Playwright Selina Thompson Explains Why Her New Play, Dark and Lovely is a Multi-Sensory Experience

This young twenty-something explores African-Caribbean women’s somewhat tumultuous exploration of Afro hair and identity in her play, Dark and Lovely.

“I want black women to feel seen, recognised, loved by someone who stands in solidarity with them. That’s the dream”

Selina has a bold and warm presence; it is obvious that she has strong sense of identity, cultivated by what she lovingly describes as, ‘very loving, excellent parents, patient, supportive, loyal friends and nurturing mentors and teachers’. She is inspired by many – her mum, her dad, her Bobby Baker, Cecile Emeke, Audre Lorde and …‘the really, really funny and clever people she follows on Twitter.’ 

Now a mentor to many, I talk to the self-confessed showoff on the eve of the next leg of the Dark and Lovely UK tour after selling out at the Oval Theatre.

Drawn into performing arts as youngster, Selina played an ugly sister in a school play and revelled in the delight of being her father’s pride; ironically after a wardrobe malfunction involving a knotted, matted wig. Who knew, years later hair, wigs and weaves would become a central theme in such a great play.

I wanted to explore hair because it felt like the only sincere connection I had to the part of the city I was commissioned to make work in – but also because for me, my hair was undealt with, something that held weight for me (whether it should or shouldn’t is beside the point, the fact is, it did) and needed resolving. Hair matters. Because in a racist and patriarchal world, beauty and race matter. It’s as simple and as messy as that.

Selina spent time in Birmingham at salons and barbershops examining our love of all things Afro hair, her play is multi-layered and delves into the complexities surrounding African-Caribbean identity. Unfazed, there was nothing shocking about what she learned by her research, Selina as a black woman herself was not foreign to what she was about to explore; however, what was revealed was painful. In a time where many African-Caribbean women are exploring their natural textures it’s apparent that the information on natural hair is not everywhere…yet…

I don’t think the mass influx of information has necessarily reached everyone – that was something I was aware of when researching – if you’re in the whole natural hair as a movement, it can feel pervasive – but I think it is not that for many women.

Social media and the slew of online blogs have clearly made a massive impact on the discourse around hair. I ask if African-Caribbean women are more sensitive to the issues of Afro hair, especially when engaging with Europeans?

I’m not sure if women are more or less sensitive, or if they are just able to articulate their feelings more readily – and to find others who agree with them or share their experience. I can remember my mum having these same conversations with my aunties in our kitchen in the 90s – no one could hear us then, but if we have the conversation on Twitter now, it becomes a part of public discourse. I think anything that makes black women feel empowered and confident in their decisions is a good thing – but I’m hesitant to point towards trends, because I’m sceptical of them.

What about our men? Do they play a part in understanding issues surrounding Afro-hair and identity for African-Caribbean women?

Hmmm. I think African-Caribbean men should focus on the hair issues that they have, before they are focusing on identity issues for women. One of the most loving, kind and helpful things I think we can ever do is allow one another peace and autonomy – respect one another’s bodies and aesthetics as our own business; not project our issues onto others. That’s something we can all do, regardless of gender. Similarly, to the last question… A respectful silence, and beginning by looking at the coloniser within, rather than projecting out.

Dark and Lovely is a deep multi-sensory experience thus almost addictively engaging. Selina describes her own creative process as an obsession, a niggling angry feeling that ultimately engulfs her.

I’m angry about something. Not a big explosive, pow-pow anger, more of a niggle. I find myself fixating on it, debating it with an imaginary person. Usually I feel like nuance is missing somewhere in discourse around the source of the anger. I begin to obsess over it, read about it, changed my Twitter feed, Facebook feed, Instagram and Tumblr accordingly so I’m saturated in the topic, read loads of books about it, lots of journalism, usually linked with an academic. I compile a playlist about it – which I’ll listen to constantly.

The playlist creates a set of images in my head, usually two or three key ones that need to be created. I enlist a designer; we start working on how we might create those images. Next is the text. I start interviewing, and engaging in conversation with the people who are most affected by the topic. I record conversations, sometimes with a Dictaphone, but more often by having a convo, then going straight to somewhere quiet and scribbling everything down. The texture of a conversation is often more important than what is said. At this point I stop gathering information, and start to self-reflect, connect me as a person to the material.

This is a nightmare for my creative team and producer, as I usually shut everybody out at this point, it takes ages. I become extremely terrified the show will be awful. But when I come out of the other side of that time I either have a concept (building a dress out of cake for 8 hrs., writing 1000 questions about race for 24 hours) or a script and then we plunge in.

My aim is never to create a play about ‘x’ – it’s always to create something that feels like the thing I’m exploring. So Dark and Lovely is ‘sensory’ because hair is hugely tactile, is engulfed by smells good and bad, and is intimate.

From her works it is clear that Thompson is an avid reader. The last book she read was, Redefining Realness by Janet Mock; however, she explains why, Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde left the deepest impression on her and tells me she would love to have read it years prior…

I didn’t read it that long ago, I read it last Christmas. But it changed my life; changed the person that I wanted to be, encouraged me to trust my voice and my instincts, and to try, try, try to live with integrity and bravery and honesty.

After Selina tricked me into becoming her hair stylist for the evening in her play, as a fellow naturalista I wanted to know what was in her favourite natural hair recipe…

I used to make a detangling spritz with a little avocado oil, rose absolute, jasmine absolute and sweet orange oil, with water. The smell used to make me so happy, I almost didn’t mind the fact that detangling can be super tedious.

Clearly fearless in detangling and deconstruction the intricacies of race and hair for African-Caribbean women in the UK, the next project sounds even more gripping. I suspect a warm concoction of fear, anger and love will be good for her creative juices. I look forward to it and much more from Miss Thompson, her next play is…

A big play on colonialism and the Atlantic Ocean as a place for communion… I’m very scared to make it.

Selina Thompson’s Dark and Lovely tour continues until November 28. To find out dates, location and venues go to her website.
Read TBB’s Review of Dark and Lovely here
To keep up to date with Selina Thompson go to Twitter


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