Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Nia Akilah Robinson and Kalungi Ssebandeke: The Great Privation – How To Flip Ten Cents Into A Dollar

By | Published on Friday 10 May 2024

I was intrigued when I heard about the latest play to open at Theatre503, because its focus is on grave robbing in the US, and the theft and commodification of black bodies. It’s a dark piece of history and one that I wasn’t really aware of before reading about this play, and I am always keen to learn more about the past and the injustices perpetrated there. 

‘The Great Privation: How To Flip Ten Cents Into A Dollar’ is written by US playwright Nia Akilah Robinson and directed by Kalungi Ssebandeke. I put some questions to both of them, to find about more about the creatives themselves, as well as the upcoming show. 

CM: Kalungi, can you start by telling us what ‘The Great Privation’ is all about? What story does it tell and when is it set? 
KS: ‘The Great Privation’ is about grave robbing: grave robbing during the early 1800s. Grave robbing during the cholera outbreak. Grave robbing in Pennsylvania. Robbing of black bodies for medical research. Black bodies that were commodified even after death. Black bodies that never got their rest.

CM: What themes are explored through the play? 
KS: It explores the themes of grief and the impact of ancestral actions on their modern day descendants. There are two sets of mother daughter relationships that are deftly written with humour and heart.  

CM: What made you want to direct this? What do you love about it? 
KS: I chose to direct ‘The Great Privation’ because it shines a light on an unknown phenomenon of grave robbing for medical research, a practice that disproportionately affected the poor and African Americans, with a focus on the 1800s.

Nia has written a powerfully compelling story rich with detail and surprisingly funny moments that had me itching to stage it.

The nod to Sierra Leone was of great interest to me and, whilst subtle, it’s something I wanted this production to lean into due to Britain’s historical relationship with the country that became a sort of safe haven for the enslaved. 

CM: How would you describe your approach to the play? What challenges have you faced? 
KS: My approach has been to simply excavate the heart of the play in a way that is accessible to the cast, creatives and the audience.

I always start with script and table work before diving into character explorations, because I believe the script has all the answers.

The challenge has been distilling the amazing material in the play and keeping the magical elements of the piece. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your cast? 
KS: We have four strong actors who have worked tirelessly to bring detail to their roles. With a global cast ranging from Sierra Leone to Haiti, this really is an international cast of actors. 

CM: Nia, what was the inspiration for the play? What made you want to create work on this subject? 
NAR: I’ve always wanted to write this play since my stepfather sat me down to tell me about body snatching from gravesites in high school.

My mom and dad were very set on teaching me about black history. I followed up with research from books by authors Gary B Nash and Harriet A Washington. I had also found The Schomburg Library Archive, a helpful resource. But, conversations with my parents regarding this topic were paramount. 

I also love exploring relationships between parents and young adults in plays. But, for the subject of grave robbing for the purpose of medical research, it’s brimming with more and more new information as we end up faced with the repercussions of that history.

It’s so hard in today’s times to comprehend. But, also, I think it’s one that deserves time to be reckoned with.

CM: It’s a serious subject obviously – does the play have a message? Do you regard it as political? 
NAR: I think the message is… “Give the bones back”. So, if that is my message, then it must be political?

I think great strides and efforts are being made in the medical field and at medical institutions regarding public transparency in reference to anatomical studies made on cadavers.

The play explores the horrors of the past, and how it impacts present day through the play flipping between the nineteenth century and today.

It means a great deal to me for the cast to take on the labour of telling this story. I think if the play seems political – potentially the actors, creative team, Theatre503, and you choosing to interview me – are making a political statement as well.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourselves? How did you come to be pursuing an artistic career?
KS: I started off acting – which I still do – before venturing into writing, a discipline that has seen me win and be nominated for a few writing awards, namely for my debut play ‘Assata Taught Me’ starring Adjoa Andoh.

Then, out of a strong desire to strengthen my storytelling, I picked up directing and, in 2023, I won the prestigious JMK Directing Award for my proposed production of ‘Meetings’ by Mustapha Matura at The Orange Tree, starring Martina Laird, a production that garnered critical and audience acclaim with The Arts Desk’s four star review calling me a “talent to watch”. 

I knew directing was my calling because of how invested I was in the plays I scripted or acted in. 

NAR: I am from Harlem in New York City. I’ve always been in the arts, whether it be in after school programmes or just writing on my own!

My parents are the ones who have kept me in the arts. Writing was something I’ve always done. I have been writing plays for quite some time. I know one of the first plays I ever wrote had a title page that I decorated by hand at age eight. I realised it was a play because it had an excessive amount of dialogue and some framing devices about location and action.

I’m not sure why I quite frequently turned to writing as a child at home. I threw so many stories out, I wish I kept them all.

CM: What have been the highlights of your working life thus far? 
KS: So far, graduating with an MA in Acting from Guildhall School Of Music And Drama, where I was named a BAFTA scholar; writing and directing an upcoming short film ‘Marriage Plan’ for Euras Films; winning the JMK Award and Boundless Show Prize for a new play to be staged at Guildhall; and launching my on demand directing course

NAR: For my working life, it’s the hugs I get after my mom, dad and loved ones attend my readings and shows. There’s nothing in this life that will top that for me.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
KS: I have ambitions to direct at the NT, Young Vic, Royal Court plus internationally on Broadway, in Uganda and South Africa, along with moving into screen as a writer and director with the view to win BAFTAs and Oscars. 

NAR: I trust my path. I’ll let it pleasantly surprise me. 

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this? 
KS: Next I’m directing ‘Those Who Trespass’ by Matthew Dunster at Bristol School Of Acting before returning to my role as Carne Associate Director at Theatre503. This will sit alongside my freelance work as an actor, writer and course leader of my aforementioned course, which is live now.

NAR: ‘Push Party’ is a play of mine premiering in New York City from 7-23 June. Please come! I also have a reading at Ensemble Studio Theatre on 26 Jun.

‘The Great Privation: How To Flip Ten Cents Into A Dollar’ is on at Theatre503 from 14 May-3 Jun. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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Photo of cast members Christie Fewry and Sydney Sainté by Sami Sumaria