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.