September 23, 2016
Girls Talk w/ Theresa Ikoko, Writer of Girls @Soho Theatre
Girls (27 Sep – 29 Oct), a new play showing at London’s Soho Theatre is inspired by the abduction of the Chibok school girls in Nigeria and the lack of media coverage that it received. Written by Theresa Ikoko, it gives a voice to the Chibok schoolgirls as well as women suffering in conflict zones across the world following the violent uprising of Boko Haram.
The play touches on issues such as female friendship and the disparity between media coverage of such events – with some atrocities receiving worldwide coverage and others being quickly forgotten or overlooked.
Natalie Whitmore finds out more about this important play and the woman behind it, Theresa Ikoko.
Why did you decide to give a voice to girls around the world who have been victims of kidnapping, forced marriages and killed but in particular Nigeria?
I don’t really see Girls as giving a voice to anyone, as I’m not sure that’s my place/right. I see it more as an opportunity to explore some unknowns, some forgotten and some ignored people and places. I think it’s easy to dismiss the silencing and hiding of women’s stories as a problem for a particular part of the world, but there are women being sex trafficked across Europe, there are women of achievement and success being referred to solely by their marital status, sexual orientation or skin colour in news headings and crime reports. To me, Girls is a reminder, to me, as much as anyone, of the complexity, depth, potential, joy, worth, struggle and strength of girlhood and female friendship. It’s a reminder that we are more than nameless statistics, more than victims, more than our connection to a political agenda or a patriarchy.
How long did it take you to write the play and put the cast together?
It didn’t take me long to write, as I tend to start writing once I’ve already “met” the characters (in my head) and been introduced to their world, so by the time I start writing it’s pretty much a matter of whether my hands can keep up.
I finished writing Girls last summer and we started auditioning this spring. Rehearsals started at the beginning of August, so all in all, from writing to rehearsals, about a year.
When you were writing this play what was the change you wanted to see as a result of it being showcased?
I don’t really think about any of that when I write. I just want to get to know someone, a place or a thing. It’s impossible to know whether something I write will ever be read by more than me, let alone get a production. But, if I enjoy getting to know someone or their world, if I feel compassion or moved by them, if I think they have something interesting or important to say, I figure maybe someone else might too. I’m not quite sure what the power of art is… I know it is powerful, but I’m still figuring out exactly what it can do and how, outside of arts education and engagement, it can transform.
How has your work for the London Borough Gangs Team influenced your writing and understanding of the struggle females in the UK and around the world face today?
I think my work influences my writing in a number of ways. Firstly, it gives me necessary head space away from writing and the world of my characters. It can become really consuming some times and I can escape into work when I need to… Equally, when work becomes consuming, I can escape into my writing. My job also facilitates contact with a range of people. It stops me from becoming presumptive about humans and humanity. People are surprising and unpredictable, and work reminds me of that often, which helps me stay open minded with my characters. It stops me from imposing my own ideas and convenient stories into what I write.
I’m not sure I can understand the struggles of women in the UK beyond what I know as a woman who lives in the UK. I’m passionate about being a woman and curious about our place in this world. I work with a range of amazingly talented, driven women and I come across amazingly strong and resilient women. I also come across women in crisis and women who are at risk and vulnerable. I think, I have always been naturally curious and compassionate, so I think I am particularly open when I come into contact with people. If I don’t know something about a person or their world,, then I’ll wonder why and feel a real need to find out more. I think I have a need to connect with people and I think that serves me well in both work and writing.
As a Nigerian female, how did the kidnappings of the Chibok girls affect you personally?
To be honest, it didn’t effect me “personally”. I was born and raised in London and I have no family or friends in the north of Nigeria. I felt almost guilty by my privilege of distance and circumstance. I think, like many people in the world I was shocked, appalled and stirred to want to do something… But felt helpless and eventually hopeless. As a woman, and as a black woman, I was angered by the way we anonymise women and the way we forget them. I was disturbed by the selective coverage and the “fad”. I felt uncomfortable by the media response to the women who escaped and saddened by their displacement (in the world and their homes).
How do you feel about the media coverage in particular the lack of consistency when reporting on issues such as the ones you touch on in this play? (kidnappings, abuse, forced marriages)
I think the gatekeepers of mainstream media are particularly homogenous, thus, mainstream media struggles to be representative. I feel like that is why a lot of people are turning to YouTube news channels, blogs and social media for news and discussion. People are searching for places and people that represent them, or that can challenge them constructively. For a lot of us, that isn’t in mainstream media. It’s disappointing, but not surprising and until things change at the top, nothing else can be expected, and in the meantime, most of my friends seek out information from alternative, credible sources. Most of us know better than to look to certain papers or news sources for accurate and consistent reports on stories that don’t fit nicely into the editors’ perception of the world or that fall outside of the things that directly interest or effect them.
Can you tell us about the three main characters of the play and describe their friendship?
Haleema is the self assigned “leader”… Actually, the other two seem to hand it over quite easily to her. She is driven, hard, caring and practical. She can be quite single minded and incapable of understanding opinion and views that contradict her own.
Ruhab’s strength comes from her ability to adapt. She is beautiful and knows it, but she is tougher than people give her credit for. She is fun and she can be gentle. Haleema thinks Ruhab can be naive, but Ruhab would say, unlike Haleema, that she is open minded. She can appear a little self centred.
Tisana is playful and optimistic. She loves her friends and her family. She has a strong, though sometimes unrealistic, sense of who she is and who she should be. She is playful, and sometimes babied, but she has a quiet resilience that most people overlook.
Can you see yourself in any of the girls?
During rehearsals, the actors, stage managers, directors and I would often tease one another about the traits of the characters we saw in each other. If someone did something “too cool” or dismissive they got called “Haleema”, if someone had an absent minded or vain moment, they were labelled “Ruhab”, and playful, puppy energy was definitely a “Tisana” moment. But that was just for banter, these are very much just a small part of who those characters are.
I think, personally, there’s probably a bit of all of them in me. I’m not sure how much existed before I started to get to know the girls. I’m sure I’ve picked up some of their habits and traits along the way. I’d like to think that their various forms of strength (focused and narrow mindedness- Haleema; adaptability and self assurance- Ruhab; conviction and optimism- Tisana) has grown in me over the last year.
What can the audience expect from the play? What do you want the audience to take away once watching the play? (Call to action?)
The audience can expect a celebration of female friendship. They can expect joy and typical teenager banter. I hope they are moved. I hope they are reminded of the power and strength of womanhood. I hope recognise the girls. . I hope they fall in love with these girls. I hope they care about their future and their present, and their past. I hope they think of them often and the women they remind them of. I hope the audience think of the women that they don’t know, that they may have forgotten about, and they think of the potential in them.
Why did you think it was important for a UK audience to see the play?
I think people can look to art for answers, but I sort of see it like art creates a space for questions- questions we might not know to ask, or might never have been asked or a space to question our own thoughts, actions, ideas and feelings.
I don’t really want to call this play “important”… Not more so than any other story or piece of art is. I think what is important is to get to know as many people as possible and to be open to as many stories and versions of this world as exists. I love these girls and think their outlook on the world might be interesting and fun and challenging for people to engage with, so hopefully people want to spend some time with them too.
How did it feel to win the Most Promising Playwright and the Alfred Fagon Awards, and being shortlisted for Soho Theatre’s Verity Bargate Award?
The George Devine, Alfred Fagon and Verity Bargate Award are amazing awards to be acknowledged by. The alumni is incredible and to be on a list with those names is surreal. I think specifically, for Girls, a story about female friendship, a story about three black girls who are friends- for that to be acknowledged as a story worthy of being heard, was quite special to me. I think it’s easy for girls, for girls who intersect with other minority or oppressed or excluded or vulnerable groups, to struggle to find their place or worth in a world that doesn’t seem designed to accommodate our freedom to just be, so it sort of felt like, those awards were saying: 1. Girl banter is class and 2. We love these girls- imperfect and strong and decision making and flawed and surviving and fighting- just as they are.
On a personal level, it also meant, that when a little black girl from an estate somewhere googles these awards and wonders whether they are in her reach, she will see my African surname, she might read that I was born, raised and still live on estates in Hackney and she might feel a little less limited and something like this might feel a little more in her reach.
Interestingly, you have mentioned before that you don’t plan to give up your day job. Why is that?
I think for some of the reasons I said earlier. It makes my writing richer- both for what I learn about people and humankind every day and for giving me places and people to escape to when my characters are doing my head in.
Also, I studied and worked hard most of my academic life to build the career I am in right now and I really do enjoy it (for the most part). Since I was little, I’ve always believed that a day not doing what you want to do, is a day wasted (though, when I was little it sort of manifested as me being a brat). And my job and my writing are both things that I want to do. They mean a lot to me and are big parts of who I am. I feel I would be a lesser me, without one or the other…
But who knows, life is fluid and I’m open minded…, my real dream is to own a vegetable farm in the middle of nowhere and bake scones all day, so who knows.
What is next for you and your career?
I’m sort of just riding the wave. I am open to varying opportunities and happy to try new things. I’m surrounded by amazingly talented and supportive people so I feel like I’m in good hands. I’m learning a lot of lessons about the kind of work I want to make, who I want to make it with and the way I want to make it, so I’m hoping with each thing I do, I will be able to do it better and easier.
To book tickets to see Girls, click here