She is a Place Called Home is the debut play from Esohe Uwadiae. As two sisters rehearse a traditional Nigerian dance for their father’s wedding to his second wife (an addition rather than a replacement for his first) they explore their culture, their religion and their family in crisis. Directed by Layla Madanat I spoke to Esohe about the play, African culture on the stage and what more the theatre industry can do to help black voices.
Hi Esohe, tell us about She is a Place Called Home.
The play follows two sisters as they navigate the fall out within their family as a result of their Dad’s decision to get another wife. There’s a big focus on the impact of tradition and culture throughout, and the pressure it creates on those within the family to keep up appearances to the outside world even though the family is crumbling.
We try to celebrate some of the great things about Nigerian culture, like the dancing and the clothing, while also exploring the reality of what happens when your culture becomes the source of conflict within your life and the thing that’s tearing your family apart. For people of dual nationalities, this is even more likely to be the case because of the additional, and often conflicting, influences on your values. For instance, being British Nigerian the sisters are also dealing with the fact that when they view their Nigerian traditions they are also doing so, at least partially, through a Western lens.
We try to celebrate some of the great things about Nigerian culture, like the dancing and the clothing, while also exploring the reality of what happens when your culture becomes the source of conflict within your life and the thing that’s tearing your family apart.
So what you find are people doing their best to exist in the space between all of this, and that’s not an easy thing.
You are a graduate of VAULT Festival New Writers Programme and Royal Court Writers Group. Was this play developed in those programmes or had the idea been around for a while.
The play was developed during the VAULT Festival New Writers programme. Prior to the programme, I’d only ever written one piece of theatre, a four page monologue, and I didn’t really have an idea going in of what I wanted to write. But I was really lucky because as part of the programme we were able to read and watch a lot of shows, so I was able to see what other writers had done and be inspired.
My sister was a massive help, I remember the exact night the idea was conceived; the two of us were in the living room, she was doing a dance, Ibeyi was playing in the background. In the play, I try to remain true to the feeling of that first night.
She is A Place Called Home is set in a Nigerian household. Is this a biographical piece?
I’d say inspired by (at least partially). For example, my Grandpa does have two wives. I have aunts who are second wives. I also have sisters.
As the play developed over the different drafts, I did start taking out some of the more explicitly biographical scenes. For instance, in the first draft, the sisters were preparing a dance for their older sister’s wedding which is something me and my sister were going to have to do in the next few months.
But people tell you to write what you know for a reason, and parts of myself and my life story remain peppered throughout. Like my love of Edinburgh, navigating conflicts between my faith and other things, and the fiercely protective nature of my sisters.
Your director, Layla Madanat, identifies as Jordanian-Palestinian but was raised in London, did you find your diaspora cultures had a lot in common.
We did actually. Academic pressure is a running theme throughout the play that we bonded over, and how second and third generation people from our diaspora cultures have high expectations placed on them by their parents to succeed. It’s especially heightened because of the economic risk involved in migration and their desire for their children to end up in economically secure professions.
But the thing that really stood out was just how important family is, especially our sisters. They are the only other person in the world who will get exactly what you’ve been through, and for that reason they are also the best person to advise you when it comes to navigating family. They know you better than you know yourself, which is an amazing resource as they can provide an objectivity to your behaviour that you can’t.
How second and third generation people from our diaspora cultures have high expectations placed on them by their parents to succeed. It’s especially heightened because of the economic risk involved in migration
The play is under Black Voices and Women’s Voices strands. In your experience how easy has it been to present an intersectional work such as this?
It’s been really difficult.
I wanted to be true to the experience of the characters, but I didn’t want to regurgitate the same tropes and stories that have come before. I also wanted the characters to be fully fleshed out and complex rather than their struggle being the only interesting thing about them. It’s something I’m always conscious of in my work. A lot of the time, forms of storytelling present women, and especially black women, in ways that are flat and predictable. They are reduced to being one thing, as opposed to having the freedom to be that thing and more. Because this is material that I grew up consuming, I worry about falling into those same patterns in my work. It helps that there’s only two characters in the play, and their sister relationship allows me the freedom to portray them at their most vulnerable.
A lot of the time, forms of storytelling present women, and especially black women, in ways that are flat and predictable. They are reduced to being one thing, as opposed to having the freedom to be that thing and more.
It’s also hard because I have this fear that someone will see my work and take that as reflecting the experience of every person who identifies in the same way as my characters. For instance, the show follows black women. While I believe there are some aspects of black womanhood which are universal, we all have our own unique experiences that are worthy of being heard and listened to. I’m especially scared when it comes to telling stories that include cultural criticisms, because there’s that risk that someone will, again, take that as being universal, write off that culture and make claims like “all Nigerian men are bad”, ignoring the other side of the picture being presented.
Throughout the play, there is a lot of reflection on Nigerian culture and the harm it has on this particular family. However, I can easily see how this play could have been a comedy had the characters been slightly different.
I was interested to see that you are working with Solace Women’s Aid. How important is it for you as a writer to build bridges between arts, culture and charity?
I remember seeing this post on Twitter where someone witnessed a homeless person asking a commuter for money. The commuter ignored them, but immediately started writing a poem about them on their phone. For me that really sums up how easy it is for art to become divorced from the reality of those who are the subject of it, hence the importance of building bridges and giving back where you can.
More than that, VAULT Festival is the largest arts festival in London. This puts us in a position to be able to help Solace to reach new people and to tell them about their incredible work, like the refuges they run and the counselling they offer. Solace also has a base in Lambeth, not far from VAULT Festival, so I’m glad that we were able to partner with a local charity.
After every show we will be collecting monetary donations for Solace but also toiletries, like sanitary products, body wash and toothpaste to support their various initiatives.
What are your plans after VAULT Festival?
Too early to say. I’d love to partner with a few community groups to support people in exploring and creating theatre. Maybe even put on a free show or two.
She Is A Place Called Home is on from 3-8 March as part of the 2020 Vault Festival https://vaultfestival.com/whats-on/she-is-a-place-called-home/