Who is Lanre Malaolu? Speaking to the young actor, director, writer, choreographer and film-maker via Zoom, the question keeps occurring, albeit in different guises. Characteristically, Malaolu responds not with answers, but with stories. For example: “About five years ago I had a meeting with a quite well-known agent and she said it’s good that you do all these things, but I just don’t know where I can put you. And in my head I was like but that’s the whole point!”
Look over Malaolu’s life story, and it does indeed look like the whole point. Born and raised in Hackney, east London, he remembers having a lot of energy as a kid and not knowing “where to put it”. His mother helped channel it through acting, taking him to weekend classes at the Anna Scher theatre school, a champion of working-class talent in particular, with alumni including Kathy Burke, Daniel Kaluuya and Adam Deacon. After classes, inspired by groups such as Diversity and Flawless on TV talent shows, he and his friends would often dance together. But it was a live performance at Sadler’s Wells Breakin’ Convention festival of hip-hop dance theatre that really hit home. “I’ll never forget walking down the street afterwards with my friends,” he says. “I was shaking with excitement. From that day, we decided to form a dance company, with the sole aim of performing at Breakin’ Convention.”
Protocol Dance Company, founded in 2008 with a fellow Anna Scher student, Jared Garfield, did indeed make it to Breakin’ Convention – though not until their third try. In the meantime, Malaolu had moved to Drama Centre London (now closed), where the acting style emphasised the physical embodiment of inner feelings, and his choreography veered away from spectacle towards expressionist movement and physical theatre (inspired by Pina Bausch, among others). The works that finally made it on to the Sadler’s Wells stage – Antibody (2013), Manhood (2015) and I Can’t Breathe (2016) – showed him exploring much more personal concerns: race, masculinity, psychology and emotion.
Malaolu went on to work across many fields and disciplines – frequently as an actor, including for the RSC and Royal Court as well as a stint in Channel 4’s Hollyoaks, but also as a movement director, writer and film-maker (a BBC feature film is currently in development). But it is this nexus of personal themes that has so far most marked his own work. I Can’t Breathe was a response to the killing of Eric Garner in 2014, a key moment in the Black Lives Matter movement. Elephant in the Room (2019) – a mix of movement, theatre and spoken word – explored mental and emotional health in Black men. The Conversation is a 2019 short film on communicating racial experience to white partners, and The Circle is a 2020 documentary digging into the dynamics of “brotherhood” between Black men.
Yet that identity – that box – is exactly what Malaolu is trying to open up, so that he can’t just be put inside it. “I’ve grown up knowing I was Black, and thinking that’s the only thing I am. It’s outside my house, it’s inside my house. It’s my parents saying: you don’t get dealt the same cards. I’m Black. It’s walking down the street. I’m Black. But as I grow older it’s like: Oh! There’s colour! I’m full of colour and emotions and variations and contradictions. There’s so much colour inside being Black, there’s also gentleness, there’s love, there’s connection, there’s jokes, there’s joy. I’m trying to tap into that abundance.”
Right now, Malaolu is working on his new piece, Samskara (the word refers to the imprint that the past leaves within us), which was marked by two experiences in particular. The first was a series of workshops he facilitated for inmates at Thameside prison, exploring movement, touch and emotion. “One week,” he remembers, “a guy who had always been really boisterous and up was just sitting there, rocking and shaking his head. He looked up and said: ‘I’m tired of being strong.’ It made me think about what it is to be a Black man and feel like you always have to hold certain things. It’s a kind of chain, these things you hold not only to and for white people, but also in the community, to brothers, to yourself.”
The second experience also featured a kind of chain. “It was a conversation in the car with my dad. He hasn’t been consistently present in my life, and I felt a lot of anger and resentment about that. Suddenly, he said: ‘All I know is how my dad was with me.’ And he started talking about his own dad. I started to think about how he was with me, how his dad was with him, how the dad before that was with his son, and I was like: Lanre, what are you going to pass on? What are you going to perpetuate that you don’t even realise you’re doing?”
If there is a “whole point” to Lanre Malaolu, it seems to be just this: unboxing. It’s not only that he moves between word, movement, image, acting, writing and directing; it’s also that he wants to unpack things, loosen himself from what holds us down, to let colours and contents spill out through performance. “The body feels emotions, we don’t think them,” he says. “I just try to tap those emotions out physically into storytelling that we connect with, because we all hold these things inside our selves, inside our souls.”
• Samskara is at the Yard theatre, London, from 8-26 November.