Bisola articulated some thoughts as to the nature of her creative process below. She is performing her work-in-progress show at the Bush Theatre about mental health, a mythical water deity known as Mami Wata, dealing with loss and trauma while living in an all women’s hostel. Mami Wata will be at the Bush Theatre on 21st and 22nd March 2019 at 3pm on Eventbrite HERE
How did you feel about stories of people who looked like you or stories of families like yours - when growing up or now? Were you aware of an absence of stories?
When it comes to stories, growing up I was in an interesting position. Although on typical British television I would hardly see anyone who looked like me, except for the typical one dimensional and negative stereotypes. I did grow up in a household where we constantly watched Nollywood films (Nigeria’s version of Hollywood). We had so many tapes and DVDS of these films. My friends and I were obsessed with them and because of having this in my life I could imagine myself as an actor and writer. We did laugh sometimes at the quality of some of those films, especially when they tried to add special affects but I absolutely adored every single one of those films. Seeing beautiful Nigerian women and men on my home screen fuelled my dreams for myself. However, It never permanently fixed the absence I felt when not seeing myself on screen on British TV as I am British and Nigerian. Also, I could not watch many Nigerian films as many of them were spoken in Yoruba (one of the many languages in Nigeria). My family are of the Yoruba tribe and that is our language. Unfortunately, my mother never taught me her language and I have always felt disconnected for that part of myself. This is something I bring up in Mami Wata because is common for Nigerian parents to teach their children their language, especially if they are brought up outside of Nigeria. I would have family members and friends constantly ask me why I don’t speak Yoruba as if I am responsible for not teaching myself, which has at many times left me feeling resentment and more distant from community.
What would you say to a more dominant culture which may not authentically portray stories about black women, about disability about themes which interest you ?
I would say to the more dominant culture, which who don’t portray more authentic stories about Black women and all women of colour, disability and mental health is firstly, for them to try to imagine being in our shoes and having all the amazing stories that they have created for themselves dwindled down to something that doesn’t truly give you justice, full range and perspective of their experiences and seeing how that greatly affects them in the wider world. Our understanding of the world mainly comes from the media in all its forms. Imagine having all your stories taken away from you.
As part of my Mami Wata project I am working with an amazing charity called the London Black Women’s Project, which is a charity that work with women of colour who are survivors of domestic abuse, young girls, refugees and women with mental health issues. I have listened and helped facilitate writing workshops with some of their clients, who will be sharing their work as part of the Mami Wata sharing. Their stories are absolutely heartbreaking and they are struggling and surviving from hand to mouth in Britain. Their stories are hardly heard and these brilliant charities are underfunded. Theresa May’s words of creating a hostile environment is the stuff of nightmares for these women because they are living that hostile environment. Words such as hers create apathy, hatred and ignorance, which makes me want to use the privileges and opportunities to help as much as possible, yet I have so much to learn.
It is important to have full representation not just on screen or stage but also behind the scenes, especially when it comes to the decision-makers aka the gatekeepers. We have lived in a world that has thrived on underrepresentation and misrepresentation in the media that has great consequences. That is why I am a passionate writer and why I’ve written Mami Wata. It is important for me to show people the complexities of being a Black woman in Britain. Women of colour, especially have a higher percentage of mental health issues, many of whom do not seek treatment due to the views and taboos placed on us within our communities. From personal experience, I have found it difficult to have a conversation with my own family about my experience with depression. Brought up in a traditional Nigerian household it is easier for them to blame it on superstition with them prescribing prayer (which can be therapeutic) as the treatment instead of dealing with the medical science of it. If that makes sense.
You’ve switch careers and studied law. How has that influenced your artistic practice? If at all.
I’ve always wanted to work in the arts as a writer and actor but I ended up studying law to please my very traditional Nigerian family and I absolutely hated it. What was meant to be one of the most amazing experiences in my life (going to University) was a bit miserable because I was studying something that I had zero passion for. During those years was when I realised I had depression. As well as getting medical help, I decided that during every summer break I would take part in as many theatre opportunities as possible. ATC, Ovalhouse and the Young Vic are few of the theatres that gave me those opportunities for escapism and somewhere that I could fully exercise my creativity. Looking back, I’m extremely grateful for those opportunities. I am also grateful for my experience at University because it showed me clearly that if I am going to spend my life working towards something it has to be something that I am passionate for.
Has place, where you were born where you live now, affected you and your work ?
For sure. In fact I go into great detail about Rotherhthe and Bermondsey in Mami Wata. It definitely shaped how I talk about the world and the people who have left an impression on me growing up good and bad.
What made you want to write and perform?
I don’t now if I can remember a specific time or place where it really hit me that I wanted to be a writer/performer. Children are great at creating stories with their dolls and stuffed animals etc. As an only child I remember creating a lot of stories with my dolls and stuffed animals and then that transitioned into me writing in my diaries. I would imagine writing epic and adventurous stories in my head and wish that someone would create them. I finally realised I need to have the courage to start writing these stories.
What do you find hard to write about?
One of the hardest things I find about writing is when I have an idea and the dread of writing the first sentence this has been the scariest part for me. Then the fear of the first draft, which is what most writers go through. Realising that I am not the only one has lifted that fear a bit.
However, I would say Mami Wata has been the hardest play I have written so far because it is my most personal story I have written so far. Finding the right voice has been difficult and I am still discovering it. It was this process where I really felt the hardcore effects of writers block, it was this story that made we question if I should be a writer, can I write? am I good enough? That little negative voice in my head became louder on this project and because of that I knew I have to keep going and trust the process and my wonderful creative team who have held me up, supported me and believed in this project.
What has brought you the most happiness to write and perform ?
Mami Wata, when I enter the rehearsal room with my team of wonderful creatives/collaborators I am filled with so much excitement and energy. This was the first project where I received Arts Council funding for and having the opportunity to partner with different theatres and practitioners for this process has been brilliant.
What has influenced your artistic practice?
My experiences growing up in London have influenced my artistic practice, including reading about history, the forgotten stories and people of history. Non-Fictions, like the Miseducation Of The Negro, The Many Headed Hydra, The Black Jacobins, The autobiography of Assata Shakur, The New Jim Crow. Then there are the fictions such as A Thousand Splendid Suns, Americanah, A Brief History of Seven Killings and more. Reading the work of some of my favourite playwrights, like August Wilson and Debbie Tucker Green, who have given me the permission to write in whatever form or style I like. I do not need to subscribe the Europe tradition of the five-act structure. For me I believe if I want to be a great writer and expand my range of story telling then reading must be part of my artistic practice, which is a given for any writer.
Are there any difficult lessons that you have learned ? is there any advice you’d like to give others ?
No matter how much your workload is make sure you have a decent eight hour sleep, that is essential. Sometimes you may feel lonely so get used to your own company. The saying goes once you are at peace with solitude you will never feel lonely. Apply for funding while you still can, learn to produce something, especially if it is your own work it will liberate you.
Tell me about your current and future projects?
Mami Wata my first two hander show. The scratch performances are on at the Bush Theatre on the 21st and 22nd March at 3pm. Tickets must be booked via eventbrite (link below).
I am overjoyed to say that I am an associate Playwright at the Bush Theatre as part of the Project 2036 scholarship, which is a yearlong attachment. I am part of an amazing cohort, which includes an associate Producer and an associate Director and together we are programming our takeover in the Bush Studio from the 10th-22nd June 2019, so watch this space!
What was the last artistic work that made you cry ?
The film Moonlight turned me into an emotional wreak, absolutely stunning.
if money was no object what projects would you do?
I would do international shows and tour various countries in Africa. I would make an epic Afro-Futuristic fantasy television series and movies. I would set up my own theatre and film studio.
Mami Wata, A work-in-progress sharing of a new play by Bisola Alabi
Fifi is staying in an all-women hostel not far from the Thames. Estranged from her mother and in shock from the death of a loved one, she receives an unexpected letter from her absentee father. Dare she read it? As if that weren’t enough, the mysterious malevolent water god Mami Wata just won’t leave her alone…
A play exploring womanhood, non-western mythology and mental health issues amongst women of colour. As part of the performance, a few participants from the playwright’s writing workshops with the London Black Women’s Project will share a short excerpt from their work, and there will be a post-show Q&A.
DETAILS: Thursday 21st and Friday 22nd March, 3pm
Bush Theatre, 7 Uxbridge Road, Shepherd’s Bush, W12 8LJ
You can follow her on Twitter @elizaalabi