From Trenchtown to Sandtown: 'Marley' premieres at Center Stage amid the Baltimore Uprising

City Paper

It’s April 18, a sunny Saturday in Charles Village, and a dozen or so bros chill out in the front yard of their house near the Johns Hopkins campus. Wobbling out of a stereo is some kind of remix, refix, mash-up, or edit of a Bob Marley song, maybe a few tracks stitched together, wrapped around a bass-enhanced beat—a decadent redundancy of this dubstep era, because Aston “Family Man” Barrett, the Wailers’ bass player, needs no EDM augmentation.

The next day, Freddie Gray dies. The 25-year-old resident of Sandtown-Winchester—just a 10-minute drive away from Hopkins, but seemingly worlds apart and certainly off the radar of Hopkins students who are told at orientation not to venture too far from campus, let alone Gilmor Homes—was picked up by police a week earlier and suffered a crushed larynx and severed spine while in police custody. Gray’s name becomes a loaded hashtag and his death sets off a protest movement long due in Baltimore that further highlights nationwide concern over police brutality.

A 10-minute cruise in another direction, to Mount Vernon, is Center Stage. In the Andrus Rehearsal Hall on the fifth floor, a cast of 32 is in the 23rd day of rehearsal for Kwame Kwei-Armah’s “Marley.” The much-anticipated musical about the reggae legend, who demanded peace in a time when his country was falling apart, is roughly three weeks out from its May 7 premiere in Baltimore.

The details of Marley’s passionate chronicling of a worldwide black struggle will soon be eerily familiar in the city.

Marley’s description of the police presence in Jamaica’s Trenchtown echoes what residents of Sandtown-Winchester told City Paper  throughout the Baltimore Uprising: “Living in Trenchtown. . . surviving was easy,” Marley told Gil Noble in 1980. “The only thing you have to really look out for was police. Because the police get you, frame you, and you go to prison because you come from Trenchtown.”

Freddie Gray, remember, was pursued just for making eye contact with a police officer. He was chased down because he came from Sandtown. And these lines from 1973’s ‘Burnin’ and Lootin’ capture Baltimore under curfew: “This morning I woke up in a curfew/ Oh God, I was a prisoner too/ Could not recognize the faces standing over me/ They were all dressed in uniforms of brutality.”

But back to those Hopkins frat boys with their brews and their bass-heavy reggae refix for a moment because they mean something here, beyond just being the haves in a city primarily of have nots. How these kids use Marley’s music—as a soundtrack for good times—is how most people in America use Marley. His tunes are great for hanging out and drinking and ripping some bong hits and that’s about it.

This is precisely the image Kwei-Armah’s “Marley” musical intends to counter. See, Bob Marley has been softened a bit and universalized, aligned with rudimentary dorm-room-poster rebels like Jim Morrison or John Lennon. The sanitizing of Marley is not unlike the impulse to shift “Black Lives Matter” to “All Lives Matter.”

“These are the images that come along with Bob,” Kwei-Armah says early on in rehearsals, “Bob Marley smoking weed, Bob Marley’s dreadlocks, that he had many children, that he was a Rastafari.”

The London-born Kwei-Armah, who has been the artistic director of Center Stage since 2011, is sympathetic, even when he’s puckishly dismissive. “I’m not trying to take [people’s experiences with Marley] away,” he adds, “I’m just not sure that the overwhelming majority of people know that much [about Bob Marley]. I think in America in particular, people probably have three or four Bob Marley songs that they know.”

“Marley” does not entirely avoid those images or the big songs. The first time the audience encounters Bob, played by musician Mitchell Brunings, he saunters across the stage declaring “Jah Rastafari,” singing ‘I Shot The Sheriff.’ It’s just that “Marley” then complicates this simple image.

“What I wanted to do is try and set the environment for these songs,” Kwei-Armah says. Rather than take a “birth to grave”approach to a life, which often hinges on contrivances and conflated characters and manipulated coincidences reducing people to symbols, “Marley” explores a “pertinent moment” from Marley’s life, and through that, details “the kind of man he was.”

For Kwei-Armah, the pertinent moment takes place between 1976 and 1978, when Marley’s music and Jamaica’s political violence became intertwined.

In the early 1970s, Jamaica’s two-party system consisted of the People’s National Party (PNP) represented by Prime Minister Michael Manley, a socialist and man of the people (though as “Marley” illustrates, still a canny, often conniving politician), and conservative, capitalistic Edward Seaga’s Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). As Jamaica crumbled, in part because the West removed aid from Jamaica because of Manley’s socialist policies and friendship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, open combat erupted among the poor. In the streets of capital city Kingston in particular, gangs dedicated to their respective parties waged war on one another.

In November 1976, Marley, whose Trenchtown neighborhood was considered PNP territory, planned a free Smile Jamaica Concert for Dec. 5. The party was intended to unite the country. But two days before Smile Jamaica, Marley, his wife, and his manager were all shot, presumably by JLP members who considered the concert a Manley rally. And, indeed, Manley had called an election, without informing Marley, and essentially turned the party for the country into a rally for the PNP.

Though he was aware that he had been co-opted for political gain, Marley still played the concert, revealing his wounds to the audience, and soon after left Jamaica for London  for nearly two years, returning when members of the JLP and PLP informed him of a truce and asked that he do another concert to solidify the peace. At this 1978 concert, The One Love One Peace Concert, Marley all but forced Manley and Seaga onto the stage together to hold hands.

This brief period, Kwei-Armah explains, “encapsulates the man, the hero.”

Kwei-Armah, who lived in the neighborhood near where Marley stayed (and even attended a video shoot for ‘Is This Love’ as a child, though he was cut from the video) goes on: “And he was hero to me because he was putting on record the things we were whispering in our front rooms in London, about consciousness, about who we are and about the community, his community—the diasporic African community and even further, [for] those who perceive themselves as ‘the sufferers’ and the poor and the disenfranchised and challenged.”

Mitchell Brunings, who plays Bob Marley, got Kwame Kwei-Armah’s attention with a viral video clip of him singing a stirring version of Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ on the television show “The Voice of Holland.” (J.M. Giordano)

The play is a pop musical—“Mamma Mia!” meets “Fela!”—but in many ways it counters and complicates the Marley mythos too. Throughout “Marley,” the audience is also reminded of Rastafari homophobia, Marley’s womanizing and failures as a father, and a certain kind of often maddening naivete he exhibited. And the women in Marley’s life are afforded much more of a focus here than in many other narratives about Marley: Wife Rita (Saycon Sengbloh) and girlfriend Cindy Breakspeare (Michaela Waters) significantly influence his decisions and worldview, and there are multiple scenes in which Diane Jobson, Marley’s lawyer (Khetanya Jati Henderson), counters the condescending attitudes of Marley and his macho crew.

Even the play’s rather uplifting ending, in which Marley gets Manley (Howard W. Overshown) and Seaga (Bill Hurlbut) together onstage, is undercut for those who know Marley’s life well. Scattered throughout Act II are references to Marley’s injured toe, which metastasized into melanoma that would kill him in 1981 at age 36. The play is appropriately bittersweet.

Kwei-Armah’s Bob Marley comes from the internet. Specifically, via a viral clip of musician Mitchell Brunings singing a stirring version of Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ on the television show “The Voice of Holland.” Witnessing Brunings’ take on ‘Redemption Song,’ there’s no doubt he sounds like Marley, but the key here is how he doesn’t bend over backward to copy Marley’s delivery, and that was important to Kwei-Armah.

“What one doesn’t want is someone to imitate [Marley],” Kwei-Armah says. “What you want is someone with the tone and gravitas.” If you listen to Brunings’ own songs, it sounds as if they could be Marley songs, Kwei-Armah observes.

Although Brunings could sing the songs, he had never acted before. Singing was more important, Kwei-Armah pragmatically admits, because “ultimately our audience is not really coming to see the book of Kwame Kwei-Armah, they’re coming to hear Bob Marley and to see Bob Marley.”

Kwei-Armah met Brunings in Holland and then trained the singer to audition, getting him an acting coach so that he would be more comfortable and “fluent” on stage. Brunings auditioned five times before getting the part: in Holland, then on video, and then three times in New York.

Kwame Kwei-Armah lived in the London neighborhood near where Marley stayed during his two years there and even attended a video shoot for ‘Is This Love’ as a child, though he was cut from the video. “He was a hero to me,” he says. (J.M. Giordano)

His second-to-last audition didn’t go well and it was only because they’d flown him out to New York that they “brought him back as a courtesy,” Kwei-Armah admits. That final time Brunings “came back in and blew the roof off it.”

Still, this is a guy famous from YouTube and it’s easy to interpret it as a cynical piece of casting. Kwei-Armah, however, quickly dismisses that: “We’re not Broadway. We don’t need that story. We need someone who can do the gig.”

“Marley” first began about eight years ago when Blue Mountain Music, the company run by Chris Blackwell (who is also the founder of Island Records and a character in “Marley,” played by John Patrick Hayden) who had acquired Marley’s musical rights but not his life rights, asked Kwei-Armah to write a musical.

“They asked me to write a musical using Bob’s music but Bob couldn’t be in it,” Kwei-Armah says. He wrote a Marley-free musical that focused on child soldiers in the Congo, an issue he imagined if Marley were still alive today, would interest him.

“It did the rounds [but] it didn’t happen,” Kwei-Armah says, “and it maybe didn’t happen because people kept saying, ‘Where’s Bob?’ ‘We want Bob.’”

Center Stage’s set for “Marley” includes projection screens that offer backdrops and context, including contemporary newspapers. (J.M. Giordano)

Then, at the start of 2014, Blue Mountain Music approached Kwei-Armah again. Now, it had the life rights along with the rights to his music. Kwei-Armah agreed to write a musical about Marley’s life with one demand: It must be at Center Stage.

“If I was I was going to write something now and do something of this magnitude, I should serve home. And this is home. I just should.”

As Kwei-Armah began writing, it became clear to him that the United States was already in the midst of a “second civil rights” movement, he says, and the  acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, the death of Michael Brown at the hands of  police officer Darren Wilson, and the subsequent events in Ferguson made that even apparent.

“I chose to write this play at this time knowing that our country was amid that,” Kwei-Armah says. “But what I could not have known is that our country, month after month, there would be another incident, that would further exacerbate the situation we have found ourselves in—and I could never have guessed it would come to our city.”

On Saturday, May 9, the third day of “Marley” previews, Kwei-Armah added a new scene to the play written just hours before: A young black man and an older black man watch footage of the Baltimore Uprising on the young man’s phone, shouts of “No Justice, No Peace” crackling out of the phone. They briefly discuss the events and then the young man leaves the older man with “got to go, revolution’s calling,” which makes it clear where “Marley” stands on recent events in Baltimore.

The Sunday morning after the violence near Camden Yards and the police occupation of Sandtown-Winchester (arguably, a retaliatory gesture against the property damage done to white-friendly downtown), Mitchell Brunings, the 40-year-old veteran musician, viral sensation, and newbie actor born in Suriname and raised in the Netherlands, can only think of Freddie Gray.

He sings a few lines from Marley’s ‘Burnin’ and Lootin’’ as a couple walk two yapping dogs in Mount Vernon. The next day, burning and looting at Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue will be a national news story.

Brunings, a fan of Marley since he was a child, played with a band called Rootsriders, with whom he traveled around the world singing backing vocals and the occasional lead of Marley’s songs. While in the band, he entered “The Voice of Holland” as a part of a bet with one of his band members.

“I told a member of the band that she should join ‘The Voice’ to help further her career,” he recalls, “So I told her, if she went, I’d go. The day of auditions, she didn’t show up and I thought, ‘I’m already here so I might as well do it’.”

His profound performance of ‘Redemption Song’ went viral and currently sits at 38 million views on YouTube.

Brunings considers it a responsibility to play Marley: “Getting to know somebody as intimately as I’m getting to know Bob automatically forces you to look at yourself and I do discover a lot about myself,” Brunings says. “If I’m able to reach as many people as possible with my music and Bob’s music and make them aware that we should treat our world better, I’ll be happy to be that messenger.”

But Brunings is more interested in talking about Baltimore in 2015 than Marley parallels: “Look, Baltimore is just an example. If you look at what has been happening in the U.S. over the past few months, people say, ‘Oh, police are killing people in the street.’ They’ve been doing it forever. I don’t want to sound political because I’m not from here but some people use their power for good and some use it for self-preservation.”

Make-up artist Sarah Satterwhite helps Brunings become Marley. (J.M. Giordano)

It’s a very “Bob” thing to say. Bruning’s reaction isn’t emotional as much as it is analytical and self-aware—precisely how Marley comes across in most of his interviews, even ones about unrest in Jamaica.

And in “Marley” rehearsals, Brunings slowly became Bob. He has a more defined beard and he’s much more muscular than Bob, but he’s got the bounce in his step, and he captures the constant contemplation of Marley.

During some downtime at rehearsal, he struts around and jokes with the cast and crew and carries Marley’s cool, casual confidence with him. He is a facilitator who can do a great deal with silence. It helps too that Kwei-Armah’s Bob Marley spends much of the play listening to what others have to say, an ideal way of capturing Brunings’ brooding charisma and one more way that “Marley” rejects the popular image of Marley as center-of-attention revolutionary for something more realistic.

“Everybody who knew Bob said he was a listener, that he was very laid-back,” Kwei-Armah says. This is a Marley “who listens and then reacts to the world, and then by the end of the play is driving and making decisions to drive an agenda forward.”

The semisurreal conventions of the musical are ideal for capturing Marley’s calming charisma. When the drama of “Marley” breaks away and out comes a soaring song, Brunings becomes the center of attention, as Marley, rather shy in day-to-day life, would on the stage.

Much of “Marley” is fueled by a similar tension between subtlety and grand gestures: It is a lengthy play about Jamaican politics punctuated by songs nearly everybody loves; it is at Center Stage and it is a musical but it is also written in proper Jamaican patois that might seem impenetrable to many; it is a big-deal play (even if thoughts of Broadway are modestly kept to a minimum by Kwei-Armah and others, it seems likely) that nonetheless has its premiere in Baltimore because the man asked to do the job doggedly demanded it and sees the city as his “home” right now.

Kwei-Armah agreed to write a musical about Marley’s life with one demand: It must be at Center Stage. (J.M. Giordano)

“Marley” doubled down on its dedication to Baltimore on Friday, May 1, when, with the city under curfew and the Baltimore Uprising at the center of the news, the cast and crew of “Marley” announced a free concert at North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue the next day, Saturday, May 2.

Following Monday April 27’s unrest, “everybody wanted to do something,” Kwei-Armah says. He recalls how when he first moved to Baltimore back in 2011, he witnessed the riots happening in his home of London: “The major thing that broke my heart is that I wasn’t there, not to do media, but to pick up a broom and help clean up.” Kwei-Armah talked to the cast and crew about doing something for the city and going to where this unrest originated, rather than “somewhere else that could be promotional” like City Hall.

Rehearsals for Saturday wrap early to make time for the 3:30 p.m. concert. That everyone is in costume, that the stage itself  reflects the swirl of turmoil—three screens project historical images for context, a massive recreation of a turntable twirls the actors around, the walls of Center Stage are done up to look like violence-torn Kingston—adds to the nervous energy of putting on an impromptu concert very soon. This is a fever dream of a musical and the actors, like all of Baltimore at this point, feel as though they’re in a dream.

An attempt at ‘War’ during rehearsals is rough and confusing with nearly everybody missing their marks. “I want everyone to know that was shit, I didn’t know what fucking play I was doing,” Kwei-Armah says. They do the scene again, which culminates in Manley and Seaga tearing the sleeves off Marley’s shirt, in one of many scenes that feel both viscerally dramatic and kaleidoscopically abstract. It goes pretty well and it’s a wrap for the day, at least as far as the play’s concerned.

In the Center Stage lobby, the concert playlist is still being worked out and Kwei-Armah’s at the center of it all, taking photos with the cast and easing tension and moving everybody outside where he begins counting off people to jump into cars and buses headed to North and Penn. He’ll get over there last, once he knows the rest of the cast and crew made it. Brunings is silent, sitting back, eating an orange.

At one point, Kwei-Armah quietly debates with someone from the cast or crew trying to convince her to drive her car over to North and Penn. They need more cars. She expresses concerns about safety and getting a car window busted in.

“I’ll cover it,” Kwame tells her.

At North and Penn, just in front of the CVS that burned on Monday night, a crowd of 50 or so gather. A couple who sheepishly admit they’re “from the county” say they came out for the event and ask where they should head next, which protest and where. They just don’t know but they want to know. This mini “Marley” concert is their entry into the Baltimore Uprising.

The scene at the CVS, with chalk graffiti and striking frayed fliers detailing “The African Holocaust,” resembles the flier-filled and tag-covered interior of Center Stage as theatergoers take their seats to see “Marley.”

The cast of “Marley” at the corner of Pennsylvania and North Avenues. “We had to go to the heart of the pain,” Kwei-Armah says. (J.M. Giordano)

Brunings grips the mic and nervously tells the crowd they are waiting for their director to arrive: “Be patient just little longer, and we’ll talk and we’ll—sing.”

Not long after, Brunings begins the show without Kwei-Armah, who still isn’t there, leading a jaunty take on ‘Could You Be Loved/ Say Something.’

“Let’s be honest, the only thing that keeps us going every day is love,” he tells the crowd. He seems to speaking as Marley, his accent tilts toward Jamaican, then dips back into his speaking voice when he admits, “So we were hoping our director would be here by now, he’s still on his way.”

The crowd grows and contains multitudes. A man holds his dog tightly and sways to the music. An older woman burns sage. A young girl on her dad’s shoulders raises a Black Power fist. A man struts across the street, forcing traffic to stop for him, holding a sign that says, “It is right to rebel.” A boy in a bright orange shirt that says “My skills never end” pops a wheelie. A guy in boxing gloves punches the air—the Mayweather/Pacquiao fight is tonight.

At some point, Kwei-Armah sneaks into the crowd, his arm outstretched to the sky with everybody else’s. He is all but forced to speak by Brunings, but he keeps it short and redirects the focus to the cast and crew of “Marley”: “I don’t have very much to say, but Baltimore I am pleased that this most magnificent assembly of artists have come here to consecrate this Earth with love and with song. Baltimore, we are proud of you and we send up to the most high, the vibrations of our heart: love, peace, and prosperity. For our children. For our children. For our children. For our children. Peace and love.”

What Brunings doesn’t seem to yet realize is that everybody is here for him and his voice, not Kwei-Armah. It’s evidence that what Kwei-Armah admitted early on in the show’s rehearsals is true: “They’re here to see and hear Bob.” And Brunings is Bob, controlling the crowd, locating and easing their rage and frustration, listening and offering up solutions via rebellious pop music.

Considering Center Stage’s location in Mount Vernon, the gesture could have easily been a lazy one had they done it in the mostly white, mostly detached neighborhood. But fittingly “Marley” did what Marley would do: take the message to the people needing it the most. The decision to roll up on a Saturday with the cast and crew crooning some Marley tunes, backed by only a keyboard and some speakers matters, a strange though necessary way to preview the play.

“We had to go to the heart of the pain,” Kwei-Armah says. 

“Let’s be honest, the only thing that keeps us going every day is love,” Brunings tells the crowd. He seems to speaking as Marley. (J.M. Giordano)

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