Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s new play The Clinic received its World premiere this week at The Almeida Theatre.
Dipo Baruwa-Etti is a filmmaker, playwright, and poet. As writer-director, his short films include award-winning The Last Days, a BFI Network/BBC and starring Adjoa Andoh (Bridgerton) and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn (Small Axe, Lovers Rock). He also has original projects in development with Blueprint Pictures and Duck Soup Films. His plays include The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars (Theatre Royal Stratford East), An unfinished man (The Yard Theatre), Half-Empty Glasses (Paines Plough) and The Clinic (Almeida Theatre) published by Faber & Faber. As a poet, he has been published in The Good Journal, Ink Sweat & Tears, Amaryllis, and had his work showcased nationwide as part of End Hunger UK’s touring exhibition on food insecurity.
The Clinic follows Wumni who is tired of the fight. When her world collapses, she turns to Ore for help. Ore resolves to save Wunmi, providing sanctuary in her parents’ home – a family of charity workers, therapists and politicians, dedicated to serving their community. Wunmi’s presence soon disrupts familiar patterns – cracks start to widen and bad blood thickens. As these pillars of society crumble, Wunmi wonders whether she’s walked into a refuge or a trap?
We caught up with Dipo ahead of The Clinic’s world premiere…
Please introduce yourself …
I’m Dipo Baruwa-Etti. Playwright, filmmaker, poet. My plays include The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars (Stratford East), An unfinished man (The Yard Theatre), Half-Empty Glasses (Paines Plough) and The Clinic, which is coming up at the Almeida.
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now …
Lots of (exciting) planning.
The Clinic was written whilst you were on the Channel 4 Playwrights scheme, what was the process like developing and working on this piece?
I’d spoken to the Almeida about an idea I was interested in exploring so, once the attachment began, I started researching The Clinic. Then, when lockdown started and An unfinished man was postponed, I started writing it. We did a couple of workshops, one in 2020 and one in 2021, and in between then it was really just lots of redrafting and researching – as characters, plot, and tone evolved. It was a fun but difficult process, mostly because it’s my most ambitious play, in form (despite being my most structurally traditional play) and also in the ideas being explored.
The Clinic focuses on a Black middle-class family, why do you think it is important to talk about the intersection of race and class within the Black community?
I think it’s important because we live in a society that largely still sees Black people as a monolith. The Black middle class wasn’t something I thought about until I started working and came across so many people who existed within that group, which meant I was seeing even more shades of Blackness. It was interesting to see how a certain upbringing can create a stark difference in identity and experience. When generating ideas, I usually begin with the question ‘what do I want the Black community to talk more about?’ this was a topic that stayed on my mind, alongside many other things, as it’s a growing population.
Your play An unfinished man was on at the Yard Theatre earlier this year and discussed mental health and particularly its stigma for Black men. The Clinic similarly talks about mental health – why do you think theatre is a good vehicle for discussing these topics?
I think theatre is a good medium for these topics, because you’re able to experiment with form and language in different ways, allowing difficult themes to be explored in manners that aren’t so didactic. It’s also great as you have performers in the same space as the audience, which can often create more direct impact. It can allow everyone to feel the moment as a collective, hopefully reducing the potential heaviness on one person – which could be the case, watching something in isolation at home.
Whilst writing The Clinic, did you do any research into past or recent social and cultural movements/ figures to inform the character of Wunmi?
As I started writing it in 2020, there was a greater spotlight on the work Black activists were doing, which was definitely a factor in my research. Particularly the different ways people fight and belief systems about the journey to equity. Alongside that, most of my reading was around austerity, government policies, and how that’s impacting Black lives. For The Clinic I was focused on 21 st century movements, but I started writing my play Half-Empty Glasses the following year, so my research for that (more equally focused on the past and present) definitely fed into the process anyway.
The Clinic, like your play The Sun, The Moon and the Stars, is very lyrical – what draws you to this form of writing?
When I first started writing plays, I read an essay by Suzan-Lori Parks where she encouraged playing with language. Once I started doing that, I found it really fun and liberating to challenge conventions, especially when it comes to dialogue and poetry in playwriting. One of the beauties of theatre to me is finding ways to experiment – whether in language, form, etc. while still bringing emotional truth and realism. Theatre isn’t reality, so why not do whatever I want?
Are there any writers that have inspired your way of writing?
As mentioned, Suzan-Lori Parks definitely. Also debbie tucker green, in terms of playing with language and its precision. Tennessee Williams with his poetry and imagery. August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry with their depiction of various shades of Blackness and family. There are so many playwrights I find inspiring, though they might not have inspired my way of writing necessarily.
You write across TV, Film, Theatre and poetry – do you think writing across different mediums has developed you as a writer/creative?
I think my voice and process are different for each of these mediums, despite having some thematic parallels across them, so I learn from each of them. If I were to simplify it: TV has allowed me to think more about commercialism, which isn’t always a bad thing; film, about imagery, subtext and the unspoken; theatre about playing with form, the importance of language, and considering audience impact; poetry about emotion and precision. There are more within each of these and they overlap, but it’s definitely helped me develop creatively, as I have different strengths in each.
You have had a prolific year – a short film, 3 shows on this year, and that’s the stuff that we know about! With all these projects, how have you been celebrating/ are you finding a way to celebrate?
I get asked this a lot and, to be honest, I don’t really celebrate my achievements. I might buy something that I’ve wanted for a while, but that’s also not a very long list! I think that’s because, as much as I love making work, I do view it as my job. I’ve had so many non-writing jobs and didn’t really celebrate when a good thing happened, so it’s probably an extension of that. And there’s something culturally, in always looking ahead to the next thing. Maybe I should find time to celebrate more!
When working on a new project, where do you usually source inspiration from?
I usually start with the question: ‘what do I want Black people to talk more about?‘ Then I think about genres I’m interested in that could bring that question to life in an entertaining way, characters that would be most dynamic in that space, and the questions about the theme that I want to leave people with. That, combined with inspiration from overheard conversations or situations I know people have been in (whether personally or through stories) is normally enough to get me writing.
Given the turbulent few years that we’ve had, discussing the physical and emotional effects of activism on marginalised bodies feels particularly resonate, what do you hope audiences take away from the show?
I hope people take mostly questions away – around activism and what it means to give yourself to a cause, how to hold loved ones accountable, and what it looks like to be Black and successful by society’s standards. As the Black middle-class population continues to grow, there are more complex questions about power, assimilation, and politics. I also hope that, like I try to get across with all my work, audiences see that in spite of hardships there can be hope and change – even if only on a personal scale.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU …
- A book you have to have in your collection? Salvage the Bones – Jesmyn Ward
- A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? Could never choose one.
- A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? Mad Men
- The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)? Chicago, when America Ferrera (star of Ugly Betty) was in it in 2011. It didn’t blow me away or really get me into theatre, as I didn’t next go to the theatre till 2015, but it did make me realise how important marketing is to get audiences through the doors.
- What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? Sad: Rising cost of living, but that’s a recurring one. Mad: Same thing. Glad: Being in rehearsals for The Clinic and seeing it come to life.
The Clinic runs until Saturday 1st October @ the Almeida Theatre. You can find more info book here.