SheCan

Bush Theatre: Talking to “Lava” writer Benedict Lombe and #SheCAN partnership giveaway: women ONLY win 2 pairs of tickets

“I think we’re maybe just at the beginning of seeing more progressive stories of Black women in all our multitudes. Recent TV comes to mind – with Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You and the newly framed season of Master of None centring Lena Waithe and Naomi Ackie’s characters”. Benedict Lombe

The world premiere of Lava by Congolese-British writer Benedict Lombe opens at the Bush Theatre on 9 Jully. It will also be available for viewing online 16 – 21 August. To mark the first day of public booking a photograph of Benedict Lombe by Latoya Fits Oluneye with clothes provided by Tina Lobondi has been released. ( Image credit: Image of Benedict Lombe. Photo by Latoya Fits Okuneye. Art Direction by Studio Doug. Wardrobe provided by Tina Lobondi)

Benedict Lombe is a Congolese-British writer and theatre-maker based in London. She has been on attachment at The Bush Theatre and has been on a residency at Theatre503 as one of their five writers for 2019/2020. She has produced digital work for the Bush as part of The Protest season, Papatango Theatre Company as part of their Isolated but Open series, and a site-specific piece as part of Damsel Productions’ Outdoors season. She has been part of the BBC Writersroom cohort, has been shortlisted for the Papatango Playwriting Award and the Royal Court & Kudos TV Fellowship, amongst others. Lava will be her London theatre debut. She is currently working on developing original TV projects, with a focus on boldly reclaiming diasporic stories that were never allowed to be told, with the full shades of nuance and truth they always deserved. ALT caught up with the busy writer to chat: we are also giving away 2 pairs of tickets for this production check our SheCAN section for more info and how to enter: women only!!

Benedict Lombe courtesy of Bush Theatre.

How did you become a writer?

I was really into reading when I was a kid. When I was about eight – for reasons unknown – the only books I could get my hands on in the house were my parents’ leather-bound Reader’s Digest condensed novels. They contained the works of one writer who almost exclusively wrote intensely agonising family sagas with these hella sad endings. I read them cover to cover, each time growing more enraged than the last. I distinctly remember trying to figure out how I could change the inevitable before I got to the end of each read. I wanted control; some sense of power – I wanted to literally change the narrative. So finally, I decided I would write my own endings to them. And then I realised I could do more than write the endings to preexisting stories. I could write the whole story. And so I did. And the rest is history.

What are some of the challenges of writing for the stage?

I’ve been reflecting on this a lot. I had a recent chat with another writer about how, when you’re writing for theatre, there’s usually this feeling that you need to make something that will leave people deeply affected, right? Fundamentally changed, forever transformed! And therein lies the dichotomy of theatre: the fact that at the end of the day, it is just theatre – and yet it is always so much more than just theatre. There’s something so bizarre about both things being equally true; we’re really out here trying to change the world, imagining different futures and bearing our hearts and souls to facilitate deeper human connection – and then going home and pretending like we’re just playing make-believe. Yet this make-believe tends to come at a cost. And that’s one of the strands I explore in LAVA – questioning the process of storytelling and the cost of the stories we tell. 

Image credit: Image of Benedict Lombe. Photo by Latoya Fits Okuneye. Art Direction by Studio Doug. Wardrobe provided by Tina Lobondi)

Could you talk a little about the inspiration for LAVA and how the main character resonates with you?

After a year that’s played out like something straight out of an apocalyptic horror film; a year of reckoning with history and the grief, exhaustion, and retraumatisation of the people who have been screaming at the tops of their lungs about it their whole lives – people of colour, Black people, Black women – I needed to put something out into the world that would allow Black people to enter a space and leave it taller than when they came in. LAVA is what poured out of my soul. 

It explores the concept of names – both the history of names and the process of naming the unnameable. When a British Congolese woman sets out to find out why her name is missing from her South African passport, her quest takes her from Congo to South Africa, Ireland, and finally present-day England. What follows is a story that questions nationhood, narratives, and the patterns of chaos across history. It’s a story with a big heart that remains very intimate – tonally irreverent, mischievous, and joyful.

And the main character’s a lot of fun! I want to hang out with her and spend time in her company. Is that weird? That’s weird, isn’t it? I must see my real-life human friends again soon!

What’s the first hook of inspiration that gets a new play started for you? Is it an image, a theme, a character?

I usually have an idea for a character in a particular situation. Then I’ll ask myself “Why does this need to exist? What can this do at this moment in time? And why should I be the one to do it?” And suddenly the themes and the world of the story grow from there.

For LAVA, a really clear image started to emerge. There is a volcano called Mount Nyiragongo in Congo – the country of my birth – in the city of Goma. It last erupted nearly twenty years ago – killing 250 people and displacing 120,000. As I write these words, reports are coming in that it just erupted again – on Saturday May 22 – sparking thousands to flee the city, with many reliving the trauma of twenty years ago. This is very real – it has uprooted so many lives and continues to do so. When I started to write the play, that image stuck with me, along with a question: this process, this destruction, this displacement – what else could it represent?

Do you think that stories of Black women have become more progressive across any medium and do you think that theatre encourages the individuality of the Black female narrative with all its nuances?

I think we’re maybe just at the beginning of seeing more progressive stories of Black women in all our multitudes. Recent TV comes to mind – with Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You and the newly framed season of Master of None centring Lena Waithe and Naomi Ackie’s characters. There is such a long way to go though – particularly with theatre. I think complex stories of Black women are still seen as a risk – and we need to get to a point where the value of these voices and stories are recognised and celebrated. Not for being the lone voice across the wide ocean – but becoming the norm. Commission us. Keep commissioning us. Commission us so much that we, too, may one day feel like it’s okay to make mediocre work. I say that because at the moment, as a Black woman, as a person of colour, you still feel as if you have one shot at it – and your work can’t just be good – you need to be extraordinary, because there are so few of us who are given these opportunities. So give us more. Give us more opportunities so we are no longer the exception to the rule and watch what happens. The stories we can tell, the worlds we can build, the magic we can create because of the lives we’ve lived? Y’all ain’t ready. 

What can we expect from you next?

I’m working on a play with #Theatre503 about the stories of #Congolese women across history, and working on ideas for TV with some people I’m excited about. You can expect more nuanced stories that centre the voices of Congolese people across the diaspora. More stories dragged from my core and ripped from my soul. And – if I should be so lucky – maybe even the odd mediocre story that doesn’t come at too high a cost. Why not? A girl can dream. Watch this space.

Lava can be seen at the Bush Theatre from 9 July – 7 August.

Tickets are now on sale at bushtheatre.co.uk

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