In praise of Joy on Sunday

Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor during rehearsals of ‘Sunday’ at Stratford Theatre Royal, June 2014

The Stratford Theatre Royal has a history of ground-breaking theatre, and can now possibly lay claim to being the first British theatre to feature a lesbian Nigerian couple on stage; said kiss took place during the staged reading of a new play, ‘Sunday’ by Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor, a young, Nigerian playwright living in London. The reading was part of  a festival of new writing, ‘Angelic Tales’ curated by award-winning writer, Rikki Beadle-Blair and his Team Angelica – the festival gives new voices an opportunity to see their work produced, and perhaps more nervewrackingly, receive feedback from their audience.  ‘Sunday’ was among five plays staged, and was read on June 18, directed by  award-winning director and Stratford Theatre Royal’s deputy artistic director, Dawn Reid. Set in London, but taking place in an entirely Nigerian milleu, ‘Sunday’ explores one of the key battlegrounds in Africa’s modern day culture wars – evangelical Christianity, and it’s sometimes comical, often tragic interaction with sexuality and identity.

On one level, ‘Sunday’ is pretty typical of many recent plays from Black British Nigerian playwrights; it mines many cultural traits for laughs, and turns on the comic to deal with some dark issues. Sometimes the potshots are a little too easy, the comic seam of African accents is now a wearingly familiar trope, if still one that delivers laughs. Where this play strikes a superior note and perhaps heralds the arrival of an interesting new voice is that the dialogue often has an amusing but unexpected turn, and exhibits a range from the comic to the strikingly lyrical and tragic. It also deftly weaves together the supernatural, quotidian and pathetic by drawing on, but never quite confirming various Nigerian cultural tropes.

The plot turns on giving us a glimpse into one ordinary Sunday for five Nigerian women. The old, and possibly dying Doris, (played by Lorna Gayle), her die-hard, born again evangelical Christian daughter Abi (Kemi Lofinmakin) – and her own daughter, Mary, (Nicola Taylor) whose revelation of her sexuality causes all hell to break loose; billed as a bold, haunting and ground-breaking exploration of love between Nigerian women, the play delivers and rewards beyond the titillation of the gay subject matter; the often fraught dynamics of mother-daughter relationships is one of the beautiful evoked themes in the play – but if this is a play about platonic love, it’s also one that is not afraid to talk about sexual love between two women, and the playwright, Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor, says that the fact that this discomfited some of her audience, is for her a measure of success.

Gharoro-Akpojotor says she never felt she was doing something brave in writing about an issue mired in such controversy, saying “Honestly, when I wrote it – I just wanted to write the story, I wasn’t thinking about anything else that was going to happen; it was only doing our table readings, people mentioned how brave it was…I was still kind of like…it’s just a play…about lesbians, but after the reading, then I thought…ooh, this is a little bigger than I thought it would be…”

True to that experience, ‘Sunday’ is a play that doesn’t wear its issues too heavily – humour is definitely a huge part of the story, but it also has some very deep, and painful human drama, some of which has its origins in the playwrights own experience, she says “I grew up Christian – it took me about eight years, accepting who I was.” When she says this – it’s not really clear whether Gharoro-Akpojotor is talking about her identity as a gay woman, a cultural Christian or both.

The ambivalence is reflected in the play, as is a distinct sympathy for the evangelical Christian homophobe who is often a parody in liberal circles. She agrees that her play is probably most sympathetic to the religious experience, and delivers the eye-brow raising line that “we’re too quick to judge extremist religion…” If the religious experience is treated with kid gloves, her story doesn’t shy away from showing fully what same-sex relationships are like btween women of Nigerian descent.

The characters talk about making love, flirt, argue and kiss intimately on stage, in a way that discomfited some in the audience, Gharoro-Akpojotor says, and continues “…people were quite uncomfortable watching the girls kiss…the young girls kiss three times and the older couple once, and people said to me, they found it so awkward watching them kiss, I think partly because they felt like they were invading somebody else’s privacy, so it felt a bit too real for them. Some people said, once is okay, but joy, three times! But in a way I’m happy they feel awkward, because I mean people kiss all the time, it’s not anything new – but if they feel like that – then this relationship is not just all about sex. It felt real, it felt intimate. So I’m happy about that”

Profile Interview: Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor

DMF: Tell us a bit about your background as a writer?

I would say I was kind of born writing. That’s what I first started to do – I remember when I was in primary five I wrote my first book for school, and it was called the vampire busters. I remember my teacher telling my mother at the time – she’s going to be a writer when she grows up, just because of the way the book was written. I went to university and did film studies and enjoyed screenwriting. I had a teacher at the time – who was really helpful. I would give him my stuff to read, and he was brutally honest with me. I remember once I wrote a script and I gave it to him, and he said ‘great title – hate the script’. I was like ‘but I LOVE THE SCRIPT. He said he had to be so harsh to me because it would prepare me for the industry…which I’m really grateful for. I [also] have a Masters in creative writing – playwriting – scripts and TV, and I think that’s what really got me into plays, because before that I wasn’t really. I was like: who cares about plays? But it’s hard. Our teacher there was like a matron, a German matron; even the biggest guy in class was scared of her, because she was so brutally honest with you – but it worked, and she used to do this exercise, where you would write a script, where they would read it, and everyone would comment on the script but you can’t answer back. She was like, first of all – that’s how people view your work – and if they’re telling you things that you think are in it, and you have to explain – it means it’s not there. That’s the basic principle, which helps a lot in terms of not taking it personally. So I think mmm, okay maybe it’s not clear in the story. When I left queen mary – I wrote a script and then filmed it, which was kind of interesting, but then I didn’t really get much into having my own work produced as much.

DMF: So you didn’t enjoy being in charge of producing your own work?

Yeah, after a while I got more into producing films – because I kind of like preferred the organisation of it, in that. In terms of the writer in film – I never got into actually getting my own work kind of made. I think it’s always nice to get someone else’s vision. I know what I see in my head – but it might be nice to add something else to that; that maybe is there but I haven’t seen it yet.

DMF: But you work as a producer?

I produce films with joseph at Dreamcoat Productions called MLE and now we’re working on trying to get two feature films that we both co-wrote off the ground, and Joseph will direct both of both of them – one is called In the Deep – which is kind of about four black gay friends in London, and the other is called Labalaba which is a period adaptation of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.

DMF: Your play tackles quite a topical but controversial top– what was the motivation?

Mmm, I don’t know. [Sighs] From my experience the way homosexuality and religion are seen as almost against each other, we almost forget that these are people, and the person becomes this whole other thing… so, when I was writing the play, it was coming from the position that people have to tolerate, because I don’t think you can change suddenly if you’ve spent 50 or 60 years believing something; it’s not gonna happen. Also from this experience that family still, there’s still love there somewhere. But with the piece, this is a family, they have all these issues, but they still love each other but forget that they love each other.

DMF: There’s more going on in the play than this issue, particularly the female relationships – was this a big plan for the play?

Yes, it was. I say that in the sense that this is what I want to portray…there aren’t a lot of [black] female experiences out there – on stage; when I was trying to understand myself, I couldn’t find many black female experiences to draw on. The one book I found was like from America and it was written in like 19…whatever. So when I was writing the play, that was one of the reasons why I had five female actors; when I first had the idea to write it, there was like this one male there, but he was just really redundant; it was like useless – so I took him out – and then he became this person they spoke of, but never actually saw – he’s not as prominent now – but I think it doesn’t really change the story anyway. We don’t hear black female voices as often as we should. Because we do exist, we do have our issues – we do have our own craziness that we go through.

DMF: Has your family seen the play?

They haven’t seen it but at some stage – I’ll probably drag them along; as I was saying to someone, it’s a discussion I want to have – just not with them yet. But I think when it comes down to that – it’ll be nice to have them there, because they are supportive of my work – I guess when I bring religion into it, that’s a whole different ballgame…

DMF: Are you going to take this play to Nigeria?

I would love to, but I think they will kill me. Maybe South Africa? Maybe even Ghana, because someone said to me – Mojisola [Adebayo] she had her play there – and at first she was scared, but she got good feedback – well decent feedback, and it was a good conversation that came out of it. But no, I don’t know about Nigeria, but I’d love to have it in Nigeria…because they’d be the ideal audience for it.

DMF: What’s the future for the play?

Talking to Stratford Theatre Royal –and some people at the Arts Council [England] really liked the play when they saw it; so we are going to try and get a bit of funding from there, and develop it, and hopefully get it on stage – that’s the vision.

Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor’s ‘Sunday’ was read as part of the ‘Angelic Tales’ new writing festival at Stratford Theatre Royal, June 18th. Follow her on twitter @JoyGharoroDele Meiji Fatunla is editor of Gateway for Africa. Follow him @delemeiji 


Dele Meiji Fatunla