In his play The Lost Generation (funded by the Arts Council) talented British playwright and poet Jahmar Ngozi pays homage to the maverick and era defining jean-michel basquiat. The play, imagines a day and night before Jean-Michel Basquiat produces his seminal piece Untitled (1982). In this cleverly written theatrical piece, some of the most defining artists think: Frida Kahlo, Gill Scott-Heron talk and offer advice to Jean-Michel Basquiat. With these conversations the play explores some of the personal and social issues which affected Basquiat and his work he those four brief (but highly prolific) artistic years.
“When I first went to Oxford Playhouse, I had three concepts.” Stated Jahmar when discussing the initial impetus for the play. “A native American story. Something about feudal China or Japan and a piece about a lost generation. After the first World War a few American artists went Paris and subsequently became very prominent. I wanted to explore that lost generation and so the idea for a piece about Jean Michel Basquiat formed.”
Despite his significance to the art world Basquiat remains something akin to a hidden gem. Even though Basquiat shaped culture then (and even now) contemporaries like Andy Warhol are arguably more widely recognised. His death at twenty-seven an abrupt end to a career that could and should have delivered so much.
“A lot of people do not know about Basquiat. For me he is one of the most prominent black artists. He was a maverick and one of the few black people to do what he did. When you look at what he did and what Banksy does there are significant parallels.”
An enigma born out of personal tragedy and struggles; Basquiat found success in a white male dominated world at a time where being black was (in many ways) more difficult than it is now.
“He came from a Caribbean background, but he was born in America. So, he was like a first generation. That is like my situation. I could identify with that idea of being home for both places but not really be at home. You must learn to make the world your own. He was a strong driven person and ran away at fourteen or fifteen through his own choice. He was interesting and I feel he had a lot of integrity on one way. But we cannot get away from that other story about drugs and how they can turn a life upside down.”
As is the case this year, covid (or should we say the actions against Rona) had the potential to put the proverbial spanner in the works. But necessity is the mother of invention. Or in this case the mother of re-thinking.
“It was necessity. It was meant to be a live project based in the theatre with live paintings. I had the setting so vivid in my mind” he states passionately, “I knew that I wanted to show the play so the fact that all the theatres shut I did have this Macauley Culkin moment. I then had to think of the options. A good friend of mine took part in a festival of online theatre. There were people from around the world. All these people came together to produce something. It was high quality. I liked the idea of them getting together and so it, so it inspired me.”
In his re-think (like many during covid) Zoom became the reasonable option. And while it is true that live theatrical experience will be lost Jahmar has been pleasantly surprised by the way the seven cast members have adapted to this new way of working.
“Rehearsals are going quite well. It is very different and in truth I thought the energy would fizzle out due to the circumstances but in fact everyone remains so enthusiastic. It is the new ‘normal' but everyone has been bringing new ideas and dynamism and so I think that it should be really interesting to see how people respond to the medium and to the work.”