It's rare to see three adolescent black girls talking about their lives on stage for over an hour. It's even rarer to see women on stage weighing up the pros and cons of dying for Jihad. Or a re-enactment of a miscarriage under bright theatre lights. But writer Theresa Ikoko has no problem with depicting violence, or with making you feel uncomfortable in the process.
Her new play Girls is an ode to the 276 Chibok schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in April of 2014, and all of the other Nigerian girls who have gone before and after them. It follows three young women as they attempt to deal with trauma, radicalisation and loss during their period of captivity. For the duration of the play, we never meet a male character, a decision which puts the dynamic between the three girls firmly centre-stage.
Girls is a hard pill to swallow: it's a stark reminder of the fact that once the newspaper print fades, and the TV cameras shift their focus onto the next thing, the Western world has a tendency to forget about the victims of terrorism. But more than that, it's a play about finding humour in the worst of times – as the girls' friendship prevails through despair, so does Theresa's witty and hope-filled script.
To find out how you even begin to put a Boko Haram kidnapping on stage, we talked to Theresa about telling the kind of stories that are so often missed in theatre.
VICE: It must be quite daunting to write about Boko Haram. Why did you decide to do it?
Theresa Ikoko: The way I tend to write is a picture of a person pops into my head, and I spend some time getting to know them and their world; I see a chunk of their life and I write it down. Usually they're the people we don't get to know or see, in the parts of the world other people aren't looking at. We tend to only talk about women in relation to men – sex slaves in Iraq in relation to Islamic State; girls who have been kidnapped in northern Nigeria in relation to Boko Haram. The girls always seem to be propping up the story of the men. I got curious about who those women might be.
You're of Nigerian heritage yourself. Did your background inform the play or the writing?
Definitely. Even though I was born and raised in the UK, my family are from there, so it's a part of my subconscious. The sense of joy in the story comes from my family. We were poor growing up and we shared a bath and a bed, but it didn't occur to us that actually there were too many of us in a two-bedroom council flat. Nigeria was voted happiest place in the world a few years ago – that was important to me to show through the characters. The heart of the piece is the joy in it.
Did you have to navigate that carefully, so as to not make a play about kidnapping and torture too light?
To me writing is an opportunity to be nosy, and my only objective is to get to know these characters. My loyalty is to them and their stories. I don't think I realise what's funny or heartbreaking until I hear it read in front of people and I hear them laughing or crying in the toilets after the show. That's surreal to me. My writing has been described as "banter and brutality". But I think maybe that's just my personality.
People say there aren't enough black actors out there. I call bullshit on that because we saw tons.
Did you do a lot of research to make it as accurate as possible?
I'm very conscious that this isn't the story of the Chibok girls. The issue with Boko Haram has been going on in Nigeria since before it became popular news in the West, and there are a few references in the play that make that clear.
In the West we often only given credence to things that exist on our timeline; we know everything based on how it relates to us in Europe. When the 200 girls were captured, we had a hashtag, it was shared by Michelle Obama on a piece of paper – that's our only reference point. But this isn't about Chibok and it isn't about Boko Haram; it's about all the girls that do get and continue to get ignored by us. I'm not a political writer. My writing is about relationships, humanity and love.
There's a monologue that alludes to the #bringbackourgirls hashtag and how useless clicktivism is. The play overall inspires a lot of guilt – Western guilt. Was that an intention?
People always ask me, "How does this affect you? You're Nigerian." It doesn't, really. I was born and raised in London and I'm privileged to have the options I do have. I feel a huge amount of guilt for writing about this – I did not expect the response I've had to this play and I'm grateful, but it also makes me wonder: what am I doing? I can say art changes the world, but is that enough?
I don't know, is it?
All I can do is try to make the world feel smaller. They say when you're kidnapped you should tell the kidnapper your name because it makes it harder to diffuse any responsibility that person might feel towards you. It undoes the effects of distance, and makes them feel more responsibility or compassion or connection. I don't know whether that will change anything, but it might.
The girls in the play are so great. Who are they and how did you cast them?
We had such a rigorous casting process and one thing I'll say about it is that people say there's bad representation on our screens and stages because there aren't enough black actors out there. I call bullshit on that because we saw tons and they were all striking.
You're telling stories we don't otherwise hear, but beyond what you're doing personally about representation in the arts, what more needs to change, industry-wise?
There are tons of amazing writers doing great things. But commissioners all look the same, have the same taste and want to do the same things. There's an assumption the audience wants the same things, but maybe that's because they don't know any different.
I think TV is the place where the issue is. In terms of diversity it is a joke. Turn on any channel on TV at night and count the variety of stories being told – you see the same names in credits. There's so much more brilliance out there we can explore. People need to accept different versions of stories. And for it to be uncomfortable. Like, because Top Boy has been on Channel 4 I'm sure it will be an issue now for any other story with a predominantly black cast set in an estate to be told. We can only afford to give screen time to black people once every generation. Whereas we have Casualty, EastEnders, Holby City, Emmerdale, Coronation Street – all mostly white casts – back-to-back every day of the week. The opportunities afforded to us black people on stage and screen are token. And the problem is at the top, not at ground level.
The Girls is on at Soho Theatre, London until 29th October.
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