Preacher man

Jolly Roger: Griffiths  appears in Sheffield with Jocelyn Jee Esien, and Daniel Francis
Jolly Roger: Griffiths appears in Sheffield with Jocelyn Jee Esien, and Daniel Francis

Ahead of the European premiere of One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show in Sheffield, David Dunn speaks to two of the actors

IT might be a world away from Doctor Who but Roger Griffiths can work in Sheffield safe in the knowledge he has the approval of his offspring.

“I got a lot of points for Doctor Who,” says the actor who played Commander Kess but appears at the Crucible Studio from tomorrrow.

“My youngest came home with this coolness and threw across the dining table these cards which I was on with my powers. Forget everything at that point, this is what it’s about, ‘the boy is trading your cards at school’. I got a lot of credits in the playground for that and Batman Begins.”

Roger, whose CV also includes the classic Peckham barber shop TV comedy Desmonds, occupies a very different role during his time in Sheffield, that of father and preacher Avery in Don Evans’ seminal play alongside 3 Non Blondes star Jocelyn Jee Esien.

“I did a lot of comedy in the first seven years of my career, a lot of theatre, then broke into TV with Desmonds. There were a lot of sitcoms then you could drift through.

“I did something called Chef! with Lenny Henry, which was way ahead of its time. Then the business started changing, comedy started becoming about going out on the street and frightening members of the public and about reaction and not action.

“That can work for three ladies but for a big black man like me it didn’t quite fit. I tried a few things and it wasn’t funny, too edgy for me and I didn’t like it.”

Certainly Roger, who also runs a black theatre and literature-based company called Eye To Eye Productions, seems not to have been short of work since, becoming a familiar face courtesy of TV shows such as Holby, EastEnders, Channel 4’s Dubplate Drama and BBC1’s Rock & Chips.

“As a supporting actor you get to do the really interesting roles. You can get yourself wrapped up in something for a year, two or three years, but the art is to – when you’ve finished that – shed that skin and transform into whatever else you do, not just to be.

“Acting comes from a place of truth and if you can convince your audience that you’re telling the truth at that particular time in that particular situation then they will follow you.”

Set in ’70s Philadelphia, One Monkey certainly presents its own challenges, not least for Roger’s character Avery. He plays the male head of a family that has moved ‘up’ into a middle class neighbourhood with all the issues, tests and family questions that entails.

“Avery is a preacher in turmoil in his midlife crisis – we open with him burying his brother,” says Roger.

“When my dad passed I felt I was next on the plate, I moved up and I did start thinking as a man and as the first born child you do feel that, so his brother may have been the only buffer.

“He starts re-assessing himself, mentally, sexually, and it affects his relationship with his wife, which affects the whole household. Obviously the household has its own problems and stories which are all woven into one big explosion at the end.”

Timing as well as race is crucial to Evans’ story, although it raises issues still prevalent in 2011 society and on both sides of the Atlantic.

“It’s a migration city,” Roger says of location. “People migrated from the south almost directly from slavery, having to reinvent themselves and fit in and become Americans, citizens.

“This is about the social class struggle, peer pressure, identity, about how we treat ourselves as a black people. And how we perceive ourselves and how we think we’re being perceived; it’s all there in the melting pot.

“It’s a human story. We are black people, yes, but you can transfer this story to any race of people. It’s about how people evolve.”

And Roger says he has taken some of his own background as a reference point for the family in this Eclipse and Sheffield Theatres co-production.

“I came from the East End, working class boy. It’s about how you work your way out of that and do you ever? If you earn a lot of money, are you still a working class boy? Or do you stay working class and your kids who are educated in private school become middle class? Do they change you?

In One Monkey TV comic Jocelyn plays Avery’s his wife Myra, a potent character at the heart of a family full of strong characters.