Mwansa Phiri Talks … ‘waiting for a train at the bus stop’

Mwansa Phiri is a London-based playwright whose work has caught the eye for its vivid storytelling and emotionally compelling narratives.

Her highly-anticipated project ‘waiting for a train at the bus stop’ – which is set to showcase at the historic Edinburgh International Fringe Festival – will be her most ambitious yet.

We sat down with the Londoner to discuss the play’s themes of resilience and womanhood, as well as tapping into her rich heritage of Zambian storytelling culture.

Please introduce yourself

I’m Mwansa. I am a poet, playwright, director, and producer. Your typical multi-hyphenate creative.

What are you working on now?

So at the moment, my main focus is making my Edinburgh Fringe Festival debut with ‘waiting for a train at the bus stop.’ However, I have some really exciting projects lined up for when I get back including a choose-your-own-adventure rap musical that I am developing as part of a residency with artsdepot. I’m also on Stage One’s Bridge The Gap producing programme, which I’m really looking forward to. Going to make use of all the helpful producing tips I’m learning on my EdFringe journey.

Congratulations. How does it feel to have a play being showcased at the historic Edinburgh Fringe Festival?

Thank you. It feels surreal honestly. This is one of the most ambitious projects I’ve done professionally and creatively. Making my debut with this play in particular, feels really special because the story is so important to me and one I’m keen to share with as many people as possible. Where else to do that, if not Edinburgh Fringe? Also, the support I’ve received has been amazing from the Eclipse Award, to the Keep It Fringe Fund Award, as well as being part of Soho Theatre Edinburgh Labs. It’s felt great to have that support and be a part of these communities of people taking their shows to EdFringe before all heading up there this summer.

There are some who would argue that stories that spotlighting the trauma of Black women may be overrepresented in the film space. How does ‘waiting for a train at the bus stop’ offer a fresh viewpoint?

I think it’s a fair concern. When there is so little representation of Black women in film or theatre, it is disheartening when what is represented seems to always be portrayals of pain and trauma. I don’t think the answer is to stop telling these stories though, because unfortunately these are experiences and challenges that Black women face daily, and we need to give space for that. It would be wonderful, to eventually see as much diversity as possible in the stories that are told and the portrayals that we see.

I also think it’s possible for a story to feature or contain trauma without it being the only focus. The Color Purple is also, and arguably primarily, a story about Black sisterhood. Precious is a story about survival. Trauma is not the only thing these stories are about. Similarly, in waiting for a train at the bus stop, the abuse Chili experiences is one part of a multi-faceted and complex story of her life. She isn’t defined by it, and neither is the play.

Historically, Black creatives have had their creative freedom handicapped by not owning the rights to their work. Did any of this factor into founding your own creative imprint Visual Sauce?

I love that question. I am so inspired by Black creatives who have been intentional about maintaining their creative freedom, while carving out a space for themselves within the industry. I have a really clear idea about the type of work that I want to create. I knew that whether I was producing my own work or the work of others, there’s a certain connecting thread that I want to exist across my body of work. This is really centred on exploring the power of storytelling for social change. Visual Sauce is a way for me to be intentional and strategic about doing that.

Please could you speak to the insight you gained from attending training delivered by the domestic violence Sistah Space?

Sistah Space is such an amazing organisation doing essential and incredible work. I reached out to them quite early in the development of this project and they invited me to attend a Cultural Competency Training workshop they were delivering. I attended a few months before my first R+D and the training really helped me on my journey to thinking about character and story development. One thing that really stood out to me was the different types of abuse, how closely linked they are, and how significantly misunderstood they can be.

Following this training, I made the decision that the play would focus on coercive control. It’s really troubling to see how much abusive behaviours are being normalised within modern dating culture. The training from Sistah Space was key in developing my understanding around this, and highlighting the fact that too many people don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like.

I intentionally wanted to engage with them early on in the writing process because this is such a sensitive and important topic. I wanted to make sure I was telling this story with the care, knowledge and consideration it deserves.

Outside of your play’s serious subject matter, its most resonate themes is humour. Why did you, and how were you able to interweave this into your play without diluting the important topics of trauma and domestic violence?

It’s so important to talk about and explore difficult themes. I think it’s most impactful when done in a way that allows room for levity and nuance. Linking back to my earlier answer on the portrayal of Black women in theatre and film, it’s important that these stories and these characters are multifaceted.

This play aims to be a reflection of life, which is punctuated with both good and bad. Abuse causes fundamental personality changes in people, and people who have been abused tend to become more serious and subdued. I was intentional about weaving humour into waiting for a train at the bus stop because I wanted to portray how Chilufya changes as a result of her experiences. How does this bright, funny, energetic and engaging woman become someone completely unrecognisable? We have to see Chilufya’s light, to see how it is dimmed. We have to feel that sense of loss.

Why did you choose to go down the one woman play route instead of showing both parties?

This is something I thought about a lot. I kept going back and forth with myself over it. It even reached a point where I had spoken with and cast an actor to play the role of Paul. As I continued to develop the story though, it became really important for Chilufya to be not just the central character but the only character. It’s very much her story, and an exploration of her experiences, through her point of view.

I think additional characters would have diluted the impact of that. I also think there’s something really powerful about having Paul’s character be so present in the play without ever actually appearing. A reflection of how he is able to exert control over her without even being there. I also really like one woman shows.

Why was it necessary for you to include elements of your culture in waiting for a train at the bus stop?

My Zambian heritage has really shaped my love for storytelling. It’s such an integral part of our culture, and a lot of wisdom, knowledge, lessons, family history, everything basically is communicated through stories. My mum often tells me about ichibwanse – a traditional gathering of women where they meet to discuss different issues and teachings through folklore and proverbs. It’s a way to share wisdom and culture (for men, it’s called insaka).

Orality is a really big part of not just Zambian culture but a lot of African cultures and when I was thinking about the context Chilufya’s character would grow up in, I knew this had to be integrated into the play in some way. Our upbringing and the cultural influences we have as children significantly shape who we grow up to be, how we relate to other people, and how we understand the world. This play explores both the positives and negatives of that. It also looks at what it feels like to try and connect with a culture and a language you’re one or two generations removed from, and the sense of loss this can bring. I think that can be a really common experience for people growing up in the diaspora, and Chilufya’s character definitely feels this.

One of your earlier works ‘Talking Stages’ also centred around dating and courtship. What is it about romance stories that speak to you?

I love, love. I love thinking about it, writing about it, talking about it. I love watching it. There’s something really powerful and compelling about the human desire for love and connection and how it shapes our life experiences and choices. There is so much around that to write about. It’s likely to be an aspect I will always explore in the stories I write. Regardless of genre.


What’s your current plan B? (if it all goes wrong what’s the plan?)

I wouldn’t say I have one. Writing, storytelling, creativity, these will always be a part of my life in some way.

What’s made you Sad, Mad, Glad this week

Sad, I’ve been pretty happy this week. Mad, long queues at Costco. Glad, meeting new people and making new friends.

What are you watching right now?

I’m halfway through the new season of Black Mirror and I’m so glad it’s back.

What are you reading right now?

Loop by Brenda Lozano. I love a love story.

What are you listening to right now? 

I’m a Mess by Omah Lay. On repeat. Everyday.

The last thing you saw on stage? 

My Uncle Is Not Pablo Escobar at Brixton House, which was amazing.

Celebrate someone else …

Matilda Feyisayo Ibini, I love their writing.

Celebrate yourself …

I’ve always wanted to take a show to EdFringe and I can’t wait to make my debut with waiting for a train at the bus stop this summer.

Whose footsteps are you following in?

I believe everyone follows their own path, while being inspired by the journey of others. For waiting for a train at the bus stop a big inspiration for me was Bene Lombe’s one woman play Lava.

What’s Next? 

I’m about to start an artist residency at artsdepot to develop a new musical theatre project, and I’ll also be joining Stage One’s Bridge the Gap Producer Programme. Very excited for both.

When and where can we see waiting for a train at a bus stop?

You can see waiting for a train at the bus stop at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival between Wednesday 2nd August – Sunday 27th August (not 14th or 21st) 14:50 (60mins) Summerhall.


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