We met with Sule Rimi at National Theatre to discuss the upcoming production, Blues for an Alabama Sky, which he stars in as Sam Thompson. The 1995 play by Pearl Cleage heads to National Theatre, with direction from Lynette Linton. The story, set in 1930s New York, follows a group of friends as they battle to keep their artistic dreams alive. The revival has been described as ‘startling’ and Sule expressed his excitement to be working alongside Linton again.
Sule Rimi hosts an impressive theatre career over the last few years; SWEAT (Donmar Warehouse), All My Sons (Old Vic), Barbershop Chronicles (National Theatre), and most recently, Jitney (Old Vic). Our conversation was an opportunity for Sule to share the journey for the production, what the audience can expect and his favourite thing about performing on stage!
What drew you to this production of Blues for an Alabama Sky?
Sule: So many factors. Knowing who was attached to it for one, in terms of who was directing, actors that I've worked with, actors I've wanted to work with for a long time. But I was just really excited to work with Lynette again, because she's wonderful. I just know Lynette is going to put amazing flesh and skin on this [story]. It’s going to be a collaborative process. Telling the story for black people has been a timeless struggle in one form or another. To be able to tell this story to show how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go, with the aide of these incredible creatives that are involved – I think it’s just hard to resist. Especially in this building!
Could you share some of the themes of the play?
Sule: There is stuff that is going to make it relevant, especially after the events of the last couple of years in America. Reproductive freedom, the artistic renaissance of the Harlem scene in the 30s, prohibition, homosexuality - all these things are covered. It focuses on how these five characters - from different parts of America, different backgrounds, all black – are functioning and affected by those things at that time.
It's also the beginning of the Depression, there’s segregation in parts of America. All of that is going on, and we are seeing it from the perspective of these five individuals, that we come to know – and either love or hate.
It’s a play that makes you think about where we stand as a society at any one given point in time.
How are the rehearsals going?
Sule: They’re going great. Everybody has the same goal of just making this story bang as much as possible. And to do justice to Pearl’s vision when she wrote the story.
There's so much talent in the room. I look in there every day and feel so lucky. Our staff, Director, Ensemble; everybody's chipping in. We've had such a good time that we didn't realise we were at the end of week five of rehearsals. Everybody's really enjoying coming into work, seeing each other and that really helps. Not only does it help, obviously the process, but it helps with the finished product that you see on the stage, in terms of the interaction of the characters. It just feels good and feels like it’s where it needs to be.
You will be playing Sam Thomas. What can you tell us about the character?
Sule: Everybody likes Sam. Sam is the life of the party. He's a doctor, specialising in gynaecology/obstetrics. He's also a bit of a party animal (laughs). He’s a very influential person in the Harlem community and within the church. He’s also a very good and loyal friend to the characters of Angel and Guy. I’m loving playing Sam. The last guy I played was a guy that wasn’t very liked. Sam is effortlessly well-liked and always seems to make a good impression wherever he goes.
What can the audience expect from this production? Sule: Love, laughter, heartache! There’s so much. Topical scenarios like Roe v Wade springs to mind. You can expect love, friendship, and loyalty between friends. You can expect to laugh, a bit of music. I think you’re going to enjoy watching how these friends interact and how they deal with love. Expect to go on a journey. It’s a very beautiful piece, in terms of context and aesthetics. We are making something that’s going to be really pleasing.
What do you enjoy the most about performing on stage?
Sule: I guess the chance to correct stuff. You do something one night and it may not necessarily work. You get the chance to address it, try and find the truth of what that scene is and what that character’s journey is. You get the chance to make it right and see the effect that it has on people watching.
For example, as Turbo [in Jitney], when I come out with a gun, people gasp. For two to three hours, the audience are so engrossed and completely transported into another world. It doesn’t matter what’s going on outside or in their lives. On stage, we are in a different world too. I love not only being lost in something like that, but also making everybody watching get lost. It’s the magic of theatre.
I do plays that align with my political beliefs. I never try and change anyone’s opinion, but I let you know what I’m thinking. And if I can do that through the stories I’m telling – I think it’s a privilege.
Describe the show in 3 words.
Sule: Timeless, haunting, and heart-breaking.
Final questions – favourite book, favourite album, favourite play?
Sule: Favourite book – The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
Favourite album - Doggystyle - Snoop Dogg
Favourite play I’ve been in – Barbershop Chronicles.
Favourite play I’ve watched – For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy.
Blues for an Alabama Sky plays from 21st September until 5th November on the National Theatre’s Lyttelton stage.