TBB Talks … Sicklecell Awareness With David Ajayi

David Ajayi is an actor and writer whose latest work, His Sickled Journey has garnered praise from fans and critics alike for bringing the Sickle Cell condition to the forefront.

The NHS Blood & Transplant backed project is a masterful example of how humour and romance can be used to raise awareness about serious issues like blood donation in the Black community.

We sat down with David to discuss the inspiration behind His Sickled Journey and using his art to dismantle stigmas and stereotypes.

Please introduce yourself …

My name is David Ajayi, a South London-based writer/performer, and proud Yoruba boy! I’m in a writing partnership with writer/director Phil Ossai (originally from South London, now in Kent, Igbo heritage). We call ourselves the Romcom Guys, because of our love for the genre and the type of stories we’re hoping to tell in film and TV.

I trained at the Identity school of acting for two years, and now I’m out here trying to do the thing full-time, by the grace of God! Among other things, I’m also a presenter and producer, but acting is always my first love.

Describe your life right now in a word or one sentence …

My life right now is building, by His grace.

Tell us about your latest project

My latest project is His Sickled Journey, a romantic comedy that hopes to shine a light on sickle cell. I play the lead role of Femi, and I wrote it with Phil Ossai, the film’s director. The film was produced by Room 113, a faith-based lifestyle platform founded by Tobi Olowu. Finally, we had the inspiration and support from our dear friend Tito Oye, whose experience with sickle cell in her blog Her Sickled Journey inspired the film. We’re very proud of this film and are blown away by the feedback. It’s currently part of the BAFTA Qualifying British Urban Film Festival.

Currently, Phil and I have created some new romcom shorts, just to show our stuff a little bit more. I’m also currently playing my first leading role in a feature film, the indie drama Spectrum, directed by Jonell Rowe.

L-R- Chanice played by Vivienne Isebor & Femi played by David Ajayi – Nurse played by Aniya Sekkanu

Your film His Sickled Journey touches on the effects of sickle cell within the dynamic of a romantic relationship. Why did you choose to discuss the condition in this context rather than focus on it in isolation?

For Phil and I as the Romcom guys, relationships are often our way into a story. We believe that both comedy and romance are great ways to draw an audience in and connect them to deeper themes while keeping things feeling good and fun. Particularly in the case of sickle cell, we could explore the importance of the genotype conversation in a way that felt natural to the story.

Despite predominately impacting the Black community, sickle cell is rarely discussed on mainstream platforms. Was tackling this stigma part of the motivation behind writing His Sickled Journey?

Absolutely, particularly the issue of knowing one’s genotype. It’s a key conversation to have, yet, it still feels so taboo. We also wanted to destigmatise needle fear, hoping to encourage more black blood donors to sign up.

Much of the dialogue in the film centres around discovering your character Femi learning information about sickle cell and blood donation. How did you approach researching this information before writing the script?

Phil and I used Tito Oye’s blog as the main source for subjects to explore in the film. She has articles about knowing your genotype, experiencing a crisis, giving blood and more. It was a great resource, and because she writes in such a personal, informal way, it really helped to translate those articles into the script. We also spoke to the NHS Blood and Transplant team to learn about the ins and outs of blood donation.

Sickle cell is a very serious topic, but the film managed to strike the perfect balance between being informative and funny. How conscious were you of making sure that the jokes didn’t drown out the film’s core message?

Thank you so much! That balance was definitely very key – Phil and I love a joke, but we knew there was something more at play. I think it was best shown by Femi’s dynamic with his roommates (played by Stacey Ampiah- Roberts and Tevin Deola). Tevin’s more comedic character was balanced by Stacey’s more composed one, allowing jokes to fly without missing the key information about what sickle cell actually is (we hope!). Tito consulting on our script helped make sure we were never making light of the condition. Phil was intentional in reducing the number of jokes towards the end of the film, to not take away from the seriousness of the matter. Then by the end, we brought them right back for our happily ever after (that’s not a spoiler, it’s a romcom!).

BTS by Bami Ogunyoye L-R- David Ajayi, Vivienne Isebor and Phil Ossai (Director)

One of the standout elements of the film is that it humanises Chanice (Vivienne Isebor) beyond her condition and showcases her sense of humour and hobbies. Why is it important to make her character so well-rounded?

That is very encouraging to hear, thank you. That was definitely the intention, and Vivienne played it wonderfully! The character Chanice is inspired by Tito Oye, so it was essential to making her feel real. Tito is one of the most courageous, inspiring people we know, so we had great source material for the character! One of the many critiques of the romcom genre in recent years is 1-dimensional characters. That’s something Phil and I hoped to avoid. If the characters feel real, it only does more to connect the audience to what’s going on with them. It allows the audience to be in Femi’s shoes and truly wants to understand what Chanice is going through.

Notably, you were able to secure the support of the NHS Blood & Transplant for film, how did this relationship come about?

Our first link came through Tito, who had a connection with them. That connection put us in touch with the right people; Colin Anderson, Calvin Campbell and Aleisha Foreman, who loved our idea and fully supported us. They particularly wanted to help destigmatise needle fear, noting it as a big barrier for black donors. They helped us run an actual blood drive on our last shoot day, and we were able to get in some first-time black blood donors in the background of some of our shots – which was amazing!

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

I actually don’t like to consider a plan B … I don’t know. It’s a scary thought. But what my faith leads me to say, is that as long as it’s God’s will, it was always plan A.

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

Sad – I can be hard on myself, so when it feels like I’m not being productive it makes me sad.

Mad – Some of my friends not giving Black Panther 2 its much-deserved 10/10 ranking.

Glad – Besides the honour of this interview, is my family as always. A constant source of joy.

What are you watching right now?

I just started Life & Beth on Disney+. Phil and I are hoping to get our dramedy TV show off the ground, so we’re watching as many examples as we can. I’d definitely recommend it – great watch so far!

What are you reading right now?

It’s all Romcoms! Right now, I’m reading Get a Life Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert – loving it so far. I just finished Honey & Spice by Bolu Babalola too. I love everything about her and her writing.

What are you listening to right now?

Big up British R&B! Shae Universe – Unorthodox, Bellah – Adultsville. Bangers.

Also, I love my Gospel music. There’s always some Kirk Franklin or Fred Hammond playing somewhere.

L-R- Femi played by David Ajayi & Chanice played by Vivienne Isebor

The last thing you saw on stage?

My older brother took me to see Hamilton and oh my days. Incredible.

What’s on your bucket list?

As an actor, someone tell Sir Richard Curtis we’ve got a romcom to make.

In life … I don’t know, I’ll probably skydive at some point. Because Will Smith did it. Also meeting (working with) Will Smith.

Celebrate someone else (who do you rate right now?)

So many people. But keeping in theme, let me big up all those putting beautiful black love on my screen; I hope to join them soon! Aml Ameen with Boxing Day, Nathan Bryon & Rane Miller with Rye Lane (coming soon!), Adjani Salmon (that Bus scene in the Dreaming Whilst Black Pilot was perfection), Bolu Babalola’s Big Age on Channel 4, Sam Boyd with Love Life Season 2… so many!!

Celebrate yourself … (make us proud of you)

Sometimes I forget, but I am blessed to be having a good year. I presented at the BBC Proms, got my first TV role ever in an episode of EastEnders and followed it up with a small role in a new Netflix show coming next year. Also, Phil and I have been cooking and can’t wait to show the world these TV pilots we’ve got coming!

Where can we find you / watch His Sickled Journey?

You can find me on Instagram! Follow me @davidajayi_

We were glad to release His Sickled Journey on Fully Focused’s MYM YouTube channel – available now so please do give it a watch, I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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