15/09/2020 8:29 PM AEST | Updated 15/09/2020 8:29 PM AEST

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith On The Power Of Storytelling To Lift Spirits In Times Of Strife

The British actor has contributed to a new podcast raising money for the Covid-19 relief effort in Nigeria.

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Kobna Holdbrook-Smith on stage at The Olivier Awards 2019 after winning the Best Actor in a Musical award.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, winner of the Best Actor in a Musical Olivier award in 2019 for his role in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, has told HuffPost UK he has never felt so seen.

Following the eerie silence of deep lockdown in March and April, the Black Lives Matter protests in May signified a drastic change of pace: there was still a pandemic on, but the killing of George Floyd meant empty streets were now full with thousands of furious protestors.

“As a Black man I’ve never felt as seen, and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt quite as sceptical,” he tells HuffPost UK. “On the one hand I’ve seen so many people talking about Black Lives Matter. On the other hand is it just a social media fad?”

By anyone’s standards, 2020’s news cycle has been a giant, pressing weight. 

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Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Tina Turner at the press night for Tina: The Tina Turner Musical in London. Kobna played Tina's abusive husband Ike, for which he won the Best Actor in a Musical Olivier award

But for people of colour, who are statistically more likely to be the targets of police brutality, 2020 earmarks an opportunity for change. 

“I really, really strongly believe in people’s rights to grow, to learn, to move away from what they didn’t know before,” says Kobna, reflecting on the movement. “It’s really important that people are able to go, ’Oh wait a minute, I’ve never done something before, and now I see it differently and I’m going to do something different.”

An activist alongside his acting work, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith starred in Mary Poppins Returns as lawyer Templeton Frye in 2019 and on Marvel’s Dr Strange in 2016 with Benedict Cumberbatch, whom he had already starred alongside in Hamlet at the Barbican in 2015 (Kobna played Laertes, Benedict was Hamlet).

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Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and US actress Adrienne Warren pose on the red carpet upon arrival to attend The Olivier Awards at the Royal Albert Hall in London

In his latest role, Kobna hopes to respond to the upsetting news cycle by focusing on a more positive aspect of the tumultuous events: the way storytelling can bring us together in times of strife. And the sense of community and family values that have supported many of us through the lockdown.

One of the actors involved in the Yahoo STO4IES podcast, Kobna has recorded Polly Tumpkin’s Pumpkin, a story about a young girl called Polly and her father who enter a pumpkin growing contest. 

Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, David Oyelowo and Zoe Saldana have also recorded episodes for the series without taking a fee - as the podcast is raising awareness of the work of The GEANCO Foundation, an organisation raising money and offering support for Covid-19 relief in Nigeria, where doctors have gone on strike over low salaries and hazardous working conditions. 

These stories aim to connect wider audiences with the uniquely challenging story of life right now on the African continent.

“I’ve got quite a romantic view about art and its ability to connect with people,” says Kobna.

“It has this bridging function that no one can deny. If you see something, a work of art, a painting, you listen to something, you enjoy something that was made up: it did not exist before someone invented it and then you connect to an imagined feeling: you and the creator, your imaginations meet in the middle. 

Humans are the only ones that make stuff up because they’re enjoyable, and that to me is the nature of art.Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

“It’s especially wonderful in theatre, there’s this confederacy where the audience and the makers come together and say, ‘okay, so we all agree we’re in Venice in 1600s, right? Right? Okay, then off we go.’ It tickles me pink each time.

“I genuinely think it distinguishes humans from other animals, because we’re the only ones that make stuff up,” says Kobna.

“Other animals use tools, other animals have social interactions, they have matching sexual practices, there are loads of things about us and other creatures that overlap but we’re the only ones that make stuff up because they’re enjoyable, and that to me is the nature of art.”

Acting is also a successful means of representing marginalised groups in society. “With art, you can see people,” says Kobna.

“Representation has a really important function. It’s not the ultimate function, and we don’t want to get into the realm of saying, ‘oh well we have to behave in a certain way in order to please the White powerful people,’ but we do have an opportunity in the stories we imagine, to include [representation of people from different backgrounds]...” 

He uses Game Of Thrones as an example of how the entertainment industry is in a confusing place right now with representation. “I often quip about it,” he says.

People think Black people in Game of Thrones is somehow unrealistic. But this programme is full of dragons?Kobna Holdbrook-Smith on the confusing place we're at with diversity in TV and film

“People think Black people in Game Of Thrones is somehow unrealistic. But this programme is full of dragons? How are dragons less crow-barred in than Black people, or people of colour?”

Industry insiders say there is already some change afoot. Executives are finally involved in more constructive conversations around ways to actively diversify the film and TV industry, say diversity groups like The TV Mindset, which has flourished in the wake of Black Lives Matter.

Perhaps soon we can hope that dragons will be the unusual inclusions in TV shows - not minority groups.

Kobna finishes by offering a further assessment of how art can help. “The power of art is art is very soft, it requires vulnerability. It also requires complicity,” he says of the the relationship between audiences and actors.

“I think there’s something about being able to join in that is genuinely powerful.”