‘There’s so much more that comes with being black than dealing with racism’

As her first film ‘Rocks’ makes its debut, Allison McCann talks to London writer Theresa Ikoko about creating work that focuses on joy and resilience, rather than oppression

Thursday 01 October 2020 22:03
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The playwright has had a remarkable year and is being touted as a major new voice in an industry that lacks diversity
The playwright has had a remarkable year and is being touted as a major new voice in an industry that lacks diversity

The first play Theresa Ikoko wrote wasn’t necessarily meant to be a play – not yet, anyway.

At that point it was simply a story she had written for herself after years of collecting characters and scenes in her head, all of them rooted in the communities she knew as a Nigerian-British woman. When she read parts of it over the phone to a friend several years ago, he was taken by the way she had captured the experience 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,’” Ikoko says with a laugh while sitting on a park bench in east London.

It has since been a remarkable rise for the playwright turned screenwriter, who until last year was working as a case manager at a youth violence organisation, pretending to compose long emails and writing scenes instead.

Ikoko eventually submitted her writing to the Talawa Theatre Company, Britain’s renowned black-led theatre group, which jumped at the chance to produce it as a play. The work, Normal, ran as a stage reading in 2014, and a year later she wrote Girls, a play about three girls abducted by a terrorist group. That earned her the Alfred Fagon Award for Best New Play of 2015 and the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright in 2016.

On Friday 18 September, her first movie, Rocks, which she wrote with Claire Wilson, opened. It centres on the joy and resilience of young women of colour – a group rarely given mainstream attention in British film – and positions Ikoko as a major new voice.

This year she joins a wave of young black writers, producers and directors carving out space in an industry that has been prone to either exclude them or crush them with expectations demanding that their work cover only issues of race.

“It’s like my movie has to dismantle racism,” Ikoko says. “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!”

Yet for Ikoko, “there’s so much more that comes with being black apart from dealing with racism”. And that has meant creating work that also focuses on black joy.

Ikoko (left) at the 63rd BFI London Film Festival last year (Getty)

Growing up, she never knew any writers, or that writing was something people were paid to do. The youngest of nine, she was raised by a single mother who came to Britain from Nigeria a few years before Ikoko was born. Her family moved around several council estates all in Hackney.

Her mother worked multiple jobs, and Ikoko says there were times when they saw each other only in passing, Ikoko leaving for school and her mother returning from a night shift. “She always checked that I brushed my teeth and my tongue,” Ikoko says.

Despite having little money growing up, Ikoko says she had never felt poor. Saving money on the water bill was disguised as an opportunity to take a bucket bath – a scrub followed by rinsing off with a bowl of water, common in her mother’s native Nigeria. She shared a twin bed with her older sister, but the crowded sleeping arrangement meant gossiping long past bedtime.

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

She developed an early love of reading and storytelling, thanks in part to the work of black authors like Malorie Blackman, Sister Souljah and Eric Jerome Dickey. But she pursued a more practical path, studying psychology at Royal Holloway university and later earning a master’s degree in criminology and criminal justice from Oxford.

Of course we need to dismantle systemic racism and structural oppression, but I want my work to remind black people to laugh, to frolic

It was through criminal justice work that she started to see firsthand the expectations placed on people from communities like her own. “There was a survey that included the demographics of prisoners along with some predictive factors,” she says. “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 programme she worked on that organised drama workshops in London prisons, she started to see the power of storytelling – and whose stories got to be told. “I was falling in love with giving people the power to be whatever they wanted to be,” she says.

In 2014, she took a job with Islington Integrated Gangs, a London organisation that focuses on gang violence in youth communities, and wrote on the side – at nights, on weekends, at work. It wasn’t until last year, when she couldn’t get the time off work to attend the Rocks premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, that she decided she could no longer do both. She quit her job last September.

Nina Steiger, the head of play development at London’s National Theatre, describes 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,” Ikoko says.

‘I was falling in love with giving people the power to be whatever they wanted to be’

But getting her writing career off the ground hasn’t been without its challenges. She says she once pitched a show to a British television executive about a group of Somali sisters, only for him to ask where in Britain there were Somali viewers. “Is it not good enough that it’s just a good story?” she says.

And although her work often centres on the black British experience, Ikoko tries to avoid 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 says.

The black experience is also about joy, she notes, pointing to recent viral photos on Twitter of a young black man’s discovery of frolicking, complete with serene photos of him clicking his heels in an empty field. “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 says.

Ikoko is currently at work on her third play, for the National Theatre, and is developing a movie for the BBC. She’s also intent on creating opportunities for first-time actors, writers, producers, designers – anyone trying to break into the movie and television industry – through an organisation, Bridge, that she helped set up during the production of Rocks.

More than anything, though, she’s determined to lift the undue burden on writers of colour – 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 says of the thoughts that run through her head when she sits down to write.

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

© The New York Times

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