ON STAGE: Ilé La Wà (We Are home) Writer Tolu Agbelusi Talks!

1.What inspired the production Ilé La Wà “We Are home”?

“We Are Home” is the English translation of the Yoruba phrase Ilé La Wà, which is actually the name of the theatre production and thus what I’ll refer to. Where do I start? My name announces me as ‘other’ and sometimes, precludes me from opportunities I deserve, even before I step into the room. The government sent out ‘Go Home’ vans with fake arrest numbers. Migrants dying in the Mediterranean in large numbers became a daily occurrence. James Kiddie violently assaulted Sarah Reed on camera and got a slap on the wrist. Seni Lewis died after being restrained by 11 police officers at a mental health facility. Then Brexit rekindled the racist undertones of all the major parties. All these occurrences predominantly affecting people who look like me, become overwhelming.  I wanted to produce work that went beyond stereotypes and spoke to our humanity as Black people; work that engaged with the daily reality of what home is, and how people live as ‘the other’ in places they call home. Since I’m a poet with a flare for real stories and artistic collaborations, creating the Home Is… project to explore these things through collaborations between poetry and visual arts seemed a natural fit. Ilé La Wà is the poetry and theatre collaboration aspect of the project.  When I say Ilé La Wà, in my best Yoruba accent, it’s a defiant affirmation in response to those who say people like me don’t belong here. It’s also a rhetorical question, because for many people, if not here, then where?

2. Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you started writing?

The speed tour: born and raised in Nigeria, came to the UK at age 14 found it hard to fit, did a French Law & English Law degree, Lived in Paris, the French Guyana, practiced as a Barrister in Anguilla, now work with a civil liberties firm, started writing along the way, then performing, then teaching poetry workshops in schools for young people and recently to a Ph.D. Law class at Birkbeck , then dabbling with plays, and here we are—Jack of all trades, master of many. I wasn’t one for diaries since anyone could find them and reveal my innermost thoughts. Poetry on the other hand provided room for ambiguity and I liked that. From the age of 16, I began writing to make sense of things and feel the plenitude of my experiences without interruption. I stumbled on poetry by Aimé Cesaire and Léon Damas, got lost in all Maya Angelou’s books, wiped the dust off my local libraries only copy of Daughters of Africa edited by Margaret Busby and found myself in narratives I didn’t fully understand, but which made me feel valid. I knew then, that I wanted to be a writer and since I believe in doing things well or not at all, I immersed myself in books, workshops, videos, writing and performing poetry. I crept into playwriting in pretty much the same way; did two short solo plays, took a playwriting course at the National Theatre, read plays, saw plays and took my shot.

3.There are some very important conversations going on right now, for example immigration, #Metoo and #TimesUp movements, how do you fit into the narrative?

I have personal experiences in the realm of a lot of these conversations, so my work is a way to reclaim my voice; shun a taboo culture that disempowers, whilst facilitating the process that allows others to give themselves permission to do the same.  Ilé la Wà speaks strongly to the immigration conversation about who gets to belong and why. In the wake of the Windrush Scandal, the play reinforces a question posed by one of its’ characters: ‘how do you belong to a place that doesn’t see you?  Even in the play, this is a question that doesn’t stop at immigration, but encompasses displacement narratives involving mental health, glass ceilings for women in the corporate world, etc. In as much as the Home Is… project is all about home and displacement, I have a passion for writing about everyday women and facilitating inter-generational discussions that include and go wider than the #MeToo and #TimesUp discourses. My ‘Conversations with My Sisters®’ project, which in certain iterations involves lots of food, poetry, song and conversation, is a forum for this. I believe my work tells stories that make people, realise they have more options and that they aren’t alone.

4. Where do you call home?

Whenever I’m in Nigeria, without fail, at least one person will tell me I’m not Nigerian anymore, but it’s home. When I’m in the UK, London feels like home, and Manchester was home for a while but I can’t say that I’m reflected here. I only ever find my Britishness when I’m out of the country. I’ve travelled a lot. I have ties to many places but I don’t think home is a place. It’s people. It’s where my bed is and where the plantain doesn’t run out. Home is where I’m not a question.

5. Tell us what one is to expect from We Are Home at Stratford?

High emotion, unexpected humour, poetry, theatre, a fabulous all black cast, and the beginning of many conversations.

6. What advice would you give to an up-coming theatre writer or producer, what was your first production?

Ha! I’m still an up-coming theatre writer and producer. For what it’s worth, immerse yourself in the thing you want to do: read, write and watch plays, take courses, find people you respect and who respect you enough to give feedback that isn’t about making you a clone. Become a pro at finding residencies, funding, all opportunities and apply. Research everything down to why the last sweet got stuck in the piñata, (knowledge gives you options). There are people willing to help, don’t be too proud to ask, and by all means find a community. Its unlikely things will be handed to you, or easy, so get ready for the hard slog. Those who tell you that your dream is too big will come, as will all manner of gatekeepers. Learn enough and be brave enough to build your own house. Lastly, persist. You are enough.

7. What do you make of the current Windrush scandal?

Frustrating but not surprising. The government what is to believe it was a mistake. The mistake was getting caught. The whole ‘hostile environment’ policy that brought us here is unconscionable. I heard a politician say it’s un-British and I want to agree, but colonialism, go home buses, disproportionate searches of black boys and so much more won’t let me. Only yesterday, Sajid Javid said, that of the 63 wrongly deported people they had tracked, 32 had committed serious offences and he didn’t want them back. For me, that statement sounds like, none of them are British but it’s bad for PR if we don’t do anything for the ones who aren’t criminal. It’s messy. It’s either you are British or you are not. You can’t just have let the good children in at night. That’s child abuse. To paraphrase Ellie, one of the characters from Ilé La Wà, ‘you’ve chosen Britain, but has it chosen you?’ As the news reports quieten on the Windrush Scandal, I’m concerned about those who will still fall through the crack

8. Do you think that mass migration poses a threat to governments or benefits governments?

Mass migration by whom—asylum seekers, highly skilled migrants, students, refugees? Part of the problem right now is that all those people are lumped together behind the word immigrant. Mass migration presents questions, but they aren’t without solutions. The government must be more robust and humane in its approach. You can’t say that you don’t want ‘immigrants’ to come here and be a burden, and then bar those people from holding legal employment for years while the Home Office processes their applications. How should they survive? There must be some checks and balances but from my vantage point, the government’s current approach is a threat to the government.

9. What are you working on next?

My first poetry pamphlet, which is all about womanhood, life and perceptions of strength, and a play that taps into the whole #MeToo  #TimesUp discourse with an African focus on how social conditioning contributes to our actions and reactions. Part of my research would ideally involve hosting international Conversations With My Sisters® events on these themes with women in Nigeria, South Africa & Ghana. Watch this space.

The Production Ilé La Wà “We Are home

How do you belong to a place that does not see you? Four strangers are about to become collateral damage in the government’s plans to create a hostile environment for illegal immigrants. Detained together after a random spot check in London, they begin to unravel in the pressure-filled holding room, where they are left without answers. Some of them are undocumented migrants, others insist they are not – but all are certain that whatever the situation, the UK is their home. At least, the only home they have left. At a time when displacement is a constant, where Britain is faced with Brexit and a war on immigration, Ilé la Wà interrogates what it means to say we are home. You claim Britain. Has it chosen you?

We are looking forward to this production at Stratford Circus running  –  Get your tickets here!   

Venue:  Stratford Circus Arts Centre, Theatre Square, Stratford, London, E15 1BX Tel: 020 8279 1080

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