Newcastle-based Kema Kay began his acting career by landing a major part in 2016’s I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach. Now, he’s bringing his own experience of starting a life in a new country to a performance this summer at the Sage Gateshead.
What was your first break into the acting world?
I didn’t go through the drama school route. I knew I wanted to be an actor but I didn’t know how to go about getting parts, so I registered with an extras agency and was just taking everything that came my way and trying to learn as much as I could.
Then I landed my very first proper acting role, in I Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake in 2016, when I was 23.
I thought I was auditioning to be an extra in the film but I ended up being asked to do some improv for Ken Loach. I think that, because I’m also a rapper, improvising came quite naturally to me and I ended up being told I’d got a main part.
I didn’t realise how big a deal it was at the time, but when I started getting the scripts through it became real and I thought, ‘oh my god, I actually have a role in a movie!’
Tell us about the character you play in Peace Procession3: Standing Together
I play Gahiji who has just met his wife-to-be, Dina. Gahiji has started a new life, as he’s a refugee, but he has to go on the run and try to stay safe again, and the thought of Dina keeps him going.
Gahiji has a sense of not belonging which I’ve felt all my life, and I brought myself and my own story to the role.
How did your own life story influence the role?
I came to this country from Zambia when I was three years old – my dad was studying to be an architect. When I was still very young, my dad’s uncle was shot and killed. He had been supporting our family so my dad had to find a new way to look after his two kids.
My mum went back to Zambia and she died when I was 14. By that point, we were fighting to stay in the country. The uncertainty went on for so many years, and there were lots of things we couldn’t do during that time – including go back to Zambia for my mum’s funeral.
My sense of not belonging comes from never knowing where I should be. My birth country saw me as British, but Britain didn’t. Where did I belong?
What do you hope people feel when they watch you in Peace Procession3: Standing Together?
What I love about Peace Procession3: Standing Together is it gives awareness.
There is a song in the show called Are We Safe? and that’s relevant to so many people today. Am I safe here? I don’t know, and a lot of people around the world feel the same way.
Theatre is a great way to shed light on issues and I want people who see the performance to think about what’s going on in the world.
How does it feel to be involved in Peace Procession3: Standing Together?
The experience of being in Peace Procession3: Standing Together has been amazing. I was challenged in how I bring a character to life in the role by the director pushing me and asking why I made certain choices as an actor. This really helped me grow and bring the character to life. The whole team was supportive and being part of something so important was an honour.
What else are you working on?
As well as rehearsals for Peace Procession3: Standing Together, I have a live show which I developed and performed at Live Theatre in Newcastle, called Shine. My full name is Kema Sikazwe. My mum gave me this name, which is from her tribe in Zambia, as it means the one who shines, and I wanted to inspire people to stay true to themselves and find their shine.
You can see Kema Kay perform as Gahiji in Peace Procession3: Standing Together at Sage Gateshead on Monday 22 June, 7.30pm. Tickets can be booked through the Sage Gateshead website – click here to book – or by calling the box office on 0191 443 4661.