As a poet writing was the natural outlet for Tolu Agbelusi to share the stories she used to curate the poet-theatre performance Ilé La Wà, that loosely translates from the native Nigerian language Yoruba as :“We Are Home.” Her background as a lawyer and personal experience as an immigrant gave her insight to explore immigration in the modern-day UK as the theme for her playwriting debut. Qweens spoke with Agbelusi about the creation of Ilé La Wà and what a play of its calibre can do for conversations on immigration.
What inspired you to become a writer?
I fell into writing. It was a way of processing my thoughts and escaping a world I didn’t understand.
Have you always been interested in writing and theatre?
I was a closet writer for a very long time before I became intentional about it. Theatre love is more recent. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but I didn’t have the opportunity to go often, but when I did, I was intrigued by the storytelling.
As a poet was it challenging for you to switch to play-writing?
Yes and no. I tell stories, and that doesn’t change with the play. Now, of course, there are different techniques, so I spent a lot of time reading and seeing plays to understand story progression, and I took a short playwriting course when I was about halfway through the script. All these things didn’t remove the challenge or the self-doubt that crept in often, but it helped.
What inspired you to write Ilé La Wà?
The fact that I’m an immigrant in the UK who has had a good number of homes around the world meant I was familiar with making a home in new places and constantly coming to terms with what that meant. At the same time in the UK and around the world, there seemed to be growing xenophobia that edged great numbers of people out of belonging to places they consider home. The UK government, for example, sanctioned ‘Go Home’ campaign buses on the streets of the capital, supposedly to deter illegal immigrants.
How do you relate personally to the play?
I am an immigrant in the UK who has lived around the world so working out my belonging along with identities people assign to me is very familiar. I also work as a civil liberties lawyer so professionally; I know some of the stories of institutional injustice only too well. When I say “Ilé La Wà” in the play, I feel the defiant element in the statement innately. Sometimes home is a frame of mind, a decision not to permit anyone to displace you without your consent.
How did Brexit further inspire you to tell the stories of immigration in the UK?
The Brexit campaign brought with it an anti-immigrant-rhetoric that was felt by the non-white citizens of the UK and there was a growing sense of discomfort amongst many people I knew who though born here, were increasingly trying to find their places and wondering if not here, then where? I wanted to tell a story that laid bare the reality of these questions especially as I didn’t see much that was reflective of these realities in the mainstream.
Who were you writing this play for?
Principally for those who do feel erased from the history of this country or the narratives they see on a daily basis which only ever portray them, us, in singular perspectives as though the immigrant narrative is monolithic. It is also for anyone curious about experiences beyond theirs, who want to know what it is to belong to a place that doesn’t see you.
Why did you choose to write this play using real interviews and stories?
I’ve used narratives from interviews as well as stories from the media along with a good dose of imagination to build characters and essentially mix several stories into each narrative. Some of the accounts seem quite far fetched so that if one weren’t aware of someone with a similar experience, it would be easy to dismiss. And I wanted to highlight these things and bring home the fact that people should listen more, to see beyond the surface, because the wanton dismissal of other’s experiences creates mental anguish that often goes unspoken.
Did you always know you would write this play when you were hearing the stories of immigrants?
No, not at first but when I started the Home Is… project, I knew that I wanted several artistic outputs including a poetry and theatre collaboration of sorts. I wasn’t sure how it would manifest, but the seedling of an idea was there.
What was the writing process for Ilé La Wà like?
There was a lot of research, interviews with people around the country; workshops with poets where we worked on possible back stories and narratives for the characters, and of course, the hard graft of spending many hours staring at blank pages wondering what part goes where and what section of who’s poem do I want to use where and how do I fill all the gaps, etc.
How do you think the collaborative writing process helped in bringing these stories to life on stage?
I had ideas for the characters and wrote some of that out, it was refreshing to have other people in the room at times, to act as sounding boards or to create life from an idea I was toying with. Writing can be a lonely process, so working with the right people was enriching.
Why did you choose to set the play in an immigration reporting centre?
It’s not a place we hear of often. You assume it’s safe. You attend, sign in and leave but the reality, including for people I know personally, can be that you attend and then they don’t let you leave.
How have first generation settlers reacted to this play?
One of the reviewers who saw the play in 2018 said ‘it allows you to appreciate your own journey; however difficult it may be’ and that has been my experience so far. People talk about seeing themselves in it or see stories from people they know who they hadn’t believed, and there’s a catharsis from the self-recognition or reflection.
What is the response you’re looking for in terms of starting conversations about race and belonging in the UK?
I want Ilé La Wà to challenge people’s complacency or what they think they know about race and belonging here, with the added intention of encouraging conversations that reveal the many ways we all can take a little more time to see each other.
Do you think the younger generations have distanced themselves from the politics of immigration and race, especially with Brexit?
I feel the younger generation are interested in the politics of race and immigration because it affects them. Brexit has its own added complications, but from what I see, the younger generations feel like, the older ones have sold them out, and they are making their voices heard.
Why do you think it is important to tell these stories on a mainstream platform?
People fear what they don’t know. More of these stories, which are about the humanity of ‘the other’ and the many narratives we bring to the table, must be part of the mainstream if ever the ‘them and us’ barriers are to break down. It’s also about representation, people seeing their stories reflected and the catharsis of that reflection.
What’s next for you as a playwright or writer in general?
My first poetry collection will be published next year by Jacaranda as part of their “Twenty in 2020” campaign, so I’m looking forward to that. I also have an idea for a new play, but that’s all I’m saying on that front.
What does representation mean to you in the theatre industry?
More and different kinds of stories about black and other ethnic minorities on the mainstream and the employment of more of us as writers, production in the mainstream.
The play will be on tour around the UK, tour dates and locations listed below:
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