babirye bukilwa formerly known as Vanessa Babirye …

… is an actor, model, poet (SISTA!, THE COLOUR OF MADNESS), podcaster (SISTREN) and a songwriter. As an actress, bukilwa can currently be seen in UKTV’s We Hunt Together as DC Dominique Parks, and most recently appeared on stage in a production of When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other at the National Theatre in a production directed by Katie Mitchell starring Cate Blanchett. In 2018, bukilwa was also one out of ten female creatives noted by the Guardian Newspaper.

bukilwa has recently received acclaim as a playwright with their debut play …blackbird hour being shortlisted for the 2019 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting, making the finals of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Playwriting, and currently being shortlisted for the 2020 Alfred Fagon Award. This Autumn, bukilwa was commissioned by Small Truth Theatre to write a new play, Water, that has been featured as part of the company’s Digital Caravan Theatre 2, a selection of 3 micro audio plays available to listen to for free at any time, also available in a BSL format.

Both series of Digital Caravan Theatre were released during lockdown and were awarded Off West End’s On Comm Award, an online commendation for work created during the lockdown. Inspired by the banks of Greenwich & Woolwich, Water explores the relationship between a mother and daughter who live their lives against the backdrop of water.

We caught up with babirye to find out more…

Please introduce yourself

Hi! My name is babirye bukilwa, formerly known as Vanessa Babirye. I am an artist. I have been acting for ten years as of this year and I also write plays and poetry. I co-founded the collective and podcast SISTREN. 

What word or sentence best describes your life right now?

A fruitful madting. 

Your debut play …blackbird hour was shortlisted for the 2019 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting, a finalist for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Playwriting and is currently shortlisted for the 2020 Alfred Fagon Award. What do you think it is about your work that resonates with people so much?

Ah man, I couldn’t possibly know to be honest. That particular play has been in circulation for about three years now so I’ve been given lots of different personal opinions from different people. I don’t think it’s fair to define myself or the work but the responses have been encouraging, intricate, personal – some even mind-blowing. I know that personally for me a play that takes place solely in a queer Black British woman’s bedroom in real time is something I hadn’t seen before. Maybe it’s the angle of the gaze?

Have you noticed any changes in the reception of your work since being recognised by these playwriting prizes – does being award-winning / nominated open doors or get people to take you more seriously?

Nobody has been brave enough to put the play on. I guess it’s cool to associate with a Black, queer, working-class femme playwright but programming them is activism and would mean actually doing the work. In a recent interview with Winsome Pinnock and Jasmine Lee Jones (fire emoji here), Pinnock says: “Look at the number of plays by Black playwrights in any given institution at any given time” the interview is really quite beautiful actually because both Jones and Pinnock – two phenomenal writers – two different generations are still both facing the misogynoir that hangs like perfume in the British theatre industry. But sure, people are asking to read my work more yes. Black queer femme playwrights are plentiful; been plentiful. We’re neither ‘edgy’ or ‘new’ or ‘trendy’ or a ‘theme’. There’s hundreds of us. They can programme us all. At the same time. In the same season. In the same building. 

Let’s talk about your latest commission for Small Truth Theatre: Water. What was it like writing this micro-play? Did you find it difficult to condense your thoughts into a shorter format?

Small Truth is quite special, to be honest. I think they put their money and resources where their mouth is and Yasmeen Arden is lovely. She was really gentle with her approach and had read …blackbird hour last year. Water started out as a song actually and then two weeks before it was due I changed my mind. I wrote the play as it lives now in 48 hours. It sort of just flowed out. The difficulty came with editing and cutting it down – I have lots of questions ha! Miranda and Yasmeen were both on hand to help with dramaturgy. I was blessed to be working with friends. I learned a lot though. Micro plays are an incredible device and can be very effective. I learned even more about the specificity of words for this format.

Your performance of Water is presented as an audio play – a format I think your writing, with its minute linguistic focus and evocative imagery, lends particularly well to. How did you adapt to writing for audio?

I think I thought about what I would want to listen to. Stories in the first person or narrative tend to be easier for me personally to follow and/or grasp. I really had to hone in on and paint specific detail that I wouldn’t necessarily do with a longer play format.  

Mother-daughter relationships are central to Water and also your second play …cake – which I recently saw staged at Theatre Peckham, and absolutely loved. What is it about mother-daughter relationships that draw you to repeatedly explore them?

Thank you again and thank you for your lovely review. I think because I’m personally interested in the things that make us, us. You have anger issues why? Insomnia why? Lower back pain why? Anxiety why? Dysphoria why? Can’t trust people easily why? Trust people too easily why? I have the experience of having a white English foster mother and a Ugandan migrant biological mother. They both have shaped how and who I am today. I’m interested in Black British femme relationships and intergenerational Black British femme conversations. I find that fascinating. I think also on a practical level there’s a lack of Black British mother-daughter narratives in audio play form. So why not? 

What was it like working with Miranda Cromwell when performing Water? Did she help you pull out any elements of the text that you hadn’t previously noticed?

I was privileged to work with Miranda on a staged reading of …blackbird hour that Talawa theatre company produced. I also worked with her during some R&D’s at the Old Vic for Urielle Klein- Mekongo’s Black power Desk – a New British Black Panther Musical (again insert fire emoji here). I learned on both occasions how insightful and delicate she treats the work. I felt acknowledged in all of my intersections and nuances and I wanted that same space for this work. I want that space for all of my work. Why not? Miranda has said some lovely things about Water during the rehearsal period. It was her suggestion actually to add the vocals in the latter part of the audio performance. She’s sick man. Hire her.

Another common theme in your work is the space inhabited by Black queer femmes. How do you think theatres can work better to make their buildings spaces that better accommodate Black queer femmes?

By programming Black queer femme work. Hiring Black queer femme teams and crew and companies and marketing it in the way it deserves. 

Have you got any other upcoming projects you want to tell us about?

I have just secured another commission but you know these things are hush hush. I have a play called mirrors which is available for free via Popelie’s website. 

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

  • A book you have to have in your collection –  Audre lorde’s sister outsider and bell hooks’ all about love
  • A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to dateTout est gore by Lous and the Yakuza
  • A film / TV show that you will watch whenever it’s on repeatedlyComing to America. That got bannnngeeeeedddddd.
  • The first play you saw and what it meant to you / and or reminds you why you’re in this business – One of the first plays I remember seeing was a version of Cinderella when I was in secondary school. It was a pantomime at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Cinderella was a dark-skinned Black woman. I think I cried. Hahaha. But I remember feeling like I could be her one day. The actress – not Cinderella, please. The first play I read that stirred my writing was debbie tucker green’s random
  • What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? – Sad? The lockdown. Mad? The lockdown. Glad? My health and capacity. My girlfriend, my sisters, my best friends, and the mornings.

You can now listen to Water via Small Truth Theatre’s website with a BSL performance also available. Find out more here.

Read TBB’s Out Of 100 review of Cake here.