Interview: Esohe Uwadiae Talks All Things Debut Play She Is A Place Called Home

Esohe Uwadiae brings a daring, exploratory new show to this year’s Vault Festival with her debut play She Is A Place Called Home (playing 3rd – 8th March – tickets here). Delving into the universal ground of family, relationships, love and perseverance, her play also seeks to enlighten audiences when it comes to cultures and combined cultures beyond their own experiences – and all while championing the voices of women. I caught up with Uwadiae ahead of the show’s run to talk all things She Is A Place Called Home…

This is a debut play  with an exciting journey so far; developed as part of the VAULT Festival New Writers’ Programme 2019  and showcased during VAULT Festival 2019 in a sold-out show, it’s now heading for the 2020 VAULT season in March. What have been the greatest joys and challenges for you throughout the process to date?  

Getting into the festival was a definite joy. I still can’t believe it’s happening, but now that VAULT Festival 2020 has actually begun it’s starting to feel more real. Through this we’ve been able to connect with other creatives within the festival, learn about their shows and journeys, which has been incredibly rewarding. The show was also recently shortlisted for the Untapped Award, a partnership between New Diorama Theatre, Underbelly and Oberon Books, which has only added to the excitement of everything.  

In terms of challenges, I’d say we’ve faced all the predictable ones like getting funding, staging scenes and selling tickets. It’s not been the easiest ride, but I’ve enjoyed working with my team to figure out how to move past each one. It also helps that the VAULT Festival team is so supportive – they’ve produced a ton of helpful resources and always respond to panicked emails we send. We’ve also had support from several local groups, for instance, the University of East London has allowed us to use their rehearsal spaces and theatre Twitter has been a gem.  

She Is A Place Called Home is a compelling title seemingly entirely appropriate for a play dealing with such complex subject matter and family dynamics. Is it too much of a spoiler to ask for some insight from you in terms of how you arrived at the title and what significance it holds?  

The relationship between the sisters is fundamental to the show. Using home as a metaphor is one way I hoped to signal this to the audience. When you think of where you call home and what distinguishes a home from just being a place that you live, feelings of safety, stability and rest often come to mind. These feelings are embodied in the relationship that they share and become even more crucial considering the turmoil presently unfolding within their family, as well as previous issues.  

I also wanted to abstract the idea of a home as a fixed place full of things and reimagine it as a person in order to give an understanding of the responsibility that then comes with a relationship as heavy as this. It is only by understanding the depth of it will the actions of the sisters, and the overall story, make sense. I wanted a title that reflected that. 

With the tag line ‘Lies. Love. Bigamy.’ the play seems provocative and daring from the outset. Is this an impression you intended and approve of? 

I did and I do. The combination of these three words hints at something quite scandalous, but only when you haven’t come from a background where you are hearing about, and in a way normalising, situations like the one in the play. Hopefully the shock factor of this will serve an educational purpose in beginning to unpick just how complex life can get for someone with dual nationalities.  

It also raises questions about how Britain has approached multiculturalism. This nation heralds diversity as one of its strong suits, but, for the most part, also has a legal system that pretends that when people move here they abandon their cultures and traditions, and thus fails to acknowledge them. This can leave people without the recourse they would have if they were practising their traditions elsewhere with the structures in place to navigate conflicts that may arise.  
 
I also feel that these three words perfectly capture the drivers of the play. Lies in the form of family secrets, the love between the sisters and their father’s decision to get another wife.   

The play centres on two sisters facing this unexpected revelation of their father’s second marriage which leads to familial crisis. Is  that sisterhood dynamic a key choice for you? What inspired you to focus on that female dynamic as opposed to daughter/mother relationships for instance?  

 By choosing to focus on the sisters, I have the opportunity to explore the secondary victims of decisions within the family home, in that the sisters aren’t a part of their parents’ marriage, but they are affected by it because they live at home. In that case, they experience a similar powerlessness to someone whose parents declare they are getting a divorce. The main difference in their case is that their family is falling apart while also remaining together because their Dad has not technically left their Mum.  

It’s also more interesting in a way because of the nature of the relationships. For instance, the Mum, upon hearing what her husband is doing, could divorce him and end her connection to him. She could even replace that relationship by getting a new husband, whereas the sisters cannot replace their Dad in the same way. This means they are forced to either find a way to make peace with his actions or be without a Dad.  

Additionally, this choice gives the audience a chance to explore through the perspective of the sisters the range of options available to a woman in their Mum’s situation, in a more thorough way than would have been possible if the mum was a character within the show. This is because the Mum would otherwise just be able to say this is what I’m doing and this is why. The audience can therefore share in the sisters’ uncertainty, an uncertainty that guides their actions. 
 
A mother/daughter dynamic would be interesting though, and I can definitely imagine some uncomfortable scenes between the sisters and their Mum.  

Two specific elements stood out for me when I was reading up on  She Is A Place Called Home; the fact that it’s pitched as a ‘unique exploration of British Nigerian sisterhood’ and the idea of ‘what it means to exist in the space between two worlds’, culturally speaking. What do you hope those from entirely different backgrounds will appreciate and learn from seeing the unique insights you are offering with this piece? 

I hope that people gain a greater understand of the complexity of being someone with multiple cultural backgrounds and consider this one example of the types of challenges that you might have to navigate. Additionally, being exposed to stories and narratives you’ve never encountered before is a reminder that even within Britain there are stories in the making that you could never even imagine, stories that are equally deserving of being told.  

I also hope that people will see that though there are challenges that come with this dual identity, there is beauty too, and that people resist the urge to write off, or reduce, non-Western cultures down to one thing.  

Press for this play speaks of survival. What kinds of survival would you say your characters  are seeking? Is this survival purely within the family unit as a whole, or their relationship with one another? Or does it extend further than that,  into their wider communities and beyond? 

The sisters are trying to survive, or to at least ensure the survival of, many things. For instance, their family as it currently exists is under threat. Once the wedding is done and life has settled down, it’s unclear what will happen to them. Will their Dad relocate to Nigeria? Will they be forgotten in favour of a younger and newer wife and the family they might one day have? Will their Mum leave their Dad? Where will they live if that happens? What will their new normal look like and is it one they can accept?

In seeking to ensure the survival of their family, it raises the question of how far they would go. We know the sisters are rehearsing the dance, implying that they will be attending the wedding. But what about after? If their Dad wanted to move his new wife to the UK to live with them, would they accept it to please him? What if their Mum was against it? Is it possible to be able to accommodate both the wants of their parents in order to keep their family going? There’s a huge number of hypothetical situations running through their head, plus the added pressure of cultural and faith expectations, and their own wants.  

Additionally, despite the drama their Dad’s decision has created within their family, they had issues and problems before it. For example, the younger sister had anorexia, a condition that has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Recovery is something that takes time, and stressful situations like this are the perfect trigger for a relapse. We can also be our own worst enemies and times of crisis have a way of revealing that. In that sense, they also need to survive themselves.  

Even while grappling with the shifting family dynamic, the girls are ‘rehearsing the traditional Nigerian dance’ requested by their father. Is dance a significant focus too and if so, how in your view does such a medium contribute to the play as a whole? 

Using dance as a medium allows us to highlight and celebrate the wonderful parts of Nigerian culture, at the same time as engaging in criticism of it. I think that’s an important thing to do, or you risk telling only half the story about what it means to belong to this culture. This is something I’ve tried to be conscious of when writing this play, especially as this could be many audience members first time engaging with Nigerian culture.  

The fact that a wedding would involve your daughters performing a dance also highlights another thing I love about being Nigerian – the importance of family, and how during important moments of your life, your family is expected to share the day with you and be an active participant in your joy. 

This provides some insight into why the sisters continue to rehearse the dance despite everything. But it also suggests something more sinister, for instance, the pressure to keep up appearances even if doing so conflicts with your faith and involves you hurting people you love. It also hints at the family dynamics and makes you wonder what would happen if they told their Dad no.  

Does the first wife, or the second wife for that matter, have a voice or make an appearance here? What sort of approach does the play take in terms of telling those wider female-centric elements of the story? 

Neither wife makes an appearance in the play. That was a conscious decision in order to keep the focus on the two sisters and their relationship. That’s not to say the perspectives of their Mother and their Dad’s new wife aren’t considered; throughout the play the sisters explore how both parties must feel and the options available to them. Through this there’s also discussion about the generational difference between themselves and their Mother, as well as their Britishness which creates another lens through which they are viewing the situation.  

As women themselves, the sisters also reflect on what they would do in that situation, what they would want others around them to do and how it’s affected their feelings about marriage and future relationships. They also share anecdotes about other members of their family who have had similar experiences and consider the motivations behind their reactions. This allows those wider female-centric elements to be considered as the sisters put themselves in both positions and question which wife would they rather be and why?  

And how does exploration of the impact of the father’s choices on faith tie in with the overarching focus on family relationships? 

The thing about faith is that it touches on every area of your life, and in times of difficulty you lean on it for understanding as to why something is happening, for wisdom on how to respond and for hope that somehow everything will work out. But in the case of this play, the source of the difficulty is their Father and the way in which his actions conflict with their faith.

It raises for the sisters a challenge about how someone who professes to have the same faith as them can act in a way that is so contrary, with no real justification that can be made. It brings to light the hypocrisy that people of faith can engage in, and the way in which religious texts can be cherry picked, or simply ignored, in order to pursue an agenda. That’s an uncomfortable experience for the sisters to have, as it also then forces them to reflect on their memories as a family and to question how much of it was a lie since something was obviously lacking that caused their Father to look elsewhere.  

It’s also awkward in the sense that despite being the child in the relationship, they have ended up in a situation where they have had to take some responsibility for holding their Father to account. The power dynamics have shifted, which can be common once children reach adulthood and have both the awareness and the ability to evaluate a situation and express their thoughts. Additionally, now adults with the ability to make decisions about how they would structure their life, they are also forced to confront the fact that they would make very different decisions to that of the people that raised them, which is again, uncomfortable, especially when you are still living at home and so affected by those decisions.  

It’s great to see productions like this teaming up with charities and She Is A Place Called Home is partnering with Solace Women’s Aid which ‘supports women and children who have experienced domestic and sexual violence to build safe and strong lives’ – how did the union of this show and charity come about? 

Throughout the play we touch on a few different forms of non-physical forms of abuse and how aspects of culture, such as bride price, contribute to this. In recognition of that, we wanted to partner with Solace to raise awareness of the amazing work they do and how people can support them amidst the huge cuts that their sector is facing. For instance, Solace provides therapeutic services like counselling, as well as refuges, to support women who are in this situation. Solace is also a London based charity, with branches in Lambeth not far from VAULT Festival. So we also appreciate that we can partner with a local charity.    

To support them, after every show we will be collecting monetary donations for Solace but also toiletries, like sanitary products, body wash and toothpaste. 

If you could have audiences take away one specific thing from seeing She Is A Place Called Home, what would you like that to be? 

I’d want audiences to leave remembering that their best is enough, and that as difficult and as hopeless as life feels sometimes, there’s always tomorrow.

And finally, in one sentence only, why should audiences see this play? 

When was the last time you watched a play about bigamy? 

So there you have it! Remember, She Is A Place Called Home plays the Vaults Festival from the 3rd to 8th March 2020 and you can find tickets here.

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