Girls by Theresa Ikoko.
Growing up on estates in Hackney, East London, in a family of nine children, raised by a single Nigerian mum, I have gathered a
rich pot of inspiration to draw from. I lead a number of personal and social development, creative and performing arts workshops
in prisons and other “socially excluded” settings. I also work with gangs and serious youth violence offenders in the community,
plus young women affected by gang and serious youth violence. My work constantly tops me up with ideas, stimulants, fresh
perspectives and new voices. The objective of my writing is to explore the parts of life, and the people, that can sometimes be
overlooked and unheard, but primarily, I write to give a voice to the people in my head.
“Interruption in Women’s Conversations: The Effects of Context in Ethnic Majority and Minority Group Interactions”
by Ikoko, Theresa and Leman, Patrick J. Published in Psychology of Language and Communication (1/1/2010)
“Visiting Hours”, by Theresa Ikoko (Reading, New Black Voices Showcase, Belgrade Theatre, November 2014; Reading,
Belgrade Unplugged, Belgrade Theatre, July 2014; Reading, Scratch That Hackney, Hackney Attic 10-2013)
“Normal”, by Theresa Ikoko (Lunchtime Readings, High Tide Theatre, November 2014; Reading, Talawa Firsts, Talawa
Theatre, June 2014)
“The Race Card”, by Theresa Ikoko (Reading, Tricycle Young Writers, Tricycle Theatre, August 2013)
Independent Talent Group, Ikenna Obiekwe (firstname.lastname@example.org, 020 7636 6565)
Q&A with Theresa Ikoko
Why did you write the play and what inspired you?
I’m always inspired by the people in my head who I don’t get to hear from or see, anywhere else, but in my head. There are these stories and voices, that are so rich and intriguing and dark and funny and dangerous and honest, that are knocking on my brain and I feel like tapping the person next to me and saying: “Did you hear that? Did you see that?” There are people I’m curious about or stories that I think I know, that maybe only me and my friends know, or just a handful of us care about (at least that’s what it feels like sometimes), and I want to explore these characters and stories and find out more, and I want more people to know about them and more people to care about them. This is why I wrote Girls, like everything else I write (and hopefully will ever write), I wrote it because I needed to know their story and I wanted others to know; and I needed to get their voices out of my head, these girls just got too big to contain in my head, they demanded I let them out.
Where would you like your play to be performed?
I honestly never dreamed that my words would leave my four walls, so now, I’m just always so chuffed to have them read or heard by anyone who cares to read or hear them, or anyone who ends up caring.
I would love Girls to be performed somewhere where the people I grew up with- not all, some- would never step foot inside. Somewhere where they have never heard of or felt a part of, or even welcome. I would like floods of people from estates in Hackney, Tottenham, Brixton, Stockwell (before all the “cool kids” and fancy beers invaded) to walk through the doors of The National, or Old Vic, or wherever, with a sense of ownership and belonging, knowing their lives, thoughts and words are on the stage, that they are walking in to hear their stories, or stories they recognise and care about, told by characters they recognise and care about.
What do you want audiences to take from the play?
. I want audiences to take away from Girls, primarily, that this is a story of friendship and love- a story that they can relate to. I want audiences, from all backgrounds, to be able to find the truth in these young women, something familiar or something they understand. I want them all to become curious about the things we all (them, their neighbours and Tisana) share, and the things that are so far removed from their lives and conveniences. I want Girls to make thousands of miles feel local, and strange and unfamiliar accents, climates and worlds to clash, merge and disrupt ours. I think that’s pretty much it, I want people to become curious about things and people they didn’t know existed, or did know and didn’t care about. I hope Girls creates commonality and inspires curiosity. I believe these two things can be great impetuses for inspiration and/or action. What that inspiration or action might look like, I have no idea.
Which playwright/writer do you admire and why?
I love Debbie Tucker Green. She writes in a way that seems rebellious. It feels like she is only interested in telling the story- truthfully, and without compromise. She opens a curtain or door and let’s us in to people’s lives without disturbing them, without trying to force them to fit into a structure, prescription or a certain number of pages. She keeps their voices and stories true. I think because I started writing before becoming a “writer”, I’ve always looked at her work as something that is for curious people- people like me- people I want to write for- people who simply want to know a story. There is no exclusivity about her work. She tells stories, for people who want to hear stories. It feels that simple. And I really believe that it should all be that simple.
Chinua Achebe- the God father of African writing- is a great inspiration. I am Nigerian, Igbo, specifically, and he writes about my people with such audacity and pride. I think sometimes, there’s this feeling, when it comes to Africa, that we are all head lowered and seeking permission or waiting for salvation. Chinua writes about pain, without suffering, which to me, is a typically African mentally. Our strength is in his words. He holds up a mirror that reflects us truthfully in all our beauty, pain, power, pride and humour. His imagery is tangible and the detail is captivating. One of my favourite poems is his, A Mother in a Refugee Camp. Reading his work, feels like I’m being told a story by my mum, and all my aunties and uncles.
Sister Souljah was one of the first writers that made me realise how powerful words are. I fell in love with Midnight, from the Coldest Winter Ever, and I mean really in love. The kind of love they sing songs about. That book became my whole life when I was 14. And years later at uni I bought it for a friend, who ended up spending the whole night reading it- not eating or showering for 24 hours. Years after that, when working in prisons, I bought countless copies for countless young men, to share with them, that feeling of absolute wonderment and pain and love and joy, that I had gotten when I first read TCWE. I was so desperate to extend this world that Sister Souljah had created. A world that changed a 14 year old girl, a friend at university and a bunch of men spending 23 hours behind a metal door. What that book did for us, individually, and what it gave us, as a collective of people who shared in it, is hard to put into words.
Sister Souljah is also amazing because of her activism, advocation and social, community and political work. I think there’s a little Sister Souljah in me: fist in the air, chanting in a megaphone, building and breaking, in love with my community and a desire for better for us all.
Lastly, Dennis Kelly’s work is phenomenal. I love Debris, Osama the Hero, Taking Care of Baby, Utopia and of course Matilda! His work is dark, unapologetic, funny and uncomfortable. He has had, and continues to have, an amazingly successful and varied career that I dare to dream of. I was fortunate enough to meet Dennis Kelly (and Debbie Tucker Green) as part of my time on the Talawa Writer’s Programme, because I had mentioned him and DTG being writers I admire. His words on that day, and his work, continue to remind me that passion and truth should come first. I don’t remember if I read it somewhere or if Dennis said it the day we met, but he said something about art not having to have the answers to the questions it asks. I love that. Maybe because I don’t always know what to say when people ask me questions about my work, but it’s so honest and so telling of his intention- not to make a statement or answer questions, but to seek… To seek truth… maybe? There is a quest in art that I enjoy- it’s what motivates me – a sort of self-indulgent, exploration of the things I want to say, and believe in- the stories in my head- without agenda.
What do you want to achieve as a playwright?
As a writer, I want to write things that change the lives of 14 year old girls in school, of university students and of grown men behind prison doors. When I say change lives, I’m not being dramatic or airy fairy, I simply mean that I hope someone, who wouldn’t have, decides to read a book; or someone turns on the TV and sees themselves; or someone is reluctantly dragged along to a theatre, and then themselves drag a reluctant friend to a theatre a week, month, or year later. As for what happens after or because of these things, who knows. Maybe one day, in 20 years, when a girl or boy from an estate in Hackney (though I doubt there’ll be estates in Hackney in 20 years) is being asked about why she writes or teaches or whatever, she/he will remember that book, or film, or play they read/saw, by a girl from an estate in Hackney.