Clarke Peters clears his throat and unexpectedly breaks into song - "I'll know when my love comes around," he croons, the Belgian-chocolate smoothness of his tones filling the room. Despite some fretting that his voice is a bit dodgy today, from where I'm listening it sounds as if he's on course for another fulminating performance that evening as the reprobate Sky Masterson, who woos and wins the straitlaced Sally Army girl in the RNT's acclaimed Guys and Dolls. It's a role Peters first sang in this production some 10 years ago and, despite one critic's cavilling that a black Sky was "both unacceptable and implausible", it's won him nothing but praise since - just the kind of praise he's hoping to attract again with his two-nights-only production of Snakehips, the story of a wartime black British bandleader.
Now 45, the US-born Peters landed up here 20 years ago, after studying dance in Paris, and has stayed ever since. It was after appearing in musicals like Bubbling Brown Sugar, One Mo' Time and Blues in the Night that, 10 years ago, he decided it was time to devise a show of his own. The result: the hugely successful Five Guys Named Moe. "It always appeared to me that the African American's contribution to popular music was left on the sidelines. It was always Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Haley. But how much did we know of Louis Jordan, the man who'd influenced these rock 'n' rollers?"
The decision to write the show for an all-black cast was, of course, a consciously political one. "At that time, there were no vehicles for black performers to really excel, to really stretch themselves. I felt if I could find six guys who could dance and sing to their optimum, it would give a standard to work towards.'' Ten years on, does he feel black performers are any closer to competing on a level playing field? "It is evolving, but I think it could evolve quicker. You still have white directors directing black shows, but very rarely do you have black directors directing a white show."
Racism is, he says, something that he only seriously encountered when he left New Jersey and came to Europe. "I went to school with all races. We would open newspapers and see people were lynched in the South but nobody in my immediate environment was exercising that hate." In fact he has nothing but good memories of Dwight Marrow High School, an institution that also spawned John Travolta.
"Racism in Britain is when it's raining outside and my wife and I walk out to get a cab. The cab invariably drives off. That driver already has a preconceived notion of who I am, my economic status and my education."
In his latest project, Snakehips, Peters has delved into black British history and come up with a musical performance re-creating the life of bandleader Ken "Snakehips" Johnson. Born in British Guyana, Snakehips was just leading his West Indian Dance Orchestra into the second chorus of "Oh, Johnny" at the Cafe de Paris in 1941, when a German bomb hit the bandstand and the 26-year-old was killed.
Researching Snakehips' life has proved problematic. "Dr Joseph Mitchell, the economist, was old enough to remember him. But the archivists who have studied black history and done lots of wonderful work are holding on to information. I understand, when that happens, nothing really moves forward."
While Peters still nurses an ambition to play Creon in Antigone, he finds, increasingly, that he is drawn towards directing. His dancing days are certainly coming to an end. "I'm at that age now," he admits, "where my knees are going." I can't vouch for the knees, but I'm as taken by the charm off-stage as I have been onn
`Snakehips', 6.30pm tomorrow and Friday, Olivier, RNT, London SE1 (0171-928 2252)
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