Last summer, Giles Terera watched London come back to life from his window. The actor, who won an Olivier award in 2018 for playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton, was in the middle of working on a book - a diary of his time in the hit show, to be published in July. When his eyes became sore he’d look outside and then start to play his guitar or his piano. Soho, where he lives, “had gone from completely silent and dead, to completely bustling and bursting,” he tells me. “There was always something going on outside of the window – it was when lockdown had started to ease. So I just found myself writing about what I was seeing, and what I’d been experiencing over the last however many months.”
The result is a new song cycle called Black Matter, which Terera, 44, was due to perform at Crazy Coqs earlier this year until the latest lockdown put a stop to live performances. Instead it’s been filmed and will be available to stream this month. It’s by far the freshest and most engaging online performance I’ve seen since the pandemic began, addressing everything we’ve been thinking and feeling over the last year, from Black Lives Matter protests to the need to be kind to ourselves as we struggle through a global crisis. It eloquently proves the point that art is a vital tool in helping us process things.
The songs were an organic creative response to the situation, and Terera wanted them to feel immediate. Having always expressed himself through writing and music, he found the process quick and easy – the songs were, astonishingly, written within 10 days.
After the initial shock of the country going into lockdown - “it’s like, what is this new world? How do I get used to it? What’s gonna happen to my work, my career?” - Terera was mindful about using the time to take care of himself. “I wanted to make sure that, rather than be totally guided by what I was seeing on the outside world and media-wise, the task I set was: right, use your eyes and ears to try and process what you are thinking and feeling and experiencing, and then try and create something.”
In the early stages of lockdown, he found it eerie to see Soho become so stark and deserted. “I could walk from my flat on Old Compton Street, through Seven Dials, through Covent Garden, down to the river and not see anyone, not see a car or a person,” he says. At one point, nature began to return – he heard birds in the morning, something that had never happened before. “I saw some kind of bird of prey hovering over Cambridge Circus. I stood and watched that for ages, just thinking: ‘is that actually a hawk or something?’” Then, as lockdown began to lift, the streets began to fill with demonstrations as Black Lives Matter protests went global. “It completely turned on its head – there were sirens going all the time, always at least one or two helicopters. So it became very chaotic, and quite scary at times.”
During his performance, Terera sits at his piano and recounts an incident he witnessed, where a white woman threw a glass of wine over two black men she didn’t know. He counted 25 policemen arrive and swarm on the black men, while the white woman walked off – until punters pointed out she was the person they should have stopped. Immediately afterwards he wrote a song - “You have the right to remain brilliant / you have the right to remain true / you have the right to remain resilient / you have the right to remain you” - a compassionate response to black people dehumanised by police racism. We’re speaking on the same week that a reckoning about racism in the UK is taking place, thanks to Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah – does he think that conversation is opening up? “The conversation is being had, and as much conversation as we can have is great. But I’m hoping that there will be action to implement the conversation,” he says.
Another song is a tribute to the artist Khadija Saye, who died in the Grenfell Tower fire. “Art isn’t always on a wall / She loved queen Beyonce and RuPaul / She exposed the picture of Britain once and for all,” he sings. He also namechecks Amanda Gorman, Diane Abbott and Stephen Lawrence, and believes that bringing black voices into our canon and national history is crucial. “There have always been black people in this country, and the contribution that we have made is a very real and important one. So I think that no matter where you are, that should be acknowledged and respected.”
The song cycle is also a search to find joy among these difficult twelve months. One song is dedicated to his sister, Nikki, and another, Be Good To Yourself, is a reminder not to torture yourself by sitting on social media all day. These times have been, he says, “that f***ing horrendous word – unprecedented”, and he talks often with his friends about what a huge weight this all is. “I can only speak for myself, but I found a way to really address things, whether they’re difficult, or whatever they happen to be, is equal parts joy, equal parts strength or frustration or anger. I wanted to write about what I was seeing and experiencing, which was a huge amount of rage and frustration and disrespect, but also a huge amount of joy and people finding ways to communicate with each other.”
As well as his role in Hamilton, Terera has performed numerous roles at the National Theatre and with the RSC, and was in 2019’s West End production of Rosmersholm. As a performer living through a period where theatres are closed, it has felt like “the rug is pulled out from under you”, but he has dealt with it by taking things one day at a time. “I tried to say, there’ll be good days and shit days. The good days: try and enjoy them and get the most out of them; the shit days – don’t dwell on them too much. And know it’s a natural part of a very unnatural situation.”
The book Terera was working on last summer is a journal from his time playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton, set to be released in July. Keeping a journal is something he does for most work projects – when he was writing it he never imagined it would be published. “As I was looking at it I thought, ‘oh, this is the kind of thing I would have liked to read when I was training’.”
Terera was recently a panel member on the Evening Standard’s Future Theatre Fund, which aimed to help those struggling to break into theatre because of the pandemic. Supporting new talent is something that he is passionate about and returns to a lot. When I ask what he thinks we’ve learned about theatre’s value in the last twelve months, he says it’s all about the shift that young people will bring. “I’m really looking forward to, and have got faith in the ideas that young people, young artists, young minds are going to come up with.”
Somewhere, right now, he thinks, “some brilliant young artist is coming up with a way of making theatre, making movies and expressing themselves and sharing it with an audience that we don’t really know about yet. Someone is acknowledging the situation and using it, as opposed to resisting it and trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Black Matter will be available to stream from March 24-31; fane.co.uk/giles-terera