She is a place called home

Joude Bazzoun and Eponine Howarth

Esohe Uwadiae is a playwright. Her first play, She is a Place Called Home, was put on at the London VAULT Festival in March 2020. Eponine and Joude spoke to her about the sources of her inspiration, the process of writing and the themes explored in her play.

Eponine: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Esohe: I am Esohe. I work at UEL (University of East London) at the Office for Institutional Equity. This is my third role in higher education. I was a student at the LSE (London School of Economics), I studied Law and graduated in 2017, three years ago. I’ve specialised in equality and diversity. I do training sessions, I write policy, I create resources; anything required in this area. 

Eponine: What motivated the switch from Law to theatre? Was it a sudden decision? Or, had you planned it for a long time? 

Esohe: Not at all. I’ve always been a massive bookworm, and I’ve always loved reading and writing. When I was a kid I would write fiction. People have those dreams that, “Oh, one day I’ll write a book”, but obviously it is a long term, far fetched dream. So I would write little things. 

In my third year (of university), this guy I knew, Adam Crowther, was having a non-binary cabaret event. He asked me if I’d like to perform in it, because the month before that my society, “the Intersectional Feminist Society”, had put on “The Vagina Monologues” and I’d performed in that. 

The theme was basically anything to do with gender and sexual diversity. I had gone online to look for monologues, but I couldn't find any. The closest that I found was “Why is John Lennon wearing a skirt?”. But, that wasn't what I wanted to do, so I just ended up writing something. I wrote a monologue which is now called “The Performance of a Lifetime”, which I performed. It was super fun. From that point on, I really started to think about theater. 

Around the same time, my sister, who wants to be an actress, and is now in drama school, was in her first year of university at Queen Mary (University of London). We started going to the theater a lot together. My interest just grew and grew. I was writing a lot more. Again not theater, but fiction until my friend sent me a link to the VAULT Festival. They had this new writers’ programme. I applied using the monologue I had written for Adam Crowther’s event and I got onto it. 

I think it has been pretty full-on theater since then, watching more plays at the VAULT Festival. You get workshops and a pass that allows you to watch any of the shows. There were a lot of shows on, like 500 or so. So I was there everyday, constantly watching shows, consuming theater, thinking about theater. As part of it, you have to write your own play, which you then get feedback on. That’s the play that I put on a year later at the VAULT Festival.

Joude : Did your Law studies affect or inspire your writing in any way?

Esohe : It did. Law is full of contradictions. Family Law was my favourite module. It was very interesting because there were a lot of grey areas and it was very much people-focused. When I was thinking about ideas to write my play, I drew on the legal elements, specifically around legal accomodation, quite a bit. In the play, the dad gets a second wife and one thing that we talk about is the legal position of the mother. She basically can't tell the police that her husband is getting another wife, because the way he is getting married isn't a way in which the United Kingdom would recognise a marriage as being created. Culturally her position has changed, but legally, she is just kind of stuck in the middle. It is just little things like that. Like how far would the UK recognise what happens with people and families who exist in the spaces between. All of these things where the UK is essentially pretending that when people move here, they just leave their traditions at home and that all of this stuff isn't happening, even though they know it is. It is a way of pretending that there is still a singular legal system, when actually the reality is more plural. However, in failing to acknowledge that, there is all this harm that is being created. 

Eponine : You mentioned the VAULT Festival New Writers’ Programme, could you tell us a little bit more about it. Especially for young people reading La Piccioletta Barca that may want to apply. What did you learn? How was it structured? How were you supported? Did you enjoy it?

Esohe : I feel like now that I have done it, and that I have done a couple of other things since, it made me appreciate just how amazing it was even more. It’s structured over eight weeks. Every Saturday you have a three-hour workshop. The first hour and a half, it would be Camilla Whitehill leading on a particular theme, and then the second hour and a half, she would bring in someone who is working in the industry, like a playwright. They would then do something related to that theme. 

In addition to that, we had access to a play library - so just a ton of plays that we could borrow every week. Every Wednesday, we would go and watch a play together and then discuss what we liked and what we didn’t like. The expectation was also that we would read at least one play a week, which we would also have to discuss during the workshop. It was one of these things where the more you engage with it, the more you got out of it. 

At different points within the worksop, we would also have meetings about our own play we were writing, as we had a showcase at the end of the eight weeks. For me, that was the first time seeing my work performed, being in a room with a director, and people who would come to the festival to watch the shows. So it was also a really nice thing to end it with. 

What else was really great about it? The people that came in were really big names, like John Britton, Henry Shields, which were both Olivier winners. We had Morgan Lloyd Malcom, who is Olivier nominated now. We had people who had been actors, writers and directors. We had Nick Hern Books come in because they sponsored the programme and gave us talks on what it’s like to get a book published. We had meetings with producers. We had people talk about the VAULT Festival vs Edinburgh Fringe. What I really liked about the VAULT Festival is the accessibility of it. Fringe involves a lot more time and money. VAULT is a one week slot and you don’t have to pay anything for it upfront, such as the venue or marketing fees. You don’t have to put your whole life on hold to put your show on.

It’s really great because it’s targeted at beginners. I’d definitely watched theatre before, but I didn’t know anything. They don’t expect you to know stuff. They teach you how to develop an idea, characters and dialogues. It’s very comprehensive. And the fact there are only six of you means you get to know each other really well. 

You really feel part of it. They make you call yourself a writer. It is really awkward at the beginning, as you may not even have finished a play, but it’s about the psychology of it. And I really appreciated it. It was such a safespace to be in, so early on in my writing experience. 

Joude: About writing, do you have any moments when you feel stuck with your writing? And do you have any writing rituals? 

Esohe: I don’t really have any writing rituals. I try to have a routine, as I am trying to get back to writing fiction. So at the moment I’ve been writing fiction on weekdays and theatre on the weekends. I think the hardest thing is trying to find the time. I’m meant to write from 5:45 until 6:30 every day. And before that I am meant to read something to work on. Reading things that I have already written before, gives me the confidence that I can write. I also read stuff I like, but that sometimes works both ways. Sometimes, if I’m really stuck, I can’t read stuff that I like because it makes me feel insecure. Other times, I read something I like, try to understand how they do it and replicate it in my own work. 

Eponine: Now, a bit more about the play itself. Could you tell us a little more about the main themes of the play, what you had in mind, and what inspired you?

Esohe: The play is about two sisters navigating their dad’s decision to get another wife. They are British-Nigerian and it is set in the United Kingdom, so there is an international theme to it, of when cultures collide. Sisterhood is the other main theme. Family. Secrecy. There are a lot of lies and secrets in the play. One of the sisters has an eating disorder for example, so there is a lot of lying to her sister about it and how well she is. The older sister is also lying to the younger sister about the dad’s behavior. It also explores domestic violence, financial abuse, emotional abuse, and how it affects them. We also touch on mental illness, self-harm.

Joude: About identity and cultural clashes, what are their roles in the play?

Esohe: For the sisters in particular, I think it’s the idea of “We’re British, but we are also Nigerian”. What it means for them and how power is distributed in the family home. It’s their culture but they are also outside of their own culture. Somehow trying to find peace with that difference. 

Eponine: Did you play any role in the production, the choice of actors, the set, or did you stand back and watch your script take a life of its own? 

Esohe: I was very involved. At the time Bossy existed, which is an online theatre space for women and the Nail Salon specific for BAME women. So I posted there looking for a producer and a director. And then we did the call-outs and, yes, I was very involved in the casting and the set, as I knew it would be set in a living room. But in terms of the actual rehearsals, the director took the lead and she was really great. 

Joude: To what extent do you identify with the characters in the play?

Esohe: I feel like I do identify with them quite a lot. When I was writing the sister thing, I would think a lot about my own sisters and my relationship with them and what sorts of things happen. For example, they fight, and then they are fine, and then they fight and then they are fine again. 

Or, for example, when one sister is working in the living room, and the other sister tells her to work in her room, and that she tells her that she knows that the wifi is crap in her room. That was literally a line that my sister said to me. I drew a lot to make it relatable. But, I used it as a starting point and then exaggerated it. That really helped for distance. I remember the first draft being way too autobiographical. It became relatable without necessarily being me on the page. 

Joude: What is the choice behind only having two characters? 

Esohe: When I was developing it, I was thinking of the two sisters and then what other characters there would be. The mum, the dad and the more I wrote, the more I realised it didn't feel right. The relationship between the sisters felt very natural. I wanted to include a man that would play the uncle and the dad. When I took those additional characters out, I realised the conversations and debates I wanted to include could happen more naturally.

Eponine: In terms of setting, everything happens in the living room, did you ever consider having multiple settings? 

Esohe: I don’t think so. I knew it would be set in the home. I thought of the bedroom or the kitchen, but the living room stood out to me as a communal space. Once I started writing it in the living room, I didn’t imagine writing it in any other location. 

Joude: What was the takeaway message that you wanted to convey? 

Esohe: Oh, that’s a hard one. I don’t want to say “education” because that sounds so formal. But I think there was an element of… Oh I don't even want to say “awareness” because that sounds like “oh this is a cause”. But it was an intimate look into one particular family dealing with this one particular issue and a greater understanding of the things that people who aren’t British or hold dual-nationality navigate through in their day to day lives. Even though I touch upon other issues, I don’t talk about them as much. I wanted to give an intimate look in that regard. But then also there were other things, like the relationship between the sisters and the terrible things that families do to each other. And the burden of familial responsibilities, while we don’t necessarily expect that from other relationships, such as friendships. 

Joude: Do you have any future plans? Can we look forward to other plays or projects? 

Esohe: Definitely other plays. So after the VAULT, in October last year, I joined the Royal Courts Writer’s Group. So I had to write a play for that. It definitely exists. It needs editing, but it exists. I’m also doing a residency at Shrill Voices at the moment where I am writing a different play. So that’s going… I am hoping to get one of those plays finished or edited before the end of the year. For the Royal Courts, the play I wrote is called Et tu, I am also going to be doing some further development of it with Omnibus Theatre, as I got onto their Engine Room Scheme. Hopefully next year, I can put something out. Before this, I was meant to put on a showcase at the Pleasance called “Dear Black People”. A showcase of short works, so I tweaked “Performance of a Lifetime” and presented that there, getting audience feedback. So there is a lot coming up and it’s really exciting!*

*The piece meant to be shown at the Pleasance was cancelled because of COVID-19 and will be rescheduled for a later date.

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