Joan Iyiola is a British actress based in London. She is best known for playing the title role in The Duchess of Malfi at the RSC. The actress trained to be a barrister reading Law at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University. Whilst studying, she worked with directors Annie Castledine and Robert Icke. Following seasons at the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain she was awarded a place at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. She is currently on stage at the Young Vic in Tree.
ALT: We must start with the biggest news story today: what did Toni Morrison mean to you?
Oh my god! oh my god! I remember where I was when I was first introduced to Toni Morrison. I have got quite a few members of family in America and when I was younger my parents could not take the full 6 weeks off for the summer holidays. I used to stay with various members of my family in the states, me and my brother. I remember where I was when I was given my first Toni Morrison book it was in my uncle’s and aunt’s garden and I was underneath a tree. At that time in my life I would get through like 6 books a week, I was a speedy reader. And it changed my life; her work changed my life. I always responded to it and have always gone back to re-read stuff and looked at her quotes. I sort of feel what I saw posted on Twitter that all Black women should be allowed a week of bereavement so they could read or reread the entire back catalogue of Toni Morrison. I feel that the impact that she had was on multiple generations. My heart is heavy but I’m so thankful that we had her.
ALT: Let’s talk about Tree at the Young Vic: tell us about your character Ofentse – what resonates most with you?
I have realised as we leave Manchester and Tree comes to the Young Vic how lucky we are to have Ofentse exist on our stage I knew that already. But the response from people it doesn’t matter about color but from women has been amazing to see a woman that is independent that runs her own narrative, who is now and the future, that has a new form of leadership in terms of how she conducts herself and who comes with great humor as well as a wonderful fashion sense. It is such a positive message, but by no means is she perfect. She has many many flaws but, in the time that we live in positivity for black women that look like this, look like me is needed now more than ever before. And it’s a complete honor to play her every night. I feel completely privileged to share my interpretation and the interpretation of what the modern-day woman of South Africa looks and sounds like and how her politics resonates and who she is. So, it is a complete joy to play Ofentse.
ALT: Tree is set in South Africa in the post- apartheid era. were you old enough to understand the politics of South Africa at the time and why do you think telling the story now is important?
That’s a very interesting question I was, I was seven when Mandela became president and three when he came out of prison. I really remember it I was schooled on Mandela as most families within the African diaspora who had grown up here would have done. I’m familiar with it but what I wasn’t familiar with was what happened since then. You’re looking at 25 years on, once the West had shone a light on SA and gone wow, we achieved that, look at the rainbow, look at what happened. We sought of took the light away from SA. And what we missed is all the children that were born around that time that are now adults who are saying something very very different. For me, I went to SA before I started this job. When I did the audition, I sort of looked at the lines, at what was said. And I was a little bit, not confused but I knew there was a lot more information to discover and an energy and an atmosphere about how SA has travelled since that time up to the present day. Going to SA was amazing it allowed me to bring the politics right up to date. I think that perhaps was the most interesting part of my journey on how to tell this story. Kinda of going to where are we now actually and what is the voice of SA today. We know about the apartheid legacy but there is a whole narrative that is around real change, real democracy or real equality. And it comes from a generation that are younger and because they did not live it, they have a real force of energy for change. And of course, that comes with they didn’t have the experience of the apartheid regime, but they have the inherited the weight of it. It means that they can push the narrative of South Africa forward the most. And I found that knowledge or discovering that knowledge incredibly exciting to telling the play on stage in Manchester and in London today.
ALT: What do you like about immersive theatre?
It’s a game changer. Well I think we live in a culture where we have to keep re-imagining and evolving how we are telling stories. And we can’t just have these buildings that tell stories in the traditional format. We have all done that and evolved, we have so many mediums at our disposal. We really need to think about how we re-engage an audience, the audience are a part of our world and a part of our stories. And so much can happen if you truly invite them in. We’ve seen from night to night depending on who comes in that everybody has a slightly different energy. But the moment you say join us you are part of our story that’s when you have your play. I have learnt loads from this process particularly from what happens when you let people into your way of storytelling.
ALT: Tell us a bit about you, your background, how you came into the industry?
ALT: My family come from Nigeria; we are from a real storytelling culture. But like most acting was not something that was encouraged. I did the traditional thing I went to school studied a law degree at Cambridge University. And I also did the National Youth theatre and it was while at the National Youth theatre during my time at Cambridge when I suddenly realized that there was this thing that I could not quite say no to and I just need to keep pursuing it and say what if. And because otherwise I would say what if I did not pursue it any further. it was when I finished university, I said to my parents that I wanted to try and see where it goes. I did not get into drama school the first year, but the second year I got into the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and I did two year there and have been working in the industry ever since.
ALT: What are the key themes in this play?
There are so many. It is about how we connect with one and other, so it is about connectivity, loss, healing, family and love and love.
Tree runs until 24th August at the Young Vic. Book tickets here.
We are giving away two tickets subject to availability. TO WIN: NAME THE LEAD THE ACTOR THAT PLAYS Kaelo IN TREE AND SHARE THIS PAGE. ALL ANSWERS MUST BE SENT TO THE EDITOR BY 5PM 12TH AUGUST 2019. Email editor @ alt – africa (dot) com.