Award-Winning Playwright Theresa Ikoko Talks About Her New Play, Girls

Three actresses appear on stage playfully miming as the audience enters the theatre, then, almost out of nowhere the play starts. There is no announcement, no turn off your phones request by management. We are just instantly drawn into their world, the Girls’ world and forget about ourselves until the end.

Girls, which is currently showing at the Soho theatre has to be one of the best orchestrated and dynamic shows I’ve ever seen. With the use of fantastic stage lighting and special effects, a very thought provoking storyline and an incredible performance by all three of the leads, this amazing drama had a colossal force that moved most of audience to tears.

Played by Anita-Joy Uwajeh, Yvette Boakye and Abiola Ogunbiyi. This cast had 10/10 chemistry bouncing off each other like racket and tennis ball. They had such tremendous enthusiasm and interestingly different but animated personalities. What I enjoyed was noticing the subtext of each character, the little moments of each thought process which sometimes they showed for no reason, I believe this is the most effective type of theatre. But with me it’s always about detail.

The story is set in a part of Africa which remained anonymous; the girls sharing an example of what many young women experience. The unfairness of kidnapping, sexism, arranged marriage and forced religion. 

This controversial plot was intelligently pieced together by award-winning playwright Theresa Ikoko. With 3 other productions already under her belt along with providing ongoing support as alumni to Talawa, one of London’s most respected black theatre companies, the Alfred Fagon award winner spoke to us about her journey as a playwright and the importance of her latest project… 

Could you give us a quick brief on the 3 main characters in Girls?

Haleema is the self-assigned leader. Actually, the other two seem to hand it over quite easily to her. She is driven, hard, caring and practical. She can be quite single minded and incapable of understanding opinion and views that contradict her own. Ruhab’s strength comes from her ability to adapt. She is beautiful and knows it, but she is tougher than people give her credit for. She is fun, and gentle. Haleema thinks Ruhab can be naive, but Ruhab would say, unlike Haleema, that she is open minded. She can appear a little self centred. Tisana is playful and optimistic. She loves her friends and her family. She has a strong, though sometimes unrealistic sense of who she is and who she should be. She is playful, and sometimes babied, but she has a quiet resilience that most people overlook.

How did you go about casting the right three actors to bring these characters to life, which qualities were you looking for?

Myself, Nadine Rennie (casting director, Soho), Elayce Ismail (director) and Holly White (Hightide) held loads of auditions. We are not short of talented black females in this country, despite their poor representation on stage and screen. There were some qualities that we knew the characters had, and that we wanted to see (e.g, Anita Joy Uwajeh’s ability to balance Haleema’s strength and compassion), some qualities in the characters that the actor revealed (e.g. Yvette Boakye’s presentation of a resolute and considered side of Ruhab, that I had had trouble articulating before seeing her performance) and some things that were just unexplainable magic (e.g. Knowing Abiola Ogundeli was Tisana, one line into her audition). There was also the factor of chemistry. Friendship is one of the strongest themes of this play. We did a lot of work in auditions trying to find three actors that sparked perfectly together. If you see AJ, Yvette and Abiola walking down the street, sitting on a bench or doing each other’s hair in the dressing room, you would think they have been the best of friends since nursery. Their chemistry and love is so evident. That love sings off the stage. It’s gold dust.

Why was Girls such an important story for you to tell?

girlsCuriosity makes the world smaller, it breeds compassion which is a powerful force. It leads to action, to change. I’m not quite sure what, if anything, a play can do… But I like the idea that for an hour, we take the time to get to know three black girls, we laugh with, and at them, we are impressed by them, we judge them, we disapprove of them, we love them. After I fell in love with the girls, I got excited about other people getting to know them; for the girls to disprove, to challenge and to rebuild people’s ideas (or lack thereof) of three girls they are unfamiliar with. I hope they are girls that people don’t forget so easily, and that maybe, in turn, we will be less inclined to forget, ignore and dismiss stories of other women, all over the world.

In a previous interview you mentioned that you have a responsibility in your writing and want to tell stories that represent the true hardships people face in the world. What do you hope to achieve by creating stories such as these?

Telling stories of hardship isn’t really what I’m about. Nina Steiger (National Theatre) describes my writing as ‘banter and brutality’. I like that. I try and be completely honest with the light and the dark of the world my characters live in. It’s interesting that brutality and banter, depending on the context, can be equally inappropriate. But, honesty is my only agenda. To tell truthful stories. Truthful, to the characters who do not represent a larger social group or drive a political agenda. I am aware that black female protagonists are not the norm, so I do take extra care to protect my characters.

I feel a responsibility to women and to black people; to not let us down, in a way. I think that drives me to dig a little deeper with my characters. Even if the portrayal isn’t flattering, I hope the honesty is undeniable and satisfying. People look to art for answers, but I sort of see it like art creates a space for questions we might not know to ask, or might never have been asked or a space to question our own thoughts, actions, ideas and feelings.

Do you fear that with this mindset you may be pigeonholed as a writer?

Not really. I think there are enough stories and spaces to tell them, to go around. I think every storyteller’s focus is on the story and the rest falls into place (or not). I’m fortunate to be surrounded by amazing companies and artists, who encourage me to just tell the best story I can, and for that to be the main focus. I still don’t really refer to myself as a writer. I’m not sure when I’ll get to the place where I feel like a writer. I’m still very new to this. I’m figuring it out as I go.

Being able to tell the stories you want relies heavily on the improvement of diversity in the arts, how do you feel things are improving… or not?

I haven’t grown up in the arts, and I didn’t study it, so I haven’t been privy to any inside experiences or development, but from the perspective of an audience member… I don’t feel like much is changing on the screen. There aren’t many/any stories starring black or Asian British people, by black or Asian Brits, on our TV (except Netflix, YouTube, independent projects etc). It’s not for lack of talent out there because I’m constantly blown away by black and Asian writers at readings and scratch nights.

There are amazing schemes that encourage diversity, but, I think the bottom up push for diversity, will always fall short, while the gatekeepers remain homogenous. Diversity needs to be as much a top down effort, or all the effort on the ground comes to nought when commissioning rounds kick off.

In terms of theatre (off West End), I think there are so many spaces and ways stories are being told now. From the National, to Old Red Lion, to Soho, to festivals, to youth theatre, most of us can find a story to connect with. It’s quite an exciting time.

Theatre companies like Talawa work hard at championing black talent and ensure that quality and art take precedence, thus making our right and ability to tell stories, undeniable.

What’s it been like working in the Soho theatre?

Soho has been incredible. The support and belief they offer is really special. They are totally driven by the art and that means as a theatre, their priorities are in line with mine, and that of the creative team around Girls. We had some last minute dashes across counties to get cables and bits of material etc. Thankfully, the team are so passionate and hard working.

What do you hope the audience take away from watching Girls?

I hope the audience really connect with the celebration of female friendship. I hope they are moved and joy filled. I hope they are reminded of the power and strength of womanhood. I hope they fall in love with these girls. I hope they care about their future and their present, and their past. I hope they think of them often and the women they remind them of. I hope the audience think of the women that they don’t know, that they may have forgotten about, and they think of the potential in them.

Are there any other avenues you’d like to explore as well as writing?

I still work full time, so between work and writing, I’ve been quite busy, but writing was a new and unexpected discovery, so I’m trying to stay open and curious, because life is so unpredictable and I enjoy its surprises.

Any big plans for the rest of 2016?

I think when Girls closes, I might exhale for the first time in a while. It’s been the most soul demanding thing I think I’ve ever done, and the most wonderful, so I’ll probably, against my brain’s demands for rest and self preservation, immediately start all over again.

Girls is on at the Soho Theatre until the 29th October 2016

Go to the Soho Theatre website to book tickets.


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