-out Edinburgh hit, even enjoying a rehearsed reading in New York with Sienna Miller and Russell Tovey.

Kanye the First is part of the High Tide Festival of new writing, which this year transfers from Aldeburgh in Suffolk to Walthamstow in north London in a pop-up venue. With bars and food trucks on site, the hope is that the festival will attract new, young audiences and passing traffic. The title Kanye the First will no doubt help.

The story really came together last year, when West’s erratic behaviour – cutting gigs short, with rants about Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton – was followed by admission to a psychiatric hospital. Steiner was shocked at our reactions, both public and private.

“I found the media response quite cruel: ‘Look at this crazy person freakshow.’ [And] I found it strange having friends who’ve been through similar things laughing at it…”

There has been a welcome openness in discussing mental health recently: celebrities from Lady Gaga to Selena Gomez to Prince Harry have been applauded for opening up about their struggles. Why wasn’t West treated with a similar level of compassion?

“There’s an empathy gap when it comes to him and I think that is coloured by racism,” Steiner says. “It is also likely to do with wealth, status, success, fame: seeing West fall apart while raking in cash on a tour where he stood illuminated on a floating stage like some kind of messiah… well, we seem to find it easier to support mental health sufferers.

“I’m still trying to unpick it, that’s what a lot of the play is about: why can’t we show empathy for this man?”

Hence having “Kanye” inhabited by a very ordinary British woman. But Annie has her own issues, which Steiner suggests “mirror” West’s, “and a young woman in this country is much more naturally empathetic than a US hip-hop superstar”.

Imogen Doel, who plays Annie, explains: “She is marginalised: she cares for her mother, lives in the shadow of her sister, has a job she’s not very good at… she’s constantly trying to fit into roles for other people. When she becomes Kanye West, it’s almost as if this mask gives her a voice to express how she really feels. Through being Kanye, she’s forced to confront who she is as a person.”

It was crucial that Kanye/Annie be played by an actress, not a West impersonator. “She has a kind of deal with the audience: the audience see her as her, but everyone else on stage sees her as Kanye West. The play is so much about the identities other people put on us. I thought there was something interesting in this woman observing the differences in the way people treat her [once she looks like West], and the changes she goes through as a result.”

Still, having a young, white actress play Annie/Kanye inevitably provides a frisson. Scenes where Doel delivers speeches that draw verbatim on interviews with West are ­certainly intended to feel crunchy for audiences.

“Some things really jar,” Doel acknowledges. “You can feel the audience trying to work out what’s being asked of them, what’s appropriate, what’s not. I use the ‘n-word’ – that carries so much weight, you have to know what you’re doing. But then you can go to a concert and everyone is singing that word and not questioning it… [For us], it’s just about opening up the dialogue.” Piers Morgan, take note.

For Steiner, the discomfort provoked by putting this language into Annie’s mouth is intended to make a wider point. “At its core, the narrative structure is an allegory for cultural appropriation, [and how that] encourages stereotypes. The shock of hearing a white woman saying the things she says emphasises some of the more subtle cultural appropriation going on in our everyday society.”

Citing Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber, Steiner suggests that “pop stars have used black culture to promote themselves without crediting it”. Still, he acknowledges the issue is fraught. “I really believe in multiculturalism, and that sharing art and pop music increases our ability to understand each other. But there’s a power dynamic and a consumerism to the way those artists use music from different cultures that is actually unhelpful.”

A valid point – but one coming from a white writer who has just written a play inspired by a black artist’s mental health breakdown… Has Steiner been wrestling with the extent to which he’s appropriating West?

“Yeah, totally. I’ve driven myself crazy about whether or not I should be writing this play. [But] if you deal with a subject with enough depth and care and heart, then I think you can achieve a kind of authenticity.”

Authenticity is an interesting word in this context. When discussing what he sees in West’s music, Steiner suggests it’s “full of heart. And it’s amazing to keep making songs that are sincere, despite everything. That doesn’t mean that some of them aren’t gross and problematic, but I think he means them all and we don’t really get that in pop anymore. I don’t think we’ve really had that since someone like David Bowie.”

Still, you could easily also argue the opposite about West: with his hyper-real relationship with Kim Kardashian, he’s also almost symbolic of celebrity fakeness – every­thing constructed, even private lives commodified. How can that sit with artistic authenticity?

“For me, what’s different about Kanye West is that a lot of what he does is in direct response to that. It is absurd: they’re a weird celebrity royal couple. But I think he manages – in his music, at least – to examine what that means.”

Theatre is surely a great medium for exploring all this, audiences primed to invest emotionally in a representation of reality that is also blatantly unreal. And in Kanye the First, they’re really explicitly invited to really go with the “theatricality of the premise, this suspension of disbelief” that Annie could just turn into Kanye.

Theatre, Steiner concludes, is the perfect vehicle for talking about West. “His identity – his stage shows, his persona, his way of relating to the world – is itself a kind of theatre.”

‘Kanye the First’ is at High Tide Festival, Walthamstow, London, to 7 October (0207 566 9765)

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