The problem with being a black playwright in England – Bola Agbaje
Chinua Achebe once said that, “Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.” However, Bola Agbaje, a Nigerian playwright and screenwriter based in the UK, tries to recreate the very reality that she is given to by life through her plays – the reality of being black in the Diaspora. She also tries to unveil the truth which that reality might have blurred.
Critically acclaimed, Agbaje, who graduated from the young writers programme at the Royal Court in 2007, has won several awards for her works; including the2012 Nokia Remarkable Woman in association with Lady Geek #RWbyNokia, 2010 Best Playwright African Film Award UK, 2010 Red Magazine Hot Woman to Watch, 2010 Woman of the Future Award, and the 2008 Laurence Olivier Award for her first play, ‘Gone too Far’ – which was also selected to be performed as part of the Young Writer Festival and was performed at the Royal Court Theatre in February 2007.
In this exclusive interview, she shares the experiences that have shaped her as a playwright, entrepreneur and screenwriter, her British-Nigerian identity and her passion to change the world through her writing.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Your play, Gone Too Far, is a story of sibling rivalry and now it’s been made into a feature film, is it based on any personal experience?
Bola Agbaje: Yes, Gone Too Far is based from my own personal experience. I grew up and live in the UK. However, I have two other siblings who grew up in Nigeria, were raised by my grandparents, and they came to London when they were 13 and 14. So the household was divided because it was my brother and I who were the British kids versus the two African kids who just came from Nigeria. It was a great learning curve on how to get along with one another, with two different cultures colliding.
Sam Umukoro Interview: So it is almost autobiographical?
Bola Abgaje: Yes, completely.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How did your siblings react to it, did they see part of themselves in the play?
Bola Agbaje: Of course they did. It was quite funny. We are all grown up now, so we can look back and laugh about how it took us a while to get to know each other all over again. Also it was just my experience as a Nigerian in England. When I was growing up, I was quite ashamed of being Nigerian, a lot of young people born in the eighties in London wanted to be West Indian as opposed to being Nigerian because it wasn’t cool at the time. It wasn’t cool for us to be Nigerian. Part of why I wrote the play, and now the film, is about the celebration and realisation that it is cool to be Nigerian and also okay to be British-Nigerian, because that was another identity we were still trying to form then; because we were somewhere in-between being Nigerian and British. Having to form the identity, growing up and then understanding what that identity was, led to me writing the play, which is a celebration of being Nigerian and accepting the fact that we have got this dual nationality.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Why wasn’t it ‘cool’ being Nigerian, were there stereotypes and what kind?
Bola Agbaje: Yes, there were stereotypes. Images of Africans growing up were always about poverty, and about helping a starving African, you see those kinds of adverts till today. While growing up, those were the only images of Africa we saw, you go to school you are called African and all sorts of names, and it was hard being a kid growing up then. Today, I have an 18-year-old sister who grew up at a time where I and my other siblings were proud of our heritage, so she grew up in a household where it was fine to have an African name and listen to African music. Now her generation don’t really understand how my generation were so ashamed of it because they have something to look up to like: ‘Well actually my brother is cool and he’s Nigerian, my sister is cool and she’s Nigerian,’ whereas back then, we didn’t have those images; we had no one to look up to. There was no one in the media who we could say, ‘that was a cool Nigerian’ at that time.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Interestingly, the question of identity and the African Diaspora are the main themes around your play. Why is this issue close to your heart?
Bola Agbaje: Because I am an African in the Diaspora. Although it is not a new thing but our experiences aren’t always talked about, only now in the last five or six years, that you see it in plays, books, stories and even on television, but before then, our stories were never told and for me, your identity and who you are is a big part of how you live your life. There are never ending stories of what’s like to be an African in the western world. It is constantly evolving and there is so much conflict; it is a struggle and that is what makes great stories, the more conflict you have in a story, the more your story is interesting, wonderful and exciting.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Do you think that the amount of literature on the African identity today has helped to change the way Africans are viewed or how Africans in the Diaspora see themselves?
Bola Agbaje: I think so, even for me as a playwright, from the people who have seen and enjoyed my work and talked about it, they get something out of it because what I do is try to tell the truthful story and when you tell a truthful story, people will relate to and identify with it. Thus, it gives people a different insight. For example, if you have a stereotype of what Nigerians are like, when you come and see Gone Too Far or Belong or any of my other plays, you get an understanding of the truth and that gives you a different perspective and I think that it is so important to tell truthful stories and to also reflect the world that we live in.
Part of being a writer is about putting a mirror up to society and showing the world that this is the world we live in, rightly or wrongly, these are the views of some of the people who live in the society and these are how some of them operate, and when you do that it gives people an insight into that world that they don’t probably know about in the first place.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Talking about stereotypes, some critics have accused you of stereotyping the black experience…
Bola Agbaje: Yes, but that is because they have no understanding of it. The problem with being a black playwright in England is that, first and foremost, you are seen as black before anything else. So that becomes a problem in itself because we do live in a country where people sometimes find it hard to see beyond the colour of your skin. But regardless of whether or not people think it’s a stereotype or they think that some of the stories represent a stereotype, it represents the truth because every story that I have ever written is about people that I know, it’s about worlds that I have experienced. It’s not just something that I just plucked out from the air and told the story; it has some sort of truth to it.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Was getting the BFI funding for Gone Too Far like a high point or an endorsement that said, finally I have been accepted as a playwright?
Bola Agbaje: Yes, of course. The thing about living in England as a playwright, writer or being creative, you need the cool kids to tell you that you are cool before other people pay attention sometimes, so it is with being a playwright…
There is also the Royal Court, once they endorse you, the possibilities are endless, the same with the BFI, British films’ biggest and highest institute. So, it’s huge for them to believe in a project, in a way that they wanted us to tell a story that was truthful to us, because what happens in the film industry is that you get a lot of people who want to water down your piece of work, who don’t feel that the black experience is mainstream enough. So you are encouraged to change scenes, change stories, to reflect how they view you. But the BFI is the complete opposite of that, they understand that our stories need to be told and in a way that people can relate to. It’s about time that there was a change and I am glad that there is a change now and that they are the right people backing us. I can’t imagine any other production company giving us money to do it, because they will make us jump through so many different hoops and it wouldn’t be worth it.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Having achieved this milestone of getting the BFI funding for Gone Too Far, what would you say is your ultimate ambition?
Bola Agbaje: Just to tell more stories. I am a story teller, and the more stories I tell, the happier I am. Those stories and our experiences are endless, so I want to be able to tell those stories constantly without having to jump through hoops, and without having to convince people that our stories are worth telling, because that’s the thing, especially in the UK. You have to convince them that our story is worth telling and they matter, the same way that a white perspective of a story matters. For me it is about setting up my own production and distribution company, because in order to do that, you have to have some level of power to do that and be able to control your art form in a way; that is my next step.
Sam Umukoro Interview: As a writer what is your routine?
Bola Agbaje: If I have a story, I create the story in my head; I create the characters and go over the story a lot in my head before putting it down on paper. I could take months creating and formulating the story, then when it comes to writing, I find it quite easy to let it all out in one go. So in terms of films and script, I can write that within a week or two weeks. Then what I do is sit down and just write nonstop. I could sit in the same spot from morning till night just writing. I work better at night, I think it is quieter that time and there are fewer distractions, because many people are asleep, so no one is distracting you on the phone or Facebook or emails. So I find it easier writing then.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Outside writing plays and getting involved in film making what are your other interests?
Bola Agbaje: I am quite family oriented, so my other interest is my family and spending as much time with them as possible; doing things with my family and my friends, because writing takes up a lot of my time. If I am fixated on a project, then that takes up all my time, so everything else suffers because of it. So when I am not writing I like to spend as much quality time with my family.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Is your boyfriend okay with that? As they say writing is a very jealous lover…
Bola Agbaje: Well he is an actor, so it is exactly the same thing, when he is working on a project that takes up all of his time.
Yes (writing is a jealous lover), but it is good… People say opposites attract, but it’s great to be with someone who is just as creative as you are, so it’s fine. I have no problems at the moment. It is cool.
Sam Umukoro Interview: When do you plan visiting Nigeria?
Bola Agbaje: I’d love to come to Nigeria as soon as possible because I want my work to be shown in Nigeria. I want a Nigerian audience to see stories about how people in the Diaspora live, how great our lives are and how it is just as much a struggle as it is if you are living in Nigeria. It’s not all a bed of roses and the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. And I’d like people to understand those stories and get an insight as to how we live and the struggle that we have over here in London.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How does your being a black writer affect how your work so far has been viewed? Has it given you any advantage or been a sort of an impediment?
Bola Agbaje: It’s a double edged sword because on one hand, they are positive discrimination at times… But then, I am a young, black, female playwright, and there aren’t many out there today.
Sometimes it works to my advantage, but there’s a flip side, which is that I am a black playwright, there are some opportunities that some of my white counterparts would have taken away from me, because if you write about black stories and about black people, you are seen as a minority and having a niche market. So in terms of mainstream, you are not seen as a mainstream playwright and it is sometimes good for people to view you that way, and in a way I have become the underdog because when we do sold-out shows and when my work is viewed by people of different races and nations and people love it, then they pay more attention because they didn’t expect that. But on the other side, it can be frustrating because I always find that the colour of my skin is what people see first before they see me as a writer or a creative person; they think she’s black first, and that, at times, can be quite frustrating.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Some critics have often said that sometimes African writers, especially those in Diaspora coming from home, try to capitalise on this whole ethnic minority, which gives a certain advantage…
Bola Agbaje: No way, I think that is a big lie, people think you are at an advantage because you are an ethnic minority. The thing is it is hard. While growing up, we were constantly told by my parents the same old thing, ‘you have to work twice as hard as your white counterparts’, and that’s so true.
Sam Umukoro Interview: But the point some of them are trying to make is that it has become an industry to tell sad stories from Africa…
Bola Agbaje: But I don’t tell sad stories. I tell realistic stories, but they are not always sad, they are funny. I tell them with a comical element. So I wouldn’t say I tell said stories.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Are you into Nigerian music and who are your favourite artistes?
Bola Agbaje: My favourite artiste is Ice Prince; I think he is quite a great lyricist. But I also like old school Nigerian music, and at the moment I am developing a musical, so I have been listening to quite a lot of old artistes such as Fela and Shina Peters… because I want to write a musical that blends the old and the new. I am trying to do a lot of research in terms of finding out how music has evolved from the 50′s and 60′s in Nigeria till the modern day, and I have learnt a lot about loads of artistes.
Sam Umukoro Interview: If you weren’t writing plays, what else would you be doing?
Bola Agbaje: I would be producing plays or films. It would be something creative; I couldn’t do anything that is not creative. At times people see your work as a bit of fun and a luxury, but I think that creative people are world changers; we are able to reflect the world to an audience, invoke discussion and provoke discussion, so I wouldn’t do anything outside that. I’m here because I want to make a difference and change the world in one way or another and the only way that I know how is by being creative.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You wanted to become a playwright after seeing ‘The gods are not to Blame’, how fulfilling is being a playwright to you?
Bola Agbaje: It’s been so fulfilling because I am telling stories that haven’t necessarily been told before in terms of the experience of the British-Nigerian, because I look up to the playwrights who have come before me, who told their experiences, the likes of Wole Soyinka, who told the experiences from the perspective of his time. I feel like I’m doing the same for my generation and for my time. So for me each time I write a play or a piece of work, it’s fulfilling because I’m doing something new, something different and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Is Wole Soyinka one of your mentors?
Bola Agbaje: Definitely, he is amazing and his work still speaks today. I would like to write a piece of work that stands the test of time, it is something I always aspire to do and I want to do, like Professor Wole Soyinka has done and is still doing that, he still provokes discussion and debates. Yes, he is just someone that I admire and look up to.
I also have counterparts that I look up to. Actors inspire me too, I won’t be a writer if I didn’t know so many great actors and so many actors are capable of breathing life into my work, putting them on stage and making an audience feel those characters and to believe those characters are living beings. So more than other playwrights, I think the actors that I work with have been my biggest inspiration.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You have a degree in media communications, ordinarily your Nigerian parents would have wanted you to get a job in the city…
Bola Agbaje: My parents were not like that, they were very much about… but then my elder sister reminded me that she paved the way for me and my brothers to do whatever we want to do because they were slightly older. They had a slight problem with my dad when they started being interested in the arts. He wanted her to get a normal job. She fought those battles, did Performing Arts at college and then at university. So when it was my turn, they were like, ‘just do what you want,’ because they saw that actually there was no harm in being creative, and at the moment they couldn’t be more proud of my achievements
Sam Umukoro Interview: You have since garnered critical acclaim. But were there moments when you actually felt like giving up, especially during those low moments when money wasn’t coming in?
Bola Agbaje: I think my lowest moment was 2011/2012 when I had quit my full-time job to be a full-time writer and financially it wasn’t working out. Then we were just getting started with the film, meeting production companies; it took us three years to get this film made. Like the saying goes, ‘people assume you become an overnight success, but it takes many years to become an overnight success because people don’t notice what you are about until you hit the big jackpot. I hardly talk about the lows because what’s the point of moaning about the things that people turn down or work that you don’t get? But there have been low points. It hasn’t been easy, you just don’t write a play or film and then someone gives you money. You get a lot of rejection but you have to be strong willed in this industry in order to see it through. Also you shouldn’t want to do it for the fame or for the notoriety of it, because it’s not going to get you anywhere; you have to do it for the love. With that said the lows kind of cancel out because what I want to achieve is always at the back of my mind.