TBB Talks To… Safaa Benson-Effiom and Justina Kehinde

The writer and director of Til Death Do Us Part @Theatre503.

Justina Kehinde is a writer, director and award-winning poet. Eager to tell diasporic stories with nuance and intrigue, she is a current participant of the 2021-22 Soho Theatre Writer’s Lab, and an alumna of the prestigious Royal Court Writer’s Group and the BBC London Voices’ 2020 cohort.

Safaa Benson-Effiom is a playwright and theatremaker from London. Her play For The Culture was longlisted for both the 2021 Theatre Uncut Political Playwriting Award and the 2021 Women’s Prize for Playwriting. 

Justina and Safaa have now come together to premiere Til Death Do Us Part, Benson-Effiom’s debut play at Theatre 503. Til Death Do Us Part was written whilst on the Soho Theatre Writers’ Lab 2018/2019 and was shortlisted for the 2019 Tony Craze Award and was also one of the finalists for the 2020 Theatre503 International Playwriting Award.

Til Death Do Us Part centres on Daniel and Sylvia who after 15 years of marriage, find themselves drifting further apart with each passing day. Until one morning, they find themselves abruptly united by every parent’s worst nightmare.

We talked to Safaa and Justina during the show’s run to find out more…

Please introduce yourself?

Justina: I’m Justina Kehinde and I’m the director of ’Til Death Do Us Part’.

Safaa: I’m Safaa Benson-Effiom and I wrote ’Til Death Do Us Part’.

Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now.

Justina: Creative chaos.

Safaa: So busy, so stressed but so incredibly grateful!

You have collaborated with each other before on a scratch per- formance which was streamed online in 2021, could you talk a bit more about your creative partnership and how it has developed?

Justina: I had the opportunity to work with Safaa on a scratch of her brilliant and witty play For the Culture as part of Tamasha Theatre’s writers’ programme. It was a 2-day event (one day rehearsal, one day filming), and from the off, we just clicked. I think we operate on a similar creative wavelength and therefore there’s a strong sense
of trust – to trust one another to engage with the work critically and sensitively. Trust, especially as a director, is such an important part of any creative collaboration as it enables you to both take risks and adequately honour the work that in essence you’re adapting from a text into a production. After working on her scratch, I was invited to interview for Til Death and again I think there was an innate knowledge that we both understood what we wanted out of the text, but also found ways to challenge and push ourselves to either better interrogate the work or find more creative ways of presenting it. That discursive process continued into the rehearsal room and I think very often one of us would say exactly what the other one was thinking, once again, proving how in sync we were which in turn provided a strong sense of safety and trust which created the space to really play with the work. Ironically Safaa and I only met in person a few weeks before rehearsals for Til Death started, but it felt like we’d known each other for a while. At least it did for me!

Safaa: I wrote my play For The Culture whilst on the Tamasha Playwrights scheme. Because of the pandemic, extracts of our plays were recorded and streamed online as a virtual scratch showcase. Justina was assigned my piece to direct and when we met over zoom…I mean, not to sound like some cheesy rom-com but…we clicked. Immediately. Two total strangers getting ready to make theatre over zoom and it felt so comfortable, so easy. Like the other writers, I was worried about how my piece would work in this format but after our brief chat, I put all my trust in her and I was not disappointed. Justina is a brilliant director – she has great vision and being an actor herself, knows how to run a room and ensure that actors are taken care of, which is particularly important with regard to the difficult themes at the heart of my plays. After the filming, I monologued at her for a good five minutes telling her how incredible she was, how much I loved working with her and that I really hoped it would happen again sometime soon. Fast forward to Theatre503 programming Til Death Do Us Part and asking me who I’d like to direct it… Of course, I had to call up my girl!!

Justina gets me. It’s as simple as that. She gets my work, she gets where I’m coming from, and she gets what I’m trying to do. There’s real synchronicity there that I would struggle to believe was possible were I not experiencing it myself. She won’t settle for anything less than the best so I can relax knowing that my work will shine in her capable hands. I feel like it should take years to develop what we’ve had since day one. I’m very grateful.

This production marks a series of firsts for the both of you, (it is Justina’s first solo directorial debut and Safaa’s first full-length production) – how does it feel to share this moment together?

Justina: For me, it’s a real honour. I directed my first play ten years ago and was awarded my first directorial development scheme five years ago which was the point at which I thought ‘maybe I can do this.’ There was a hunger therefore from the beginning that we (and our producer) wanted to give our all to this show because it really meant something to us, it was a turning point in our creative journeys, and that’s always special. To be able to make my professional debut with a play like this, to be the first person to stage this story is such an honour not least because it’s such a brilliant text (which in some ways makes my work easier), but also because it’s a play I feel is important, and that always makes a difference when you get to work on a project you truly care about. So to work with someone you admire but who you are also creatively inspired by – that’s about as sweet a deal as you can hope for in this industry.

Danielle Kassaraté – Til Death Do Us Part @Theatre503 – Image Credit: Steve Gregson

Safaa: I’ve been sitting with this play for years. It’s incredibly personal and I’m so proud of it – it’s great to finally have it out in the world. Justina has had such passion and enthusiasm for the play from the start so I always knew the finished result would be something special. I cannot sing her praises more so it means a lot to be navigating this exciting time with her.

Justina – What drew you towards working on this production, particularly as your directorial debut?

Safaa’s writing sings. She writes with the type of clarity and nuance that brings characters to life, warts and all, in an honest and utterly revealing manner. I knew working on this would push me to be a more sophisticated director, to make bold choices that supported the nuance and maturity of her writing, so that was a challenge I wanted to meet. But there’s also a fluidity to Safaa’s writing. When I first read the script I could feel a deep-seated energy, a roiling of emotion at the heart of the play, it moved on an emotional and structural level. That really made me think about the physicality of the play, how the characters move through time, move through memory and literally move across the stage: I wanted to see the story, and that’s always a good start when you’re thinking about how to translate a script into a show.

On a thematic level, Til Death was totally up my street, because I’m fascinated by the things that go unsaid, the taboo topics and the heavy silences that permeate everyday life. Equally, when I think about staging a story I think a lot about texture, and the lenses I can explore that story through. Til Death… is set in a world we very rarely see on stage: an interracial middle-class family. It provided me with the opportunity to, with the designer (Emeline Beroud), create a world that was textured and specific and in some ways new. Lastly, I suppose working with black women and exploring stories that centre back women is important to me, and this project made space for that, but it also took a general theme, grief, and interrogated our relationship to it through lots of different lenses: race, gender, age, class, cultural expectations, familial relations etc. That multiplicity invites a creative response that can benefit from being staged, and I wanted to be the one to try my hand at it, and see how I could bring a new or perhaps different depth and insight to an already brilliant story.

Safaa – You wrote the show whilst on Soho’s Writers’ Lab and further developed it with Theatre 503 – could you talk more about how you found the writing process with both theatres?

Being part of the Writers’ Lab was a real game-changer for me – it was the first time I worked with a dramaturg to develop a piece of my work. Getting guidance and feedback from an industry professional meant I was able to get the play to a place I couldn’t have gotten to on my own. Once it was programmed, I told Theatre503 that I wanted to do three drafts before we went into rehearsals. I wanted the play to be the best it could possibly be and having already experienced this process on the Writers’ Lab, I was excited to once again get into a back and forth with my dramaturg. The feedback and suggestions I received have been invaluable – it’s so interesting to discover how much you miss when you’re so close to something. With the help of Steve Harper (Literary Manager) and Jade Lewis (Carne Associate Director), there’s been a really strengthening and progression of the play as the drafts went on.

Safaa – The title of the play, Til Death Do Us Part, refers to the death of a loved one but also the collapse of a marriage, what inspired you to look at these two themes together?

The title has two meanings. There’s this one and also the second one which only becomes clear in the final moments when they realise that because of the events of the play, they are stuck together until death do them part. A common theme across many of my plays is this idea of people doing the ‘right’ things and life finding a way to punish them anyway. Being a parent is difficult but in this play, we encounter two people who have tried their best and whose best is better than most. Yet, there are still variables that are beyond their control and a clarity that can only come when it’s too late. This is the unfairness of life and something I really wanted to shine a light on.

Safaa – The play was originally a two-hander, why did you feel it was important to add the third character of the son, Andrew?

I made the change in the third draft at the suggestion of my dramaturg. There were important things I was trying to communicate about the characters and the story that simply weren’t coming across. A note I kept getting was that the reasoning behind the main plot point was unclear and that it didn’t make sense. Ultimately, the play didn’t work. Once I made the decision to add Andrew, everything slotted into place and became so much clearer. It’s amusing because the times that the play is really alive and joyful are whenever Andrew is there. The same thing happened when I eventually added him as a character – the play came alive!

Jude Chinchen, Danielle Kassaraté, Richard Holt – Til Death Do Us Part @Theatre5Image – Credit: Steve Gregson

Safaa – You were involved throughout the rehearsal period, which is often atypical for the writer, how was the experience of seeing your words performed day-to-day?

This is my dream come true so I knew from the start that I wanted to be fully involved and as present as possible. Though I ultimately had to run it by my director, I knew I wanted to be in every single rehearsal – not because I wanted to control the playmaking process – but because I wanted to watch this thing I wrote come to life. From having done a read through on the first day of rehearsals to having the entire play blocked and on its feet three weeks later was an incredible feat of endurance and it was amazing for me to have seen that entire journey. Being in the room meant I was on hand to provide clarity on the play in ways that only the writer could. I was able to have conversations with the actors as they built these characters. It also meant I was able to cut, change or rework things as we were going…and this turned out to be less traumatic than I was expecting. I obviously love my play and think every word is fire but it would have been foolish not to listen to the comments from these amazing creatives who are looking at this thing with fresher eyes than me. I create my best work through collaboration so while I might screw my face up a little when someone says ‘this scene is unnecessary’ or ‘it doesn’t make sense for this character to do that‘, ultimately I know we’re all working to make this play the best it can possibly be and so I was grateful for all input. I was really sad when the rehearsal period ended. It was a lot of fun.

Justina – The play deals with heavy topics such as parental grief and suicide, could you talk about how you embedded care for the performers and yourselves during rehearsals whilst working with the material?

In the last few years, Drama Therapists have become increasingly integral in the rehearsal room and during runs as well, and I knew I wanted us to have access to that expertise. It’s important, especially when dealing with heavy themes that are inherently personal, that the safety of the entire team is at the forefront of any work. So we began our rehearsal process with a Drama Therapist. Equally, I came out of a background in public health and working against sexual and gender-based violence, so facilitating environments that value the safety and well-being of participants has become part of my creative practice. I tried to model this by doing mindfulness exercises at the start and end of rehearsals to prepare actors to enter and exit the story. Honouring break times is also really important and calling time when actors begin to feel overwhelmed helps the room refocus and ensures the art isn’t being made at the expense of the artists. Finding joy in the story (and in our warm-ups and exercises!) also helped balance the heavier themes and I really think that translates in the show; the lighter moments give us relief while adding a depth to weightier topics. We all have a long way to go – myself included – to ensure we can better manage such topics, but these are some of the steps we took.

Justina – The show incorporates movement sequences specifically in the beginning and you have worked on shows like For Colored Girls… that have also used quite a lot of movement, how did you find working with the movement director (Tian Brown-Sampson) during rehearsals?

Over 80% of all communication happens via body language, so, for me, movement is a crucial part of theatrical story-telling, especially when working with poetic texts like For Colored Girls… In Safaa’s case, from the outset, there are technical requirements like time jumps, and memory glitches, that draw on a language of physicality in order to articulate the emotional narrative of the play. The show literally starts with twelve pages of silent action, which speaks to the inability of this family to communicate – the silence is oppressively loud. So I wanted to lean into what goes unsaid verbally but is communicated physically. Tian and I had several pre-production meetings exploring how movement could be abstracted, distorted and utilised to amplify the subtext of the narrative, the desires of the characters, and also their psychological states at different times in the play. It was hard work, but rewarding.

Tasila Banda, Justina Kehinde & Lolia Etomi – For Colored Girls @ One Canada Square (2013)

How do you both plan on celebrating once the show’s run is over?

Justina: I should take myself out on a date…but I’ll probably sleep. Maybe buy myself a bouquet of flowers. I’m trying to learn (and practice) how to celebrate moments rather than moving straight away on to the next thing…but it’s taking me a while!

Safaa: I’m going on a city break. I’ve bought a guidebook and made lists of things to see… but I’ll probably just sleep the entire time. I’ve got a couple of things lined up for after the run so it’ll be good to have a couple of days to truly be ‘head empty, no thoughts’ before the ride starts up again…

GETTING TO KNOW YOU…

  • A book you have to have in your collection? Justina – I’m not sure, but I just finished Bell Hooks’ All about love and that feels like one of those necessary staples. SafaaSum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. Forty possibilities for what happens when we die. It’s only little but my bookshelf feels bare without it.

  • A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? Justina – Laura Mvula’s She or Lauryn Hill’s 2.0 album. SafaaRacine Carrée’ by Stromae. Intense at times but for the most part, you can’t help but dance – my life!

  • A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? Justina Lord of the Rings extended edition (all of them). Multiple times. Including special features. SafaaEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. My favourite film. I’ve watched it so many times I literally say the words along with it. It’s very annoying for anyone who isn’t me…
  • The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)?

Justina – That I remember… The Lion King. I remember feeling like the world was alive. It taught me the power of creativity, because the atmosphere shifted in that theatre. I remember that.

Safaa – The first play I remember seeing was His Dark Materials at the National Theatre. It was a trip for GCSE Drama and as someone who’d read the books, I remember wondering how something so fantastical could possibly work onstage. Well, let me tell you – THEY DID THAT. It was absolutely magical! The revolve blew my little 15-year-old mind. The daemons were these really beautiful silky puppets. Simply put, it was a spectacle. It has informed my taste and expectations of theatre to this day.

  • What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week?

Justina: Sad – The possibility that the US Supreme Court could reverse and in turn criminalise people’s access to and agency over their sexual and reproductive health rights. Mad – Two individuals who didn’t let me off the train first (one of them barged past me and rolled her suitcase over my foot!). Glad – Baby lemons are budding on my lemon tree:)!

Safaa: Sad – I’m a little unwell at the moment: it’s been a hectic month with very little rest and it’s all finally caught up with me.. Mad – America stays making me mad! Glad – A friend telling me all about their new, really beautiful relationship whilst we gorged ourselves on vegan doner kebabs.


Til Death Do Us Part ends it Run @Theatre503 on Saturday 21st May

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