The Nigerian-British Writer Putting Black Joy on Stage and Screen

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LONDON — The primary play Theresa Ikoko wrote wasn’t essentially meant to be a play — not but, anyway.

At that time it was merely a narrative she had written for herself after years of amassing characters and scenes in her head, all of them rooted within the communities she knew as a Nigerian-British lady. When she learn components of it over the telephone to a good friend a number of years in the past, he was taken by the way in which she had captured the expertise of being Black and British.

“After I finished, he said to me, ‘Theresa, there’s no difference between this and Shakespeare as far as I’m concerned,’” Ms. Ikoko stated with fun whereas sitting on a park bench in East London.

It has since been a exceptional rise for the playwright turned screenwriter, who till final yr was working as a case supervisor at a youth violence group, pretending to compose lengthy emails and writing scenes as an alternative.

Ms. Ikoko ultimately submitted her writing to the Talawa Theatre Company, Britain’s famend Black-led theater group, which jumped on the probability to provide it as a play. The work, “Normal,” ran as a stage studying in 2014, and a yr later she wrote “Girls,” a play about three ladies kidnapped by a terrorist group. That earned her the Alfred Fagon Award for Finest New Play of 2015 and the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright in 2016.

On Friday, her first film, “Rocks,” which she wrote with Claire Wilson, opened in Britain. It facilities on the enjoyment and resilience of younger ladies of shade — a bunch hardly ever given mainstream consideration in British movie — and positions Ms. Ikoko as a significant new voice.

This yr she joins a wave of younger Black writers, producers and administrators carving out area in an trade that has been liable to both exclude them or crush them with expectations demanding that their work cowl solely problems with race.

“It’s like my movie has to dismantle racism,” Ms. Ikoko stated. “And it has to offer reparations. It also has to dethrone the monarchy and restore the stolen artifacts back to Benin. But it’s 90 minutes on a low budget!”

But for Ms. Ikoko, “there’s so much more that comes with being Black apart from dealing with racism.” And that has meant creating work that additionally focuses on Black pleasure.

Rising up, she by no means knew any writers, or that writing was one thing folks had been paid to do. The youngest of 9, she was raised by a single mom who got here to Britain from Nigeria a number of years earlier than Ms. Ikoko was born. Her household moved round a number of council estates, a type of British public housing, all within the Hackney neighborhood of East London.

Her mom labored a number of jobs, and Ms. Ikoko stated there have been occasions once they noticed one another solely in passing, Ms. Ikoko leaving for varsity and her mom getting back from an evening shift. “She always checked that I brushed my teeth and my tongue,” Ms. Ikoko stated.

Regardless of having little cash rising up, Ms. Ikoko stated she had by no means felt poor. Saving cash on the water invoice was disguised as a possibility to take a bucket bathtub — a scrub adopted by rinsing off with a bowl of water, frequent in her mom’s native Nigeria. She shared a twin mattress along with her older sister, however the crowded sleeping association meant gossiping gone bedtime.

“It didn’t feel like ‘Woe is us,’ even though we lived on an estate,” she stated. “It was always loud. It was always fun.”

She developed an early love of studying and storytelling, thanks partly to the work of Black authors like Malorie Blackman, Sister Souljah and Eric Jerome Dickey. However she pursued a extra sensible path, learning psychology at Royal Holloway college and later incomes a grasp’s diploma in criminology and legal justice from Oxford.

It was by way of legal justice work that she began to see firsthand the expectations positioned on folks from communities like her personal. “There was a survey that included the demographics of prisoners along with some predictive factors,” she stated. “I saw that all of their predictive factors were mine — single-parent household, low income, from a high-crime area — and I didn’t agree with that.”

In a program she labored on that organized drama workshops in London prisons, she began to see the facility of storytelling — and whose tales obtained to be informed. “I was falling in love with giving people the power to be whatever they wanted to be,” she stated.

In 2014, she took a job with Islington Integrated Gangs, a London group that focuses on gang violence in youth communities, and wrote on the facet — at nights, on weekends, at work. It wasn’t till final yr, when she couldn’t get the day without work work to attend the “Rocks” premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, that she determined she might now not do each. She stop her job final September.

Nina Steiger, the top of play improvement at London’s Nationwide Theatre, describes Ms. Ikoko’s work as “banter and brutality,” a nod to the lighthearted gossip that slips seamlessly between moments of bleakness.

“You will probably laugh and cry with equal measure,” Ms. Ikoko stated.

However getting her writing profession off the bottom hasn’t been with out its challenges. She stated she had as soon as pitched a present to a British tv govt a few group of Somali sisters, just for him to ask the place in Britain there have been Somali viewers. “Is it not good enough that it’s just a good story?” she stated.

And though her work typically facilities on the Black British expertise, Ms. Ikoko tries to keep away from focusing solely on racism or positioning Blackness as a foil to whiteness. “This idea that Blackness only exists in racism and oppression just doesn’t sit well with me,” she stated.

The Black expertise can be about pleasure, she famous, pointing to latest viral photos on Twitter of a younger Black man’s discovery of frolicking, full with serene pictures of him clicking his heels in an empty subject. “Of course we need to dismantle systemic racism and structural oppression, but I want my work to remind Black people to laugh, to frolic,” she stated.

Ms. Ikoko is at present at work on her third play, for the Nationwide Theatre, and is creating a film for the BBC. She’s additionally intent on creating alternatives for first-time actors, writers, producers, designers — anybody attempting to interrupt into the film and tv trade — by way of a corporation, Bridge, that she helped arrange throughout the manufacturing of “Rocks.”

Greater than something, although, she’s decided to elevate the undue burden on writers of shade — herself included.

“Is it magic? Does it change the world? Does it speak to the Black experience? Does it speak to the Black experience for non-Black people? Is it also not white gaze?” she stated of the ideas that run by way of her head when she sits down to put in writing.

“Hopefully,” she stated, “I’ll be part of the people who are going to do all of that sticky unpacking work.”


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