When I call Rikki Beadle-Blair he is frantically scribbling the final touches to the script of Shalom Baby, his latest play opening at Theatre Royal Stratford East this week.
“Just another 20 minutes,“ he pants, “they wanted it an hour ago.“ It’s unusual for the writer and director to be working so close to deadline, but this play is unlike any he has done in the past.
“I usually write really fast,“ he explains when I call again, the script now finally on its way to the publishers, “but this one has taken me ten years and I’ve been writing right up to the last minute.
“Dealing with something so sensitive and upsetting – to make it entertaining while still being respectful has been a real challenge.“
Shalom Baby is a love story that leaps back and forth in time between 1930s Berlin and modern day Brooklyn. As the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family falls in love with a black shabbes goy in wartime Germany, a mixed race couple in seemingly unprejudiced New York cope with a multitude of calamities. Its decade long gestation began on a trip to America.
“I was in Washington just after 9/11 – a very intense time to be there. I spent a day looking round the Holocaust museum, a stunning experience, and was struck by the fact the Jews are so determined that this story will never be forgotten. I was completely inspired by that.
“But thousands of other minorities, blacks, gypsies and gays were killed too. Though in less numbers, they were still killed in their thousands.
“They are a less literate and published community. I didn’t want to eclipse the Jewish story but wanted to make that contribution for the others.“
Rikki talks with authority about the treatment of minorities at the hands of the Nazis, recalling horrific statistics with melancholy ease. Before writing, he embarked on long periods of research, eager to get “all the details just right”.
Hours were spent in books about the Nazi atrocities and he admits to “days on YouTube watching videos”. He even made a trip to Berlin.
“I wandered around, learning the streets and buildings and trees, so I can capture that feeling of being there. It was an invaluable experience, being able to describe to actors what they can see really brings it to life.“
As with most of his output, from award-winning radio documentary The Roots of Homophobia to Channel 4 series Metrosexuality, Rikki has a hand in most elements of the production. In Shalom Baby he is credited as director, writer, set designer. He even picked the costumes.
“It’s like how some painters buy a canvas where others stretch their own,“ he explains. “It’s not about control it’s about not withholding what I can do.“
As the story unfolds, despite the passing of time, it becomes clear certain prejudices remain for the characters.
“Though it is depressing, I also think the characters are more resilient and learn from history,“ says Rikki, named in the Observer as one the 100 most influential gay people in Britain. “But spending time on the internet you realise that prejudices persist, there are still so many bigoted people.
“One of our cast went into a shop recently to be greeted with ‘Heil’ and a salute – here in London!“
Despite its demanding subject matter, Shalom Baby remains both poignant and humorous, exploring issues of racism and sexuality with Rikki’s customary warmth.
“The play is kind of like a baby that’s taken a long time to grow,“ Rikki explains. “You don’t love it any more or less than the others but it’s more fragile, it needs more care.
“It represents my biggest stretch. It’s me on full points with one leg in the air, trying to get that ballet pose!“
Shalom Baby is at Theatre Royal Stratford East from October 20 to November 19. Details: 020 8534 0310.