playwright theresa ikoko is shifting the way stories are told

Born and raised in the London borough of Hackney, Theresa Ikoko’s unique perspective on life has given her the insight to write an award winning debut play Girls.

I first met Theresa Ikoko on a screenwriting course, where an award-winning writer was telling us the formula for storytelling. Some of us were avidly transcribing the lesson into our notebooks, others were listening, heads to the side. Theresa cleared her throat. ‘There’s not just one way to tell a story,’ she said.

Her award-winning debut play, Girls is fierce and funny, and centres on three young women – Haleema, Ruhab and Tisana – who are abducted from their Nigerian village by Islamic extremists. As well as life and death, they discuss boys, sex and Kim Kardashian. ‘Why is everyone so bloody obsessed with hashtags?’ they ask. ‘What on earth do you want to do with a hashtag? Can you use it to shoot your way out of here?’

We speak during her break.

What are you doing when you’re not writing?

I work in youth violence and communities, looking at the things that contribute to risk factors around crime, and how that leads to complete rejection from society.

Do you work with gangs?

Yes – but I think it’s important to look at how we use that word, gang. How the symptom becomes the problem. A cough is a symptom, so you treat it. A gang should be treated as a symptom too – we look at gangs as an issue without addressing what comes before. Kids being chucked out of school for instance, looking out of their window on estates like mine [Theresa grew up with eight siblings and a single mother in Hackney] and seeing the lack of middle ground between rich and poor. Of course violence ruins communities, but you have to go deeper, talk about why these people choose that lifestyle. I think it’s shocking, and embarrassing actually, that we’re not offering more.

How did you get into this work?

We were really poor, but education was not optional. I studied psychology, and when I was looking at prison assessment forms I recognised the lives I knew, especially the lack of fathers. I went to work in prisons, and ran a drama project about dads. I remember one guy who told a story about seeing a familiar looking stranger on the street and realising he must be his brother. The prisoners wrote a play, and I started to think this could be how I could change the world! Eventually, after studying policy-making and becoming disheartened, I realised instead of trying to change the whole world at once, I could try and change individual people’s worlds, one by one.

How did you start writing plays?

Well, it was at the time that prisons were becoming privatised, and stopped being places of hope and potential. When I did my drama sessions, instead of prisoners coming in excited and happy, they were always negative – they’d been locked up for days. I wrote my first play, Normal, after driving home from Feltham with an image of a boy in my head. He was saying, ‘I want to kill myself’. When I got back, I wrote down what happened next. Writing wasn’t something that people I knew did. But after Normal got picked up I started writing more, and joining in conversations about the underrepresentation of women in media, especially women in colour. And it happened again – I saw a girl in my head. She became Haleema. It was really relaxing, actually, to spend time in my mind with her. And I discovered that this was how I write.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m terrified. What if I can’t write anything again, you know? What if I lose that curiosity? What if the place in my heart that needs to know things is something I lose with age? I want to write a musical. I don’t know how many black women have written West End musicals. Maybe I could be the first.

What’s been the reaction to Girls?

Last night three black girls came up to me afterwards, really excited. One said she was a writer, and I was blown away. I was so glad they felt ownership of the space, and that she felt she could call herself that. I can’t quite see yet how art can change the world, but I’m hoping to find out, soon.

Girls runs at Soho Theatre from 27 Sept – 29 Oct

This Week

making images: behind the scenes

Take another look behind the scenes at photographer Harley Weir’s journey in capturing five women from around the world and get to know some more creators who are defining the image of today in documentary filmmaker Chelsea McMullan’s Making Images video. 

Read More

making codes: behind the scenes

Take another look at Making Codes, Liza Mandelup's behind the scenes video of digital artist and creative director Lucy Hardcastle's piece Intangible Matter that features producer Fatima Al Qadiri, artist Chris Lee and a host of more leading digital artists.

Read More

making films: behind the scenes

Take a look behind the scenes in director Eva Michon's Making Films with Alma Har'el video: a look at the making of JellyWolf and the current state of play within the film industry through the eyes of female filmmakers championing diversity, and Alma Har'els Free The Bid initiative. 

Read More

making movement: behind the scenes

Take a look behind the scenes in filmmaker Agostina Galvez’s Making Movements: a look at the making of The Pike and the Shield: Five Paradoxes with ballerina Nozomi Iijima and other leading movers and shakers from the world of dance including choreographers and dancers Holly Blakey, Aya Sato and the duo Project O. 

Read More

making exhibitions: behind the scenes

Take a look behind the scenes in director Christine Yuan’s Making Exhibitions with Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel: a look at the making of Just A Second: A Digital Exhibition Curated by Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, inspired by CHANEL Nº5 L'EAU, and a look at other leading curators and collectives from the art world including BUFU, Rozsa Farkas, Fatos Ustek, Angelina Dreem and Yana Peel.

Read More

seeing sound: in conversation charlotte hatherley & carly paradis

Two of London’s most sought after figures in visually-shaped music meet.

Read More

lizzie borden: feminist trailblazer

As her magnum opus returns to UK shores, Lizzie Borden – the visionary artist behind Born in Flames – talks rebellion, feminist artistry, and her nostalgia for 70s NYC.

Read More

rebecca lamarche-vadel's
just a second

Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel is the Paris based curator for the Palais De Tokyo. Dedicated to modern and contemporary art she puts on large scale exhibitions that span installation, dance, sculpture, photography and spoken word. For The Fifth Sense she created a digital exhibition based on the transformative power of Chanel’s Nº5 L’EAU.

Read More

reba maybury: she’s got the power

We sat down with the editor, writer and dominatrix Reba Maybury to discuss her taboo-breaking publishing house Wet Satin Press, her latest novel Dining With Humpty Dumpty and what it means to be a woman in control.

Read More
loading...