Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Justina Kehinde: UMUADA

By | Published on Sunday 1 July 2018

Over at King’s Head Theatre this week begins the venue’s festival of new work, Playmill, and amongst the shows being staged is one that really leapt out at me: ‘UMUADA’, by Justina Kehinde, someone I’ve been more aware of through her work as a poet.

To find out more about the show, and Justina herself, I arranged a chat ahead of opening night.

CM: Can you start by giving us a general idea of what story the play tells? Where does the narrative take us?
JK: ‘UMUADA’ is an exploration of mental health, migration and motherhood in the urban African diaspora. It’s about the many things that are left unsaid within a household. The story begins the day before the protagonist, Anwu’s, 60th birthday. A retired mother, her husband is in Nigeria, her children are grown and she’s at a cross-roads where she’s questioning her role in the family, her role in life: ‘Who am I, what’s my function?’.

At the same time her son has a mental-health crisis and this forces Anwu to confront her own mental health struggles, which, up till now, have been overlooked, suppressed even. ‘UMUADA’ explores that process of unravelling which I think a lot of first-generation migrant women are forced to go through as they struggle to hold their families together.

CM: What are the primary themes of the show? What issues does it explore?
JK: ‘UMUADA’ is a complex narrative. It primarily explores the many ways mental health is avoided or silenced within African households, particularly through language. Within the black community, mental health intersects with our socio-economic, racial and psychological struggles, many of which are exacerbated through the disruption of diaspora, the dislocation of migration, and, when it comes to women, the strain of motherhood. Although my generation have an understanding of mental health, for my parents’ generation, many of them do not have the necessary language to articulate or express such a concept, let alone the space to explore and even heal, so the play looks at those moment of inarticulation and dialogue.

Belonging and home are also two very important themes. Alongside her son who is absent throughout the play, Anwu has two daughters: Tolu who was born in Nigeria and raised in the UK, and Nike who is British born and raised. There is a tension between the two of them in terms of what home is, especially as their father is building in Nigeria, a land they are supposed to belong to but don’t, in the same way they don’t really fit into the UK. Belonging, acceptance and security are really key themes not just in terms of one’s physical safety, but also one’s mental safety and I’m fascinated by the type of space required for such an unravelling to take place.

CM: Who are the central characters, and who plays them?
JK: Although ‘UMUADA’ is about how a family responds to a son’s mental health crisis, there are no male characters on stage. Instead, the cast consists entirely of the three women. Anwu is played by Tomi Ogunjobi a fantastic Nigerian actress who really understood the multi-layered nature of the character and was able to play with her vivacity and vulnerability. The other two characters are her daughters Tolu, played by Tayo Elesin, and Nike, played by Jess Layde. All three women are of Nigerian heritage and I really think that brings a depth and nuance to the play that might otherwise be lost.

CM: What inspired the play? What made you want to write about this subject?
JK: I’m fascinated by unheard stories. When you emigrate so much of your life is hidden away back wherever home is, your identity, your culture, family, memories, hopes. For many the move, the arrival and the survival can be quite traumatic in a silent, wearing away style. You can lose yourself. I wanted to explore what happens to that woman who represents so many women I have met throughout my life.

Yet ‘UMUADA’ is as much theatre as it is community dialogue, so I also wanted to create something my parents’ generation could watch and see something of themselves in. Where they could have a ‘me too’ moment and say ‘Yes, that is what I am trying to say, that’s what I’ve been going through.’

CM: It’s very female focused, isn’t it? Is it important to you to create woman-focused material?
JK: As a woman writer and director it is important that I create material that resonates with me. Although mental health is being talked about a lot more, within the black community it’s mainly focused on men. I wanted to tell a story about how women deal with mental health and how they are impacted by the mental health of those they care for. So many women, whether mothers, aunts, sisters, or partners take on the role of the care-giver. Yet a lot of mental health services aren’t equipped to support them. When you’re part of someone’s support system you can’t afford to be vulnerable. The strain of holding everything together takes a toll, psychologically as well as physically. ‘UMUADA’ creates an opening for at least part of that experience to be heard.

CM: What made you decide to direct the show yourself? What advantages and disadvantages are there in directing your own work?
JK: When I came up with the concept it was for Damsel Production’s women directors festival, so I was applying as a director who then had to write a play to fulfil the scheme’s requirements. That was difficult because I’d never written a play before, so it was a test of skill and, in the first version I was supported by my current dramaturge, Yosola Olorunshola, who helped co-write the first phase of the play. The advantage of directing your own work is that you can sculpt and design it with a degree of insight no-one else has. But the downside is the objectivity needed to critically asses the text and establish what works, which is why you need a good dramaturge to support you. Writing and directing can also be draining. I’ve been working on this piece for almost 10 months now, so when you’re completely engaged in the creative process and then you’re also producing it, there’s no breathing space. That can be stifling.

CM: You’re an established poet as well as directing theatre. Have you always wanted to do both of these? How did your career begin, and what drove you in these directions?
JK: Storytelling feeds into everything I do, but my creativity has manifested quite uniquely. At the end of my first year at university I was creatively frustrated with my degree and the very limited arts scene Cambridge had to offer. I decided I wanted to put on a play that I could perform, something that spoke to me as a young woman, so I picked Ntozake Shange’s ‘For Colored Girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf’. I didn’t know anyone in the theatre scene but I was studying English and figured it wouldn’t be too hard to breakdown a text and direct people. So that’s what I did. It ended up being the first all-black-all-female production on a Cambridge stage.

At the same time I’d been blogging as a creative outlet from academia, and one day my sister suggested I perform some of my poems aloud. So I did. My first spoken word performance was at Brainchild festival, and then I won the Benjamin Zephaniah Poetry Prize and continued from there with my TED talk and other performances. I suppose much of my creativity has been driven by a hunger to hear and tell unheard stories. Even as a director I’m drawn to hidden narratives from human trafficking to forgotten histories. My second production was ‘Sophiatown’, a political-south African musical that I chose because I wanted to re-imagine what musical theatre could look and sound like. That need to explore new narratives, to begin conversations and challenge norms is at the core of a lot of what I do.

CM: What ambitions do you have for the future?
JK: I want to continue exploring the many modes of storytelling. I recently completed an acting course with ALT. and shot my first independent film so being on stage or in front of the screen is something I’d like to pursue – I think acting teaches you a lot as a director and directing can help you a lot as an actor. In regards to ‘UMUADA’, I’m hoping to spend some time doing further research and development. The play is still a work in progress so I want to grow the great foundations we have and build the world and the stories to better reflect the conversations happening in the community. Long term I’d like to have my own production company which is focused on mining and sharing unheard stories through various mediums either as documentaries, plays, films, but I still have a lot of learning to do, so I’ll just enjoy each story as it comes.

CM: What’s coming up next for you, after this?
JK: I’ve recently joined the Young Vic Director’s programme so hopefully I’ll be involved in some upcoming productions in the near future, as well as attending workshops and honing my craft. I’ll also continue writing and performing poetry, there’s a backlog of work to be made into an anthology when I get the time.

‘UMUADA’ is on as part of the Playmill festival of new writing at King’s Head Theatre from 10-14 Jul, see this page here for information and to book.

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Photo: Marianne Olaleye