This morning I woke up in a curfew. / Oh, God, I was a prisoner, too.
— Bob Marley, “Burnin’ and Lootin’ ”
That’s what artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah was listening to April 28 as he drove to Baltimore’s Center Stage. A day earlier in the English-born writer-director’s adoptive city, shops had been ransacked, a senior center had gone up in flames and a curfew had been declared — all while the city’s top theater company continued preparing its highly anticipated new musical, “Marley.”
“The irony does not escape,” Kwei-Armah says in his office, which is adorned with a photo of his 11-year-old self in the background of a 1977 London video shoot with Marley — Bob Marley! — and a group of schoolchildren. “Driving in and seeing the National Guard every three feet, it’s painful. And it’s weird that we are doing a play about a country and a city, Kingston, that was essentially at war, while Bob was seeking peace.”
The Jamaican politics of the 1970s were different, of course — Cold War tensions trickling into a troubled Caribbean nation, with Marley literally caught in the crossfire during an 1976 attempt on his life. That conflict is in the foreground of Kwei-Armah’s script, which knits together Marley songs and his two years of exile after the assassination try.
Then-Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley and various party enforcers are among the characters in the show. Also included: Marley’s wife, Rita, and his mistress, Cindy Breakspeare (the reigning Miss World at the time), as well as Island Records founder Chris Blackwell and Marley friend and colleague Neville Garrick, who designed some of Marley’s best-known record covers, including “Exodus,” “Kaya” and “Uprising.”
“It’s a big deal,” says the lean and laid-back Garrick, in Baltimore for the day to cast his experienced eye on the material. (Kwei-Armah, who put together a different Marley show several years ago, calls Garrick “a major source” for this project.) “I expect this to be successful, and I expect it to go for Broadway,” Garrick says.
Broadway has seen jukebox musicals succeed and flop since the ABBA catalogue “Mamma Mia!” began making a killing in 2001. The more serious “Fela!” and “Jersey Boys” would seem likelier models for what Kwei-Armah has in store. Regardless, this is no half-measure workshop being rolled out on the q.t. The musical features a whopping 32 actors, led by Mitchell Brunings as Marley. Brunings is a Netherlands-based newcomer whose performance of Marley’s “Redemption Song” on “The Voice of Holland” caught Kwei-Armah’s ear and eye as it became a YouTube sensation.
There’s a nine-piece band, too, and an undisclosed budget “enhanced” — as they say when commercial partners add money to a nonprofit company’s production pot — by Blackwell’s company Stageplay. If it’s a big deal for Garrick and the Marley stakeholders, it’s also a big deal for Baltimore’s Center Stage. The theater is even selling “dance seats” in the mezzanine for Marley fans.
When Kwei-Armah was first approached about a Marley musical several years ago, the rights included songs but not the life story. So the former actor and emerging London playwright (“Elmina’s Kitchen”) set music against a fictional plot about child soldiers in central Africa.
“I thought it was all right,” Kwei-Armah reckons with a confident smile. But Marley himself was missing, so when Blackwell’s Blue Mountain Music and the Marley estate came to Kwei-Armah again last year, Kwei-Armah was given license to tell Marley’s life story. But rather than take on the whole biography (the pro-marijuana and soccer-mad Marley died at 36 of cancer), he chose the assassination-and-exile period framed by two events: the “Smile Jamaica” concert two days after Marley was ambushed in 1976 and the “One Love” peace concert in 1978.
“I thought that typified the man,” Kwei-Armah says, “that his connection to the people meant so much to him that he would put his own life at risk.”
Who shot Bob Marley? In the 2012 documentary “Marley,” the reggae superstar enigmatically says, “I think it was the devil, you know?”
“I have theories,” says Garrick, who was with Marley that night (although not at the moment it happened) and throughout his exile period. “It’s still kind of hazy. It could have been both sides [the People’s National Party led by Manley or Edward Seaga’s Jamaica Labor Party]. We could have been set up.”
The Manley government called an election in the wake of “Smile Jamaica,” trying to parlay the performance into a tacit endorsement. Questions linger about the security detail assigned to protect Marley at the time.
“What was really hurtful for him,” Garrick says, “is he couldn’t believe that politicians would actually pay some youths to come and kill him.”
After the shooting, Marley and his bandmates fled to London, a period that turned out to be fairly prolific. The distractions of family and Jamaican strife were replaced by six months of a routine that Garrick describes this way: “We went to Battersea Park, which was like four blocks down across the bridge, and played football. Cook dinner. Eat. Go to the studio late at night. Come home in the morning. Sleep, get up in the afternoon, play football, rehearse music.”
The LPs “Exodus” and “Kaya” came out in 1977 and 1978, although such easygoing romantic tunes as “Waiting in Vain” and “Is This Love” had some back home wondering whether Marley had sold out. The flip side of the “softening” charge was that his music was still slow to catch on with black audiences in the United States.
“He was being a fisherman,” says Garrick, who credits Kwei-Armah with doing justice to Marley’s bedrock Rastafari faith. “You’ve got to bait your hook first. Then he came with his most militant album, which is ‘Survival.’ You have to have them listening first.”
Kwei-Armah had access to a number of the players for his research, including Garrick and Blackwell, which might figure to be tricky, since Blackwell is a producer here and Garrick works for the Marley family. (Garrick says he has seen about 30 scripts, as a Marley biopic notion has been kicking around Hollywood for decades.)
“They understand that an artist should not be contained if you want their best work,” Kwei-Armah contends of the “Marley” producing circle, which also was behind the 2012 documentary. “And Chris [Blackwell] has been really, really hands off.”
Casting Marley might have been Kwei-Armah’s biggest hurdle, and ultimately, exhaustive searches in New York, Miami and London couldn’t do what the Internet and YouTube ended up doing. Brunings’s impassioned “Redemption Song” convinced Kwei-Armah that he had the voice, but he needed to know whether this unknown — once an amateur boxer and lately a nurse in a psychiatric hospital — could act.
Brunings is relaxed in rehearsal. “I’m just pushing her buttons, right?” he says, grinning like a wicked cat as Kwei-Armah directs him in a scene with Michaela Waters as Cindy Breakspeare. Kwei-Armah the director guides the duo with a playwright’s nose for beat-by-beat meaning, looking for the psychological intention in every line.
Waters has a practical problem: A guitar on a stand in this living room scene keeps getting in her way. Brunings coolly replies that he can figure out a moment to move it. Kwei-Armah teases him about suddenly being a master of stagecraft.
“I am an AC-tor,” Brunings jokes back pompously.
Singing “Redemption Song” for his “Voice of Holland” audition, Brunings says later by phone, was a bit of a struggle for two reasons. First, the show’s producers wanted him to do something more recognizable, such as “No Woman, No Cry” or “Three Little Birds,” with its catchy refrain of “Every little thing gonna be all right.” More significant for Brunings, who was born in Surinam, the audition fell on the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands.
“I was sad about that,” Brunings says. “I poured all of that into the performance.”
“Redemption Song” marked a turning point for Kwei-Armah, too, who, as a London teen, was more a soul man than a reggae fan (kids then felt they had to choose, he says). That is, until he started tuning in to Marley’s lyrics.
“I discovered that he was saying things on record that we were whispering in dark corners: ‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds,’ ” Kwei-Armah says. “New concepts to us at that time.”
Those concepts are why the “Marley” team seems both heartened and unsettled to be polishing the show just as Baltimore finds itself wrenched apart, marching together, clamoring for social justice.
“It’s been affecting us all,” Brunings says. “It’s not a small thing to be in a Bob Marley play and have all this going on around you. If you take any of these Bob Marley songs and cut it with the news footage, it just makes sense.”
Marley. Music and lyrics by Bob Marley, book by Kwame Kwei-Armah. Through June 14 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. Tickets: $19-$69. Call 410-332-0033 or visit www.centerstage.org.