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Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race became an instant Australian memoir classic when it was published in 2016. This month, the moving coming-of-age story about racism and belonging graces the stage of the Malthouse Theatre. In this interview, the award-winning poet, author and playwright talks about the process of adaption, collaboration and the freedoms of the theatrical form.

Images: Maxine Beneba Clarke, poet, author and playwright of The Hate Race (Malthouse Theatre).

This is your first time writing a play. How did the opportunity to adapt your memoir come about?

Malthouse Theatre approached me and asked if I had ever thought about adapting The Hate Race. Kudos to them, because it never would have occurred to me to put it on stage, to be honest!

But while this is my first time writing a full-length play, it’s not my first time writing for performance or theatre. Many, many years ago, I had a few short works performed at Sydney’s Short+Sweet festival. And of course, I’ve been a spoken-word poet for years—long before I was a writer who commits words to paper.

This is a multidisciplinary production with music, poetry and drama. Could you tell us what it was like to develop the play with these different components?

The stage production is really different from the book. I tied myself in knots trying to write a more ‘traditional’ play on and off over the years. With various different creative eyes, ears and minds in on the development process, the play really cracked open for me when I realised it had to be a one-person show, and that it had to include poetry and live music—all of the things associated with the Afro-Caribbean storytelling tradition. I essentially went from ‘How do I do this with only dialogue at my disposal?’ to ‘Actually, there are all of these live performance genres I now have access to that I can’t use in a book!’ It’s a different toolbox but not a smaller toolbox. I just needed some time to examine the tools and work out which ones I needed to use.

I created a lot of new writing material. Sometimes it was about adapting existing scenes in the book. At other times, it was about bending, changing or adding to those scenes so the material worked on stage as drama. And sometimes about creating new material to make sure that the story arc made sense.

It’s a different toolbox but not a smaller toolbox.

Musician and performer Kuda Mapeza’s absolutely stunning voice is present throughout the show. While I wrote a lot of the music into the work, in terms of noting what song should be heard where, it was Kuda, directors Courtney Stewart and Tariro Mavondo, and composer and sound engineer Dan West who had the job of weaving it all together. I’m just the one who wrote ‘The musician plays “Shoop” by Salt-N-Pepa’ in the music directions, and they had the difficult talk of deciding what that meant, and somehow making it work! They’ve done such a beautiful job, in my opinion.

Declan Greene hasn’t been in the rehearsal room this summer as he’s now the artistic director at Griffin Theatre, but he’s been a dramaturg on The Hate Race for years. He read every single different version of the play and worked with me on structure and pacing—no doubt his blood pressure suffered severely. I am forever indebted to him for his painstaking patience and care in midwifing this play into the world.

You’ve said that ‘it took a village’ for the production to come together. Writing can often be a solitary activity. Did you learn anything new about collaboration during this process?

Because I’ve also worked on illustrated picture books, both as a writer and as an illustrator, I do collaborate a lot in my creative work. Open communication is key.

With The Hate Race, it was everyone having the humility to realise that, ultimately, once the work gets into the rehearsal room, it’s a contest of ideas and the best idea in the room wins. But I haven’t been in the rehearsal room too much (perhaps only about 15 per cent of the time), because, personally, I think it would be weird to test things out fully if the person whose life you’re portraying is standing there watching and potentially judging you (laughs). Although the team claims to like having me in the room!

Actor Zahra Newman embodies all the characters in the play. What is it like to see her bring your book to life?

I was really interested in seeing what Zahra could do with the piece, because I’ve seen her in numerous one-person performances, including debbie tucker green’s random (Belvoir) and the recent Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill by Lanie Robertson (MTC). We actually first met when my publishers put a call-out for an actor to read the audiobook of The Hate Race. I listened to the four audition tapes they sent me, heard her version and thought ‘That’s closest to how I would read it myself’. Then I googled her and realised she was from the same background and was born in Jamaica, and that was also around the time her career was exploding as well. I’d never heard of her, and then suddenly she was everywhere! In The Book of Morman and Wake in Fright, on Neighbours

I do collaborate a lot in my creative work. Open communication is key.

Zahra plays about twenty characters in the play: some of whom we only hear for a few lines, and others whom we spend quite a bit of time with. It’s incredible to see one person physically embody so many people. Of course, it’s not like watching my family or my school teachers though—the ‘Dad’ Zahra plays is nothing like my actual dad, and things like that. That’s the beauty of a script. You put certain cues in there and leave the rest up to the actors and directors.

Image: Zahra Newman in The Hate Race (Malthouse Theatre).

You are a performer of poetry, notably slam poetry. After your experience with Malthouse, are you inspired to give acting a go?

No! Spoken word is as far as I go. Although my mother is an actor, and my young niece, who lives in London, played young Nala in the UK production of The Lion King for about a year. My son does stand-up comedy and my daughter sings. So yes, I guess you could say performing is definitely in the genes. But still, no acting for me!

The Hate Race is on the VCE curriculum. What’s it been like to have young adult readers engage with the book?

It’s been fascinating going into schools and talking to VCE students about The Hate Race. There are so few non-fiction books set in Australian schoolyards, and it really seems to resonate with young folks.

The play is also very funny. It tells of a childhood full of joy and ordinariness.

As part of the season, we’re also running some free workshops for young First Nations, Black and Indigenous people aged 18–30 with myself and director Tariro Mavondo (they’re on this coming Saturday 24 February, and the following Saturday 2 March) with the option of purchasing a half-price ticket to the show.

Malthouse says this production is ‘more than a theatrical experience—it is a call to action’. What do you hope the audience gets from the experience?

I hope those theatregoers who haven’t had the experience of being othered learn to better recognise direct and indirect racism—and think of intervening. I hope those who do have the experience of being othered see themselves on stage and feel seen, uplifted and validated in their experience of the world.

The play is also very funny. It tells of a childhood full of joy and ordinariness. One of the things I’ve been so glad about when we’ve had folks in to watch rehearsals is how much laughter there is in the room. It is a work of Black Joy, but at the same time, it tells a tale of trauma. So, ultimately, I hope audiences just enjoy the storytelling and the theatre experience, and get transported to a different world for just over an hour until we send them away. Ultimately, that is what good theatre does.

The Hate Race is on 23 February to 17 March 2024 at Malthouse Theatre. Find out more.