Playwright Tolu Agbelusi On Respectability Politics, Migration And Belonging

Tolu Agbelusi is a Nigerian British poet, playwright, performer, educator and lawyer. A Callaloo Fellow who has been published internationally and commissioned widely,her acclaimed debut play Ilé La Wà just had its run at the Stratford Circus theatre and will be going on tour in the next couple of months. I got a chance to see the one of the shows which was thought provoking, layered and opens up many conversations around migration, identity and the ubiquitous theme of home. Tolu and I had a quick chat about her play, some of the themes it explores and what it takes for a young playwright to get their work seem by audiances.

What were the particular events that brought ilé la wà to life and inspired it.

There was a period where I swapped countries every two years and I went to places where I knew nobody. Working and studying that way, I learnt to fit, but having to learn your belonging or how to fake it raised questions that haven’t left me. What is home when physical and or emotional displacement are the norm?

A desire to explore this led to my creation of the Home Is… Project, which Ilé La Wà stems from. More specifically, the period when I started researching and writing the play coincided with the ‘EU Migrant Crisis’ which saw people washing up dead on the Mediterranean shores daily. The government comfortably sent ‘Go Home’ billboard buses onto the streets of London. UK general election campaigns and later Brexit campaigns brought a heightened level of xenophobia from all sides. Every other day brought stories of another unarmed black boy or man killed by a US cop. It goes on. Everywhere I looked, people were questioning where they fit especially when society has a narrow view of who you should be and tries to impose that on you. I wanted to deconstruct this, get into narratives that extend beyond stereotypes and create a story that makes people ask questions and make an effort to see each other.

Migration and the refugee crisis is not a new subject but as we evolve we often expect the world to be better but there seems increased intolerance. What do you think is the reason for our growing intolerance in an even more hyperconnected and globalised world?

I guess it’s a problem that’s getting worse globally. Ironically I think our hyper-connectivity makes tolerance worse because we interact less in real life. People hide behind screens and say things they won’t say to your face and then algorithms link us with people who think just like us so that fear based narratives are perpetuated on 24/7 cycles getting stronger in echo chambers unchecked by reality. Too many people are scared of figments of their own imagination when they should just spend the time to get to know people or simply see that ‘the other’ is a person like them who needs to be treated as they would want to be

The play was set in a detention centre. Often times we have a singular idea of the kind of person that would be in a detention centre, but ile la wa, debunks that in many ways. Was this intentional for you and why was that important?

It was actually an immigration reporting centre, which is often the prelude to the detention centre and a place we don’t hear much about. It most definitely was intentional to debunk any comfortable ideas on who belongs where in society. I wanted that room to be a leveller; the CEO who spent a childhood in the care system, the black boy with the saggy trousers who wants to be a lawyer, the girl from the ‘perfect family’ who is not perfect, the asylum seeker who sleeps rough but remembers another life in which she was a professional. No one is what they seem and that’s real life. Too often we judge by appearance and don’t take the time to know people and I wanted the audience to question themselves on that. I also wanted to show that when racism is ready, it doesn’t know class or education. In the UK, we like to deflect on matters of racism and talk about the USA instead but it’s alive and well here. Whether you are walking down the street, the token black person at work who is amply qualified but gets no recognition, the young man stopped and searched more often than sanity can take, the people pushed into the mental health system and mistreated etc. Thus the question running through the play: ‘How Do You Belong to a Place That Doesn’t See You’?

People are comfortable in their prejudices and it’s tiring to constantly try to become acceptable and still never fit. I wanted Ilé La Wà to ask questions and at the same time assert on behalf of ‘the others’, ‘I belong here as much as you. I’m done with respectability masks that place me in collusion with reducing who I am as a Black person in the western world to stereotypes. I’m going to be multifacetedly me. Just me.’

The Windrush stories and scandal has also brought about new questions on identity and Britishness. How does ile la wa connect with some of these issues for you?

I started writing Ilé La Wà in 2013 and the Windrush Scandal became a media story in 2018. The stories though, were already happening and the government was aware of them so that the questions of identity and Britishness that it raised were always part of my writing process. Black people have been in the UK pre-Windrush building this country, fighting in their wars and Britain has pillaged many countries through colonisation or the slave trade. Yet, Black people here are always made to feel like we can’t own Britishness. I was having conversations with too many people who were born here and have lived here all their lives and still felt like they were being excluded from their Britishness. That emotional displacement does something to you mentally and brings us back to the dual question and fact which Ilé La Wà asks; ‘How do you belong to a place that doesn’t see you?’ The mini-documentaries I did as part of the Home Is… project called ‘Collecting Stories’and particularly the one entitled ‘Are You British, Is This Home?’delves into the Black British conundrum a little.

Writing is a solitary experience, but you had other writers contribute to the stories in the play. What do you think that did for your process?

A bunch of characters were talking in my head constantly and I was answering back. Working with other writers meant that whenever we met, all the characters got to come out and play in real time. It was exciting. The process of building characters with other people down to the ‘what underwear would she wear’, the sharing we did which filtered into the work, the fact that I was given the privilege to workshop brilliant poets and then chop up their words without their input as I saw fit and mix them in with mine, it was fresh and different—together, all those things made Ilé La Wà a richer text. And with regards to my artistic practice, it equipped me with skills beyond the writing.

Identity is such a complex thing. Something I love is how one the characters on the outside appears somewhat unsavoury but as we get deeper into the play, we see how in some way she had to undergo some kind of self-erasure as both a form of assimilation and survival. There are many people like her for whom we might not offer enough empathy. Do you think often of how we navigate and move through the world because of our traumas or displacements both internal and external?

I do. We are so often products of our experiences and as a writer, I’m interested in the things we do to survive, the ways we disintegrate whilst presenting pictures of wholeness and how to find a balance in between both things. Assimilation in itself isn’t a bad thing but when we start erasing who we are, lying to ourselves, its problematic and I feel we need to probe our actions more. Why we do the things we do and believe what we believe. Let’s take Nigeria for example, people pay big money for their children to learn fake British and American accents in school as if there is a homogenised accent in any of those places or that something is wrong with the Nigerian accent. Or people pronounce their own names wrong on radio and TV because they want to sound anglicised. It’s one thing when they bastardise your name on this side of the world but you get to Nigeria and people who should know better can’t pronounce Tolu in anyway that gives the name meaning. These are issues that don’t go away until we discuss and unravel the trauma that makes us feel we aren’t enough to belong as just ourselves.

Tell us about the process of bringing this play to life?

Someone close to me describes his process as ‘researching things down to the gnat’s toe nail’ and that’s me. I watched and read plays, researched the people funding and partnering with artists, attended their events, made connections and followed through by email. Where I had no connects, I cold called people until I made a connection and then let common sense and persistence guide the rest.  I knew I wanted to pay artists, particularly black artists so I applied for funding and every time I got knocked down, I’d take advice and apply again. No one talks about the bad applications but on this project I was turned down at least 6 times and I’ve had 3 successful grants.

The play is an amalgam of people I interviewed, stories I read, workshops with poets and my own experiences as a lawyer and as a black traveller. Once it was written I emailed venues to see who would bite and I also presented at a pitching event in front of about 200 people from theatres and other organisations. That’s how the Stratford partnership happened. Bringing my vision to stage in 2018, I wanted a director who understood the story from a personal perspective. With much anxiety I asked Anni Domingo, a well-established actress if she was interested and the rest is history. She could read my mind and amplify it, so the whole process of auditions, rehearsing for just two weeks, doing what seemed like ten thousands rewrites, was intense but smooth. She brought the best out of me and my actors who included Winston Sarpong, DK Fash and Mamito Kukwikila. I wore so many hats and it was hard to hand them to others because people kept disappointing but one of those who were brilliant in realising the dream is Emmanuel Sugoi who came on board as producer. It’s been a long road, but worth it.

The fact that a lot of writers, theatre makers and creatives are all seeking resources form the same grant institutions, do you think that has an effect on the kinds of stories being told?

It does. This brings us back to assimilation. The pot is small and because people need the money, it’s easy to compromise on your idea and go with what organisations appear to be funding which a lot of times are the same kind of stories which don’t favour depth. But persistence pays. I was told by someone in the industry that my play would be hard to sell because I’m a beginner who wants to put four black people on the stage with an unusual format but that’s what I wanted. It’s taken me four years to have a full run and be in a state to plan a tour but I’m telling the story I want to tell.

Tell me about that transition from being a poet to writing a play? What were the anxieties, lessons and revelations?

I crept into play writing with two one-woman plays that were performed to audiences with good responses. Multi-handed plays are a different affair and though I didn’t expect a big leap, I don’t like mediocrity so I attended a short beginners playwriting course at the National Theatre. I had all kinds of imposter syndrome issues throughout; anxieties about the balance between poetry and theatre and whether people would get it; about the character arcs, if I had enough backstory, if the characters were real enough, if it was amateur. You name it, it probably crossed my mind. It was only after we showed it the first time in 2016 and the response was brilliant that I thought, ‘girl you really did something’. Through the whole process, I’ve written my first full play, directed, produced, done marketing, run workshops, curated an exhibition and started an artist community.

The biggest revelations were about the impact of my work on others, learning that my work matters in real ways. I learnt to trust my instincts, take risks, build my own platforms and share knowledge because what’s meant for me will come even if it takes a while and despite the imposter syndrome. I’ve picked up so much learning and the revelations of where that leads me is a gradually revealing ‘sumtin’.

The play has completed a run at the Stratford circus theatre. What are you hopes and dreams for the play?

We got funding for a small-scale regional tour so we are in the process of securing venues and I won’t say no to an international tour if someone wants to put up the money. A beautiful thing that came out of the Stratford run was that the Vice Chancellor of a particular university thought Ilé La Wà would be brilliant for a university tour and two other universities are interested so I hope all that actually materialises and expands.

What is next on the agenda?

I do have a next play in mind but it requires research in Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. If you are reading and you fund things, contact me. My first poetry pamphlet should also be ready soon. I got ten thousand ideas. What to say, but watch out world, I’m coming for everything.

You can find out more about Tolu on

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