Over the course of her career, Khadifa Wong has worked as a dancer, actor, director and producer.
She transitioned to working as a director and producer in order to increase inclusion and erase stereotypes in film and theatre industries. This Summer, Talking Back Theatre’s new production, Black Women Dating White Men, written by Somebody Jones and directed by Khadifa Wong was due to go on tour.
With Covid-19 cancelling tour dates, however, the company adapted the production and took it online as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. We spoke to Khadifa to find out more...
Hey Khadifa, so you transitioned from working as a dancer to working behind the scenes in order to address issues of inclusion and stereotyping within film and theatre. What sparked this decision?
When I was a dancer I would go up for roles and remember often being told by white casting directors that I “wasn’t black enough” or because of my name and heritage that they didn’t know where to place me – I didn’t think I needed placing anywhere. Essentially I didn’t fit what they perceived to be black. I wasn’t a commercial dancer and being black meant a lot of doors in the contemporary dance world were closed to me and at the time in the UK roughly 2000/2001 we had maybe three jazz dance companies. At the time, audition panels were mainly white, so I knew the best way to change things was to be on the other side of the table.
How did you find transitioning to working as a director and producer?
It was actually a very positive transition, I started my journey with a lady called Marli Anwar-Roccanova who is Pakistani and so as two non-white women, people were excited for us as a concept. We didn’t come from money and at the time a lot of the schemes that are in place now, just weren’t there so we had to do it ourselves. I taught myself to use edit software, got a basic digital camera to practice filming and took whatever free courses were on offer and read books. Jumping in at the deep end and just doing and learning on your feet, was the best education and although Marli left to have a family before our first project was finished, I feel very proud that I’ve achieved the goals we had set for ourselves.
You’ve trained and worked in both the UK and the US. Do you notice any difference in the way that black artists are represented in the US?
My very first audition in the US was given to me by a casting director called Judy Bowman and it was for the role of a scheming Greek Goddess. It was a funny piece of writing and it was a role that didn’t ask for an ethnicity, just who would best fit the character. It was so refreshing and gave me the confidence that when I returned back to the UK I wasn’t going to accept anything less. I went on to train at Identity School of Drama (alumni include John Boyega and Letitia Wright) and their syllabus instilled the belief in all students that no role was off limits to us. That affects how I want to approach casting my narrative projects in the future. In the UK, we are often pigeonholed – but Michaela Coel’s I may Destroy You is a game changer and I don’t think we will go back to stereotype casting anymore, because we just won’t accept anything less.
So, let’s talk about Black Women Dating White Men. How did it feel when you first found out that you wouldn’t be able to take the show on tour?
Obviously disappointed but also, it was a relief because I was battling COVID-19 and didn’t know how I was going to give my all when I was feeling so ill. So when Somebody Jones presented the idea of taking it online and I knew I could work from home in my pyjamas I was so happy!
What was the process like, adapting a play intended for theatrical performance to be recorded via Zoom?
It was such a fun experience but it also happened during the initial aftermath of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murder so mentally and emotionally it was just what I needed to be able to be at home and speak with this network of black women. Collectively we allocated rehearsal time so everyone could talk about how they were feeling. Zoom freed me up to bring elements of the characters that we couldn’t do in a theatre on our budget like individual locations, props and wardrobe for each character and I could also centralise the character of Kamila who was based on the writer Somebody Jones. I never felt I did that effectively during our theatre run, so I got to fix some things too. Being in lockdown meant for the first time I was able to solely focus on my artistic work, I’ve always had to juggle my film career with my money job so not to worry about rushing off to my other job was so freeing.
The situation of the women in Black Women Dating White Men – at home and communicating via Zoom – felt intensely relatable in these times. Do you think there’s any element of filming via Zoom that you’ll replicate in your future projects?
Why not? In this post COVID world, we are emerging in we are going to have to continue to find ways of innovating to ensure the arts thrives and we were lucky enough to have a piece that fit that medium so well. Zoom has fast become part of our daily lives so future work will reflect that.
As the name suggests, Black Women Dating White Men discusses the culture clash and external judgement that black women sometimes experience when dating white men. Being mixed-race, is this something you’ve ever witnessed or experienced?
The reason I was so excited by this project was because I have dated a lot of white men and I always struggled with how I was seen within my community. I always thought this meant I wasn’t black enough or that I was a traitor somehow. I think because at school I was teased a lot about it, that never really left me. As I’ve got older and I began therapy you realise a lot of these issues are stemming from somewhere completely different. It’s often to do with your relationship with the world at large. It’s a journey I’m still on and this play was another part of that evolution.
Another project you’re currently working on is Uprooted, a feature-length documentary on jazz dance. Tell us a bit about it.
As someone who had a very white centred dance education, Uprooted is the film I needed when I was training but never had. How we view dance is primarily through a white lens – that ballet is the foundation and without it, you aren’t a real dancer. That lie has kept the dance forms of the African diaspora (Tap, Jazz, Hip Hop, Commercial) from getting the funding and accolades it deserves. We see it only as entertainment and never discuss its artistic value or the mighty influence it has had on popular culture. The film addresses themes of appropriation, systemic racism and rhythm but also aims to start a conversation within the dance world of how we teach the dancers of tomorrow about their legacy as well as showing that even a lot of the established history has been forgotten and if that’s the case, can we be surprised that pioneers like Fred Benjamin and JoJo Smith haven’t been included in the history?
How did you manage the progression from working on short films to directing your own feature-length documentary?
For me it was about trust, working on low budget short films meant I often directed and edited and sometimes operated the camera. This was the first time I really got to collaborate with people. So I had to learn to trust people with my vision and be open to change. I was still working a full-time job as a dresser so I had to be extremely focused and make the best use of my time possible. What was great was we filmed in blocks when we got money in, so I would always have a break in between to research, review and develop the project further based on what we had got before. This was my first project that was genuinely collaborative and so I was lucky I had a great producer (Lisa Donmall-reeve), cinematographer (Matt Simpkins) and editor (Joan Gill Amorim) My co-creator Zak Nemorin and I had been slowly developing this film for two years before we started filming so that slow process helped us explore every avenue available to us.
Do you have any other projects or plans on the horizon?
I am teaming up again with my Editor from Uprooted on a film about Women’s Football and Black Women Dating White Men returns in August, again online as part of the Fringe of Colour festival before we take it on tour next year with a new work called Present Black Fathers which will again be a verbatim play.
To find out more about Khadifa Wong and her projects, you can follow her Instagram @khadifawong or look for updates on her website where you can find news of Uprooted screenings.
For more information on Black Women Dating White Men, see the Talking Back Theatre website.