Interview: Nicole Acquah Talks Award-Nominated Play “Sankofa”

February 2022

san – to return

ko – to go

fa – to fetch

Nicole Acquah’s award-nominated play, “Sankofa”, weaves together live music, storytelling, and traditional pottery to explore legacy, heritage, and what it means to belong as part of the African diaspora. The play will take to the stage at The Bread and Roses Theatre next week (15-19 February), so I caught up with Nicole to hear more about the show’s origins and driving forces, her approach to placing difficult subject matter on stage, and her desire to see God’s influence in her work. Here’s what she had to say about this upcoming work…

Sankofa is described as “a semi-autobiographical show about legacy, heritage, and what it means to belong as part of the African diaspora”. Can you tell me a little bit about what planted the seed for this play with such far-reaching subject matter?

I write autobiographical theatre because I want people to feel seen. I have learned that what I feel, many others feel, and this is definitely true when it comes to second generation identities. The topics of legacy, heritage and diaspora are far-reaching but that is exactly why they are topical for this play and for many – as Black people, we are far-reaching, we are across the globe, integral to thousands of cultures, and many of us are also displaced as a direct result of colonialism.

So whilst the topics of the play have a wide breadth, the play doesn’t feel overwhelming for me. It just feels like a part of the reality that I and others are experiencing. Wanting to see second-generation experiences spoken about honestly onstage (and particularly Ghanaian experiences) was a key motivator for this play, as was learning about my own heritage.

What do you feel are the real driving forces within this story as a whole?

Identity, Family, Language, Home, Belonging, Diaspora, Relationship and Journey.

The play was shortlisted for The Women’s Prize for Playwriting 2021 – what does that kind of recognition mean to you?

It is truly incredible. It is very lovely to see my name alongside playwrights whose work I know is impactful and well-respected. I have faith when it comes to this project so it was nice to see that so many established playwrights also have faith when it comes to Sankofa.

Also it has made me feel seen in the theatre-world which is nice. I have been working in it for years and I feel like the shortlisting has helped me and my work to be recognised by people whose work I have been aware of for a while, if that makes sense? In other words, it feels more reciprocated rather than one-sided. It has also helped give me more confidence as well. Really very grateful and honoured to have been shortlisted. I’m not sure if the judges know how happy that shortlist made me! On a more practical level, too, it has helped me book further writing commissions which I mention as I imagine it will be of interest to writers.

The central character, Nicole, “will have to learn what it truly means to go back into the past in order to move forward into the future” – how does Sankofa approach this exploration of past and present on stage?

The word Sankofa itself means “to learn from the past in order to build a better future” and so the narrative structure of the piece itself is built around three time markers: past, present and future. We navigate between all three in voice, body and content.

It seems that location is also central to this work, as Nicole’s story places her between London and Europe while also exploring her Ghanaian connections. How do the shifting landscapes function within Nicole’s story?

Ah yes! So, without giving too much away, there are parallels between stories that take place in London, and stories that take place in Ghana. The Master Drummer, played by our musician Doyin Ade (who plays alongside Vanessa Garber), is a key figure when it comes to Ghana.  

Sankofa promises quite a unique combination of art forms in the shape of live music, storytelling, and traditional pottery – I’m intrigued about the role of traditional pottery in particular. What can you tell me about the role it plays here?

As a Christian, my work only really truly comes alive for me once I can see God in it. And I see the Divine act of creation through the clay (there’s this metaphor people may recognise from The Bible that describes God as the Potter and us humans as the clay jars). For me, clay and pottery symbolise origin – we are made from dust, we return to dust (or dirt, or mud, or clay) – we start in one place, we return to that same place, and what happens in the middle is open to us. For me, Sankofa is the same. My ancestors began in Ghana, I will return to Ghana, and what happens in the middle, how I get there is being explored. My own spiritual journey parallels that. I believe all life began with God, and that all life will return to Him one day. My time on this earth is what happens, for a short while, in the meantime. The idea of having a home away from home is at the core of my experience as a second-generation Ghanaian, and at the core of the message of Christianity.

There are also some heavy content warnings for this piece. What’s your approach to depicting such hard-hitting elements in your work and specifically, on stage?

Despite the hard-hitting topics, I actually gravitate a lot towards humour. I looooove comedy. So I guess I would say having moments of lightness is part of my approach. The play is not, and cannot be, all doom and gloom. There are moments where I can just laugh and banter with the audience.

I did a short extract of this piece at Tower Theatre, and I got comments from people afterwards asking whether I had experience in stand-up comedy! Which was incredibly flattering, and made me happy to know those moments of comedy and direct address meant that the heavy topics did not become too overpowering.

Another approach is probably (if this can be described as an approach) just not shying away from the gravitas of topics such as racism or assault, for example. Most of the things in this story have happened, so I am not interested in providing a sanitised version of life, or theatre for that matter. It is (frustratingly) life, for too many. We tackle the subjects in a truthful manner and I don’t want to sugarcoat. I don’t think sugarcoating serves anyone. “Do or do not, there is no try”. And so we do. And we aim to do it sensitively.  I don’t think that the comedy sugar-coats the moments of drama, but rather highlights them when they arrive.

I (personally) don’t think the show is as dark as it may seem at first glance, but I wanted to ensure all the content warnings were listed because I do think that is important.

What would you say you’d like audiences to take away from seeing Sankofa?

If you had asked me this before the process, I would have had a different answer. Now I would say: I want audiences to feel that it is never too late to go off in search of their heritage! And, if you feel able to, if there is information out there for you to find, then finding that information is important. And for those who already feel super connected with their own lineage, to have empathy and understanding for those who do not yet.

And finally, what would you say to those who are undecided; why should they book to see Sankofa?

Come along! You’ll laugh, you’ll learn, you’ll hear some incredible storytelling and music. Also, I personally haven’t seen anything that centres Ghanaian narratives as well as the wider picture of second gen experiences. So come along for that, too! You may even learn something new as you reflect on your own heritage — I think you will! 

So there you have it! You can catch Sankofa at The Breadand Roses Theatre, Clapham, 15-19 February 2022 and you can find your tickets here.

Images credit: Michael Brosnan

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