Playwright Sam Steiner bends gender and race to unpack the controversial rapper, here’s how his story about possession helps you relate to the media’s favourite pantomime villain
The only thing more controversial than cantankerous Kanye West in his raw form is to portray him as young white English girl. One play has dared to do that in the effort of unpacking the complicated pop culture icon, while also allowing 27-year-old Annie to explore a life beyond her own mundane existence.
Just a caveat – the play, Kanye the First, is absolutely bonkers. Annie cares for her mother whose illness has led to urinary incontinence, her sister is becoming more distant and her absent father has left her with some serious daddy issues. She can’t connect to the world and she can’t cope with the stress and then one night the television interrupts her stream of thoughts. Kanye West is dead. From that moment on, everyone around her inexplicably sees her as him so she uses her new form to reach the dizzy heights she couldn’t in her normal life.
If at any point you feel you’re slowly starting to piece together what is happening, a new ambitious thread interweaves with the story. It feels high pressured, contradictory, aggressive, hilarious and almost meta. A bit like the phenomenon of mega-stardom. Playwright Sam Steiner has a knack for eye-catching titles and eccentric plots. His Edinburgh Fringe debut Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, a love story set in a totalitarian world where you can only utter 140 characters a day, makes a statement about free speech. So in that way using possession to explore cultural appropriation, racism, mental health, self-doubt, aspiration, jealousy, regret and the cult of celebrity is in-keeping with his personal writing style.
Why did you choose such a controversial quasi-protagonist like Kanye West?
Sam Steiner: I came up with the idea for the play around this time last year. Kanye West was going through a very public breakdown at the time and I found a lot of the media coverage around it very cruel. I’d also been angered by the petition to cancel his Glastonbury headline set in 2015. It felt worryingly and dangerously exclusionary to me. I wanted to interrogate how the two-dimensional version of his persona that we see in the media had led a supposedly “liberal” audience, a group I’d usually count myself a part of, to try to exclude him from the festival. So the play explores this empathy gap.
West actually never appears in the play as the audience only see Annie, why did you choose to contrast such a megastar with a 27-year old white girl who is the primary carer for her sick mum?
Sam Steiner: I wanted to go: look you recognise this person, you can empathise with this person and she goes through some of the same things that Kanye talks about and yet you can’t empathise with him. The mother storyline was built to half-mirror Kanye’s relationship to his mother. They are different characters but there are resonances and similarities. Donda West died in 2007 and Kanye has publicly expressed his grief and feeling of guilt towards it. [SPOILERS] Annie loses her mother in a similar manner halfway through the play and she feels similarly guilty and grief-ridden for that.
The play explores a lot of themes, but what conclusions did you reach?
Sam Steiner: For me, at its core, the play is an exploration of how we reduce people to stereotypes or single characteristics, to two-dimensional versions of themselves, and how that is dehumanising and affects our ability to empathise. The plot of the play makes the process of cultural appropriation literal – someone from one culture uses a two-dimensional reading of someone from another culture for their own personal gain. Annie chooses to use Kanye’s identity for her own gain without making any effort to understand what it is like to be him.
A lot of the themes of the play came out of researching Kanye West, the themes that run through his work, and how the public response to him has changed over the years. I think a lot of Kanye West’s work is defined by contradictions and conflicts. Particularly between aspiration and self-doubt, bravado and desperation. He’ll brag about self-consciousness. He’ll write an anti-consumerist song about how much he loves shopping. He’s a self-confessed hypocrite. I think one of the reasons he is often demonised is that the media, and our society in general, isn’t very good at handling contradictions and complexities so tend to reduce people to a particular characteristic or action without attempting to understand the impulse behind it.
You’re left with a lot of questions at the end of the play, what should the viewer feel when they’re walking out of the show? I need closure.
Sam Steiner: Hopefully, the play makes you think about a lot of things – about how they relate to others, about how they think about themselves. If it has a message, if a useful thing for a play to have hopefully it’s: “listen to each other and care for each other, properly and unselfishly.”
What have reactions been like to the play?
Sam Steiner: Really interesting. The audiences for the play have been really varied. But in general, wherever we’ve done it I think it’s made the audience think. I hope it has. I’ve definitely had some really great discussions afterwards. Getting to talk to people afterwards has been an amazing experience. I think that’s the best thing about theatre. It starts a conversation. It’s also worth saying that I think the play has also made people laugh, and hopefully, it’s moved people. I think one thing the play does a lot is make you laugh and then make you question that laughter.
Obviously, it’s difficult exploring narratives related to blackness and cultural appropriation from a white perspective, was this something that concerned you?
Sam Steiner: Absolutely, it’s really difficult. I’ve tried to use the play to expose a kind of underlying racial prejudice and tendency towards stereotyping within a white, supposedly liberal middle class. We had conversations in rehearsals about how Annie is incredibly un-woke but if you asked her whether she thought she was woke or not, she would absolutely say she was. And yet she still, subconsciously or not, perpetuates stereotypes and appropriates another culture. I wanted to expose the crazy hypocrisy of that. That lack of self-awareness. That kind of thing that leads to things like the Glastonbury petition.
“I wanted to go: look you recognise this person, you can empathise with this person and she goes through some of the same things that Kanye talks about and yet you can’t empathise with him” – Sam Steiner
As a playwright how do you deal with unpacking experiences you haven’t necessarily ever had?
Sam Steiner: Research. You have to get out and speak to people, with this play I did more research than I’ve ever done before. I’ve watched/read pretty much every interview Kanye West has done over the last 15 years. I spoke to a lot of different people from different communities about their experiences, about how they feel about Kanye West (if they even had an opinion). I found that for this play a lot of the most useful material were blogs and podcasts. Reading books on the history of cultural appropriation, cultural response to Kanye West, and so on, was a really good grounding but reading blogs and listening to podcasts gave me a better window into people who feel more personally affected by some of the issues the play was exploring. I also actively sought out opinions on both sides of every argument. I think it's important in a piece of drama that you don’t just settle on the side you agree with, that you present each equally and rationally.
Some of the black characters in the play put forward a case for who Kanye is i.e. a politically engaged trailblazer, not a fancy hat maker but it is Annie who has the autonomy to answer that question - not Kanye. How did you ensure that moments that deal with how the black community feels about Kanye’s rise didn’t overlook valid arguments?
Sam Steiner: Ok, so most of the dialogue in that specific scene is verbatim or derived from verbatim. The stuff that the fan says to Kanye in that scene is largely compiled of responses I had found to Kanye, in interviews, podcasts, blogs, chatting to people etc. The stuff that Annie says back is largely verbatim quotes that Kanye has made in interviews (both video interviews and print interviews) or concerts or even on twitter. There’s another black character in that scene who isn’t necessarily a fan of Kanye but voices her agreement with some of those points. I think both sides in that scene make intelligent arguments. In the next scene, we hear the heavenly voice of Kanye West (who has died at the start of the play) and he accuses Annie of colonising his identity, lifestyle and story.
I really hope we got the balance right here. It’s something we spoke about a lot in rehearsals.
The play feels like it needs more time to really get into all the meaty bits, would you continue a Kanye the Second?
Sam Steiner: I totally agree. I think I over-stuffed the play. It’s also worth saying that for this show, unfortunately, we had to cut out a few scenes that I think might help clarify things a bit. If the play does have a further life I’d love the chance to try and act on some of the feedback we’ve got. That said, I think a sequel might be a bit self-indulgent!
Kanye the First will be on until October 7, find out where you can see the play here