Alex Wheatle MBE’s award-winning young adult novel, ‘Crongton Knights’ has been adapted for the stage by Emteaz Hussain and is on its first UK tour. He talks to Carmel Thomason about life on the fictional Crongton Estate, bringing communities together and finding hope through stories.
What’s the story of Crongton Knights?
Alex: “Crongton Knights is a story of six school friends who come to the aid of one of them, Venetia, who has had her mobile phone stolen from an ex-boyfriend and this ex-boyfriend is threatening to upload inappropriate images of them together to social media. Venetia feels that she cannot inform her parents or any of her teachers, so she enlists her friends to venture into dangerous territory to confront the ex-boyfriend and retrieve her phone”.
Where did the inspiration for the story come from?
Alex: “The inspiration for Crongton Knights comes from my experiences working as a youth worker and having to deal with all manner of young people’s problems, issues and situations they find themselves in”.
Is anything in it autobiographical?
Alex: “As a writer, you cannot help but use your own life experiences to inform your characters. So, there’s a bit of Alex Wheatle in all the major characters. The fear of Jonah, the courage of Saira, the loneliness of McKay and so on…”
You’ve learned lessons the hard way. What was it that helped you turn your life around?
Alex: “What helped turn my life around was reading and the encouragement of a cell mate who made me believe that I had something good to offer to society. He encouraged my creative side, poetry and lyrics at that important time in my life”.
What about your writing experience?
Alex: “When I first picked up a pen, I wrote poetry and I tried being a reggae artist. Whatever I’ve been doing, I’ve always just tried to express that love is more powerful than hate. That’s what Crongton Knights is about, that people can come together and that’s powerful, especially if there is something they have come together to fight against. We are stronger together than apart, that’s the message. There is so much division these days and politicians emphasise that division rather than looking at what brings us together, which is why I want to tell the stories that I write”.
What does it feel like to have your work adapted for the stage?
Alex: “It feels absolutely amazing to see my work, my characters on stage. Overwhelming. The cast, directors and production team have done such a fantastic job. I feel very proud”.
How involved have you been in the adaptation?
Alex: “I didn’t want to interfere with the adaptation but every now and again, Emteaz Hussein, the playwright, consulted me whenever she had a query about the original text”.
How has the story changed for the stage?
Alex: “Emteaz had a very difficult job of cutting down my book to a third of its length for the stage adaptation. She has kept the heart of the book, which is the friendship between the friends and stayed true to its core message.
“When we first met, I sat down with her and said, ‘Just make of it what you will’. I thought it would be kind of boring if there was a word-for-word telling of what I’d written on stage. Emteaz came up with some really interesting ideas, like making a character called Boy From the Hills a female character called Bush Girl. I thought the idea of introducing beatboxing to the story was a great idea. When I first heard the lyrics and beatboxing for the play, it blew me away. It’s really elevated it to another level”.
What do you hope people will take from seeing the show?
Alex: “I hope that people who watch the play will take away how fragile and vulnerable many young people are in our inner cities but also there is a lot of goodwill and spirit and laughter from those communities”.
What’s next for you?
Alex: “Next for me is a novella based on a real historical event: the 1760 slave revolt in St Mary Parish, Jamaica. It’s called CANE WARRIORS and will be published October 2020”.