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In Conversation: Olu Alakija

talawa theatreTalawa Theatre is regarded as Britain’s foremost Black-led theatre company. Over the years, it has engaged with new writing and introduced emerging writing talents to the British theatre landscape with the likes of Michael Bhim, who explore the subtlety and complexity of the black British experience. 2010 is no different. Back with, Flipping The Script, its regular showcase of play readings, it focuses on families and relationships and the pain and life changing challenges that come with them.

Olu Alakija is one of this year’s three successful writers to have their plays read. An author, playwright and screenwriter, he was shortlisted in the IRP national Playwrights Award and by La Plante Productions for Supply and Demand Screenwriting Project. A graduate of the Royal Court Theatre’s Critical Mass Programme for BAME playwrights, he won a CRE Race in Media Award for his short film, Guilty, which also received a special jury commendation at the Henri Langlois Recontres Internationales Film Festival, France. In his own words, Olu Alakija on The Only Way, his debut stage play.

Belinda: Where does your passion for theatre stem from?

Olu: My passion for theatre stems from my passion for writing in general. I started out writing scripts for film and television a few years back, took a long break from writing and since returning to it I have tried to diversify a little by trying to write for the stage, radio and I’m also working on my first novel. The idea of creating characters, dialogue and developing storylines and plots has always fascinated me and the unique elements of writing for theatre add an extra dimension to this process.

Belinda: What compelled you to write The Only Way?

Olu: I felt that there was an interesting, dramatic and compelling story to tell when you put ordinary people in an unusual situation due to pressure. In this case, initially it is financial pressure which causes Ben and Amba, who are seemingly happy with their relationship to open their home to a charming stranger who then spots the fragility within the relationship and proceeds to manipulate them for his own agenda. There are also a lot of themes explored within this quite traditional set up which I feel very passionate about and wanted to explore in a play.

Belinda: This is your debut theatre piece for theatre. You are also a novelist and screenwriter, how does writing for the stage differ to writing for the screen or a novel, for you as a writer of the three different mediums?

Olu: I find that the main difference between writing for the stage as opposed to the screen is the intimacy and immediate nature of theatre. Theatre engages with a live audience in real time and the power of the actors, dialogue and language is very important to tell the story. Writing for the screen is much more visual, so dialogue should be kept to a minimum and you have a real duty to tell the story with pictures rather than words where possible. With film the script is only ever the blueprint for the film, traditionally film has always been a director led medium whereas the theatre has always been much more favourable to writers in this respect. As for novel writing, I’m still editing my first novel so I’m no expert but I’m finding that this is in some ways the purest form in terms of the relationship between the writer and the reader as there are no actors, directors or other collaborators involved, it’s just a one-on-one relationship. The best novels completely transport you into another world in a way that perhaps stage and screen don’t as essentially it’s just words on paper and the power of your imagination.

Belinda: You have worked with Talawa Theatre Company on this production/play readings, how crucial are theatre companies like Talawa Theatre Company in Britain’s theatre landscape today?

Olu: Companies like Talawa are priceless in this respect as they have always been pioneers in terms of the type of theatre that they have already and continue to produce. They have launched and supported the careers of a whole host of BAME writers, directors, actors, designers and other theatre practitioners over the last 20 years and survived and thrived while many others of their type unfortunately haven’t. I think we owe a huge debt to Talawa, past, present and future as they have consistently told powerful stories to a broad audience in a way that mainstream theatre has not even tried to do until quite recently and we need to support and celebrate this. Going forward we need to do everything we can to increase the chances of Talawa gaining their own theatre space which I believe they truly deserve.

Belinda: Why is it important for plays which explore, examine and expose the black British community and experiences, are presented to audiences across Britain?

Olu: There are many reasons for this. Our stories need to be told and our experiences documented for us, for future generations and for people worldwide to know that we exist in this country. Drama can help us in understanding ourselves and our respective journeys. We are in many ways excluded from proper representation in film and television, and theatre is a medium that appears to be more accessible to us and our stories. I think plays allow us to discuss certain issues which affect our communities specifically as well as the universal themes which transcend race and culture. In this respect I think it is important that audiences are able to see black British people in all their complexity and diversity and if people from other cultures can go see a play which tells a story from a BAME perspective that can never be a bad thing, hopefully recognition and respect will be a by-product of this experience. My second play “Mr Ten per cent”, which was developed in conjunction with the Royal Court theatre deals with generational conflict among second and third generation black British people and absent fathers among other things. And I think it’s important for young people to see representations of self and issues that directly affect them on stage and screen. Many people from my generation grew up without this and so it is vitally important that our children and grandchildren don’t.


Belinda: Is it important for this community to hold a mirror up to itself and are you comfortable doing that through your work with your writing?

Olu: Yes, I think it is very important for any community to hold up a mirror to itself as there are good and bad in all races and cultures, and I believe it is our duty to expose the bad and to protect and promote the good. Again this goes for past, present and future and we can’t teach this to our children unless we practice it ourselves. I’m comfortable doing this through my work but I will qualify this by saying that I also think balance is extremely important here and this is something that we as a community suffer from a lack of disproportionately regarding drama. What I mean by this is that if you take television for example there are a tiny amount of drama programmes that show black British people in leading roles or as the bulk of the cast so when finally one show comes along and bucks this trend but then the black character is portrayed as mad or bad or the mainly black cast drama is set in the “ghetto,” and we quite rightly are not happy about this portrayal. The TV executives can’t seem to understand that we are not saying don’t ever show black people in a bad light but what we are saying is show us in lots of different lights in lots of different shows. Give us some balance. The debate in the theatre at the moment is about the plethora of “ghetto” plays and again the question needs to be asked, are these, the only plays getting commissioned because they are definitely not the only plays being written. Writers from the black British community are and always have been writing drama as equally diverse as the white writers but they don’t seem to be getting those diverse drama’s commissioned. We have a right to question that as we are not guests in this country. “The Only Way”, is just one of many plays that I hope to write and hopefully in the years to come I’ll look back on my career and be able to say that in my work I have portrayed the good, the bad and the ugly.

Belinda: How would you like this play to evolve after the reading?

Olu: I’d like to see the play produced for a full run as this is the first stage play that I have written and hopefully it tells a relevant, engaging, modern story and asks a few pertinent questions. I think in rehearsals for a full run I would be able to see what works well and what needs improving.

Belinda: The plays in this series of readings are all focused on families and relationships and you have added the economic downturn to your piece, why that route and what factors influenced your choice of subject matter?

Olu: I think conflict is at the heart of any good drama and economic power or the lack of, is a very potent force. In the play Ben and Amba are struggling to pay the mortgage as Ben has lost his job, as many people have in this recession. This leads them to open up their home to a lodger while Ben struggles to find a new job. Amba however is very successful in her career so there is already an underlying imbalance and the lodger Jae is able to exploit this. The economic downturn is of course very topical and serves as a good backdrop to the emotional downturn in Ben and Amba’s relationship. You also have some mirroring as in both cases you have an external force having a destructive effect on an internal relationship.

Belinda: What saddens you as a writer who has to deal with these issues through your work about the way the downturn has affected families and in what way did that shape your piece?

Olu: What saddens me is that the recession has affected the poorest people in society much more than the wealthiest, which historically has always been the case. The poor gets poorer and the rich get richer, working people were made redundant in their thousands through no fault of their own and the bankers who caused the crisis are back earning their million pound bonuses. The effect on the average family has been immense. Though this play doesn’t focus on this particular aspect of the recession, I’m sure the financial pressures families are under have undoubtedly caused similar issues as some of those raised in the play.

Belinda: What are the points of discussion/topics about life that you want your play to raise with the audience?

Olu: The main themes are that of gender roles and differences, relationships, the nature of friendship and the thorny issue of why black British women appear to be more successful than black British men. I won’t say much more than that as I don’t want to spoil the experience for anyone who intends to come and see the play but there are other topics that are also raised in the play.

Belinda: What kind of emotions about family, relationships and of course, the effects of financial hardship on a marriage, do you hope this play evokes in those who come a long to see it?

Olu: Hopefully people will recognise some aspects of people they know, or topics of conversations they have had with friends or family. Also the feelings involved when one partner holds power, economic or otherwise over the other, and how fragile relationships can be when exposed to a third party who has their own agenda. The play starts out quite light hearted but gets darker as the play progresses and hopefully it will provoke some strong emotions in the audience.

Belinda: And of course, what do you want them to take away from it based on the interpretation that you present to them?

Olu: I’d like them to have hopefully enjoyed a thought-provoking, original piece of theatre. I believe and hope that the audience will really connect with the play and this could lead to some lively post show discussions.

Flipping The Script is at the Young Vic Theatre, 28 June and 20 July 2010

For more information, visit: Flipping The Script


Flipping The Script Image: Everton Wright

Olu Alakija: Image supplied by playwright


3 Responses to “In Conversation: Olu Alakija”

  1. Jaycee (E.A) says:

    I liked it when he said a compelling story puts ordinary people in an unusual situation due to pressure. I think many good stories have this underlying theme.

    I also completely agreed with him when he said, “The best novels completely transport you into another world in a way that perhaps stage and screen don’t as essentially it’s just words on paper and the power of your imagination.”

    Nice interview to read, as always.

  2. Belinda Otas says:

    Hey Jaycee, thanks for the comment and I too agree with that line. In fact, I am learning writing tips from him 🙂

  3. celia savage says:

    Congratulations. I really enjoyed it. It’s been a thought provoking for me and I can relate to the play. Women whether black or white have come a long way as for many years they have been relegated to second class citizen (house wives/mothers,)as the saying goes that women must be seen but not heard. I hope this play will go far both on the sceen/air.

    Good interview.

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