Page last updated at 08:56 GMT, Friday, 13 November 2009

Talking Shop: Bonnie Greer

Bonnie Greer
Bonnie Greer hopes her play will give people a different perspective on the famous characters

American-born writer Bonnie Greer has written a play based on the unlikely friendship between Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald.

Marilyn and Ella is the true story of two iconic females, forging a bond in 1950s' America, interspersed with hit songs from the era including Mack the Knife, Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend and My Funny Valentine.

Ms Greer is resident in the UK and is also a trustee of the British Museum. She is an occasional contributor to BBC Two's Newsnight Review, and was a panel member on BBC One's Question Time when Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, was invited on for the first time.

Why did you want to write a play about Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald?

I was working on a book, and I turned the TV on in the background. There was a programme on called Marilyn in Manhattan, about how Marilyn went to New York in 1955 to kick start her career. She was starting her own production company, the first woman in films to do that. Ella Fitzgerald's face popped up on the screen and it caught my attention.

Tell me about the significance of the Mocambo club?

There was one line about how Marilyn went to Mocambo, the biggest club on the West Coast, and said to the owner if you book Ella Fitzgerald for five nights I will be there every night, which is the equivalent today of Angelina Jolie going to the local club and saying you book Claudia in there I will be front row every night!

Suzie Kennedy and Hope Augustus as Marilyn and Ella
Suzie Kennedy and Hope Augustus as Marilyn and Ella

It was revoluntionary. For Marilyn to put herself on the line like that, to put her career on the line, was enormous. Playing Macambo allowed Ella to go to another step. And I just thought what a beautiful story - it made me cry.

Did these two ladies have anything in common?

Yes they were both poor and came from sexually abused childhoods. Ella lost her mother very young and Marilyn's mother was in and out of mental institutions. Both girls were terribly ambitious but were pigeonholed: Marilyn the dumb blonde and Ella the girl who always made you smile. Nothing deeper than that.

Tell me about the director?

Colin McFarlane is the first black British director, actor and producer to use his own money to be in the West End. It is very important that this is known because the United Kingdom is changing so rapidly, it is leading the way with so many cultures influencing and shaping things.

What is exciting about being in the UK today is we have all sorts of problems but this island is a beautiful template for the way the world is changing and moving. There are formats being created that are impacting all over the world.

What is your favourite number in the show?

It has to be I've Got You Under My Skin. Marilyn is really optimistic during the production about getting married to a new man, and starting a production company, and feels she won't have to be the dumb blonde anymore. Ella sings 'don't you know, you fool, you never can win'. That is my favourite moment.

Has the production been in America?

No, I hope it goes to America. People who have seen the show say what they like is that the story is about two women who are not clawing each other to death. It is about a black woman and a white woman, who you wouldn't think have anything in common and yet have everything in common. It also has great songs and gives you a different picture of Marilyn.

Tell me about your new book Obama Music?

It is a little bit about my life growing up on the south side of Chicago and growing up in the 60s. Obama says even though he was a little boy in the 60s he is very much rooted in the 60s.

In the book I take you all the way back to the great migration of African Americans to Chicago. I look at it through the portal of Jazz , Blues, Gospel and Soul and talk about Obama as the epitome of all these great music styles.

Tell me about your involvement with the British Museum?

I have been part of the British Museum as a trustee for five years. The museum is becoming a place where distortions about history are being met and challenged. I think the big issue now for the 21st Century is the clarification of history. We are building a new world conservation centre which I urge everyone to help us to build .

I have to ask you about your recent appearance on Question Time, what was it like for you?

There was a lot of pressure two weeks before, I was getting something like 40 calls a day. I thought to myself I am not here to represent anyone but me. If it doesn't work for you then I am sorry, but I was determined to be the best me.

Within five minutes of Nick Griffin talking, I just thought 'this guy is like your brother-in-law's friend from the pub talking at Sunday lunch'. This guy isn't worth you justifying your existence, he doesn't care about you he only cares about himself and just seemed so chuffed to be on Question Time.

Bonnie Greer was talking to BBC News reporter Claudia Redmond.

Marilyn & Ella playing at the Apollo Theatre on 15, 22 and 29 November.

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