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Huub van der Lubbe and Christine Otten on love in times of racial hatred

We had love, we had guns by Christine Otten is about black resistance fighter Robert F. Williams, who fought for the equality of black people. In the theatre adaptation of the same name, white actors - including Huub van der Lubbe - play black characters and vice versa. Double talk about personal sacrifice, skin colour and connection.

Writer Christine Otten ©Fjodor Buis


It is a remarkable coincidence. America is saying goodbye to its first black president Barack Obama and welcoming new president Donald Trump, already loved and infamous for discriminatory remarks. At the same time, writer Christine Otten is publishing a novel for which the story emerged eight years ago, just before Obama was elected.

It was 2008, and for NRC Handelsblad she made a report in Idlewild, Michigan. In this village in the woods, black people could be themselves undisturbed at the time of racial segregation. It was a safe and legendary enclave, where all the great (black) writers, thinkers and artists came, and even the policemen were not white.

Christine Otten went there to describe Obama's presidency from a black perspective, and met Mabel Williams. She was the wife of black resistance fighter Robert F. Williams. Mabel told Otten about their fight for equal rights and their flight from the Ku Klux Klan and the FBI, which drove them to Cuba and later to China. Otten adapted the story into the beautiful and cleverly composed novel We had love, we had guns. A book so topical that it was immediately adapted into a theatre production, with singer, poet and actor Huub van der Lubbe in the role of Daddy John, the father of Robert F. Williams.

You spoke to Mabel Williams back in 2008. Why did you write a novel about it only now?

Christine Otten: 'There were other books I had to do first, like the one about my father - To be able to breathe - and Rafaël, a book about two refugees. But at one point I was watching a film about Nelson Mandela, and I saw how strongly his struggle and armed resistance affected their private lives. Gee, I thought, I still have that Mabel Williams story. Deep inside me is a nostalgia for the African-American world, for the culture, that music. That attracts me like a magnet, I always want to go back there. I also find violence fascinating to write about. I wanted to explore that story.'

Had you kept in touch with the family?

CO: 'No, but I was also a journalist - tracking people down I love. As it turned out, Mabel Williams had just died by now, but her son John was a pastor and lived in Detroit. I had to overcome a bit to approach him. Because yes, then someone calls from Europe, a white woman no less. That family has been so blackened by yobs, so they are conceivably very careful about their heritage. It made a difference that I The Last Poets had written, The Last Poets, a novel about a group of African-American poets from the black power era. Everyone there knew the Last Poets, so the fact that I had written a book about them gave me a kind of seal of approval: this person is OK.'

Skin colour

As a white person, is it possible to tell the story of someone who has always been discriminated against because of their skin colour?

Huub van der Lubbe: 'In acting, you enter into an agreement with your audience: I am now this one and that one. In this performance, it is made clear that it is not about your skin colour, but about the arguments you present. The actor's job is to immerse himself in the character he is playing and his history. I know all too well that black actors sometimes find it hard to get the job because they are black. "We can hardly get him to play a white role anyway," people say. So you might wonder if it's not strange for me as a white actor to play the role of a black man. But I think Moroccan and black people don't think it's strange.'

CO: 'Well yes, well if you have the entire black cast played by white people. But in We had love, we had guns everything gets turned upside down and black people also play white roles. I never actually asked myself while writing this book: can I do this? As a writer, you have to humble yourself before your subject and the characters; it's not about you. If you write with love, empathy and integrity, you can write about anything. The Last Poets were also very happy with the book I wrote about them, because I had completely immersed myself in their culture.'

Is that the same as when a white person appropriates the history of black people?

CO: 'It's not about appropriation, but identification. As a writer, I get into the skin of the protagonist. It is no different for an actor. It requires surrender, forgetting yourself, becoming someone else. And the colour of someone's skin makes no difference. What matters is that we all make progress by having the ability to imagine what it is like to be someone else. That's why we read books, that's why we go to the theatre.'

HvdL: 'Look at the musical Hamilton, about 'Founding Father' Alexander Hamilton, who played a prominent role in the creation of the United States in the late 18th century. The entire cast is black. The play has won the Pulitzer Prize and 11 Tony Awards. I saw it and it was smashing. They also rightly flout history. The great general George Washington, the first president, but black. And yes, why not, really? He's just president of us all, isn't he? Such a simple intervention as flipping the proportions immediately triggers a lot in the audience.'

'One of the functions of drama is that it asks you questions. For myself, it was also an eye-opener. I had never really imagined what it's like to have to fight for your freedom like that. That is not an issue we white people have to torment ourselves with every day. That is why I found it so interesting to work on this.

CO: 'This story is about resistance, about standing up for yourself, standing up for your right to be yourself. My grandparents were already fighters from the labour movement for rights, so for me it was very easy to make that connection. Mabel and Robert are the same age as my parents. It took no effort for me to identify with them. And that's what it's all about: look around you and see how much you have in common and how much you can share. In the end, we are all people who want to be appreciated, long for love, who want the good for their families... That's universal.'

Family ties

In the end, it is also mostly about family and love.

CO: 'I deliberately chose the perspective of Mabel and John. Robert Williams was a hero, but also an exception. He was born that way actually, his grandparents were already militant. He didn't suffer from a sense of inferiority. Most people, however, are not heroes. If I wrote this story down from Mabel's perspective, a simple girl who fell in love with Robert, it would be a relatable and also empathetic story, I thought.'

'Robert, Mabel and their children had to make great sacrifices for this struggle. Robert was lonely in that he always had to make the decisions and always had to think of everything ten steps ahead. He constantly had to be on his guard and protect his children, even if it meant sending them to China on their own for a few years. I asked John how it was that he had nevertheless become such a stable man. According to him, it was because they were very close as a family and the love was unconditional.'

HvdL: 'I identify most with Mabel: that loving, feeling, unconditional feeling for her family and for her husband. I have wondered: why don't you leave? Quite a lot is asked of you. But they were all very proud of each other. I like that.'

CO: 'I don't think Robert could have done this without Mabel. I'm actually pretty sure of that.'

We had love, we had guns

The novel We had love, we had guns is the eighth book by writer Christine Otten (b. 1961). As a journalist, she wrote for De Groene Amsterdammer, Vrij Nederland and NRC Handelsblad. As a novelist, she broke through with The last poets (2004), a book that was nominated for the Libris Literature Prize, adapted into a theatre production and has been translated into English. We had love, we had guns will be brought to the stage by theatre company Urban Myth, featuring Huub van der Lubbe, Ntjam Rosie and Manoushka Zeegelaar Breeveld, among others. It will premiere on 28 January at Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam. The show will then go on tour throughout the country until the end of March, visiting theatres in Deventer, Meppel, Almere, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Enschede, Groningen and Tilburg, among others.

The book is published by AtlasContact, €19.99.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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