As her award-winning play, Girls, opens to rave reviews, Stylist talks Boko Haram, untold stories and the power of female friendship with Hackney-born playwright Theresa Ikoko.
Theresa Ikoko is nervous. Her new play has just opened in London, and she’s feeling exposed.
“It’s been a really stressful process,” she tells me, sipping a peppermint tea in a bar in Soho. “I just feel responsible for so many things: for how people see the girls onstage, for the production, for the awards that it won, for living up to the expectations of people who have been so generous in considering it worthy...”
If Ikoko is feeling pressure to live up to the hype, it’s only because said hype has been so forthcoming. Girls, her second play (her first, Normal, debuted in 2014) might have only just transferred to London from a run in Birmingham, but it’s already scooping up awards and accolades for its frank, funny portrayal of three young women kidnapped by Islamic extremists.
At first glance, the title might seem to be the only thing Ikoko’s Girls shares with Lena Dunham’s HBO sitcom of the same name. Dunham’s “girls” are middle-class white Brooklynites; Ikoko’s have grown up in rural Nigeria. But the two have more in common than you might anticipate. Both are heavily influenced by contemporary pop culture, swing easily between the tragic and the hilarious, and are deeply preoccupied with the sustaining force of female friendship.
“I remember someone coming to see the play and saying, ‘I can’t believe how relatable the girls are! Would they really know that reference?’” says Ikoko. “I was like, ‘Well, yeah… They’re alive in 2016, so they know who the Kardashians are.’”
She laughs, but her humour belies the seriousness of what she wants Girls to achieve. “I want people to get to know stories and people that they don’t know, and realise that maybe these girls aren’t so different from you, after all. Because actually, when you connect to people, it makes your life richer and it generates compassion – and compassion is one of the most powerful forces we have.”
Girls tells the story of three girls who are kidnapped in Nigeria. Was the nod to the Boko Haram kidnappings [of 276 Chibok schoolgirls, in April 2014] deliberate?
The play isn’t about Boko Haram. Boko Haram happens in the world that the girls live in, but those are these men who are so far away from them. And I feel like women are always described in the way that they connect to a man, as the victims or the by-products of an issue: either our mere existence is politicised, or we’re unnamed and unseen.
So for me, it’s a play about friendship and resilience; about three girls with names and personalities. I always say that women are like Transformers: we are built to survive, we are built to adapt, and we are built to protect. And I think we see that in these girls. But they’re also annoying and you’ll disapprove of them. They’re not victims: they’ve got the chat and the banter and so much life in them. I wanted to write about the girls – not the men.
Women are like Transformers: we are built to survive, we are built to adapt, and we are built to protect.
It’s also really important to me to say that these are not problems exclusive to that part of the world [Nigeria] that we should feel sorry for, because there are women who are sex trafficked across Europe. There are people in illegal foster care in the north of England. There are slaves working in very wealthy parts of London. And there are girls being kidnapped in Iraq and Nigeria and South America. There are so many women whose stories we don’t see.
Black women’s stories, in particular, often go untold. Is that something you were conscious of when you were writing Girls?
I think naturally, as a black woman, my instinct is to see the world through that intersection. I want to explore the world of being black and being a woman in as many different ways as I can – because I don’t see it anywhere else.
You know, I don’t think you can ever know enough of anyone’s stories. But I also feel like I could go to a million different theatres over the next five years and my curiosity would be satisfied on a range of things. But I probably wouldn’t find satisfaction for my curiosity about black girls from Hackney, or black girls from Brazil, or black girls in Botswana. And I’m really nosy, so I take it upon myself to satisfy my own curiosity.
There’s also a part of me that feels like: why aren’t [black women] worthy? Why aren’t our voices worthy? Why aren’t our jokes funny? Why don't our stories resonate? Because I think they do, and I think people don’t give [black stories] a chance.
I remember speaking to someone about writing for TV, and they were like, “Oh, we don’t want to see any more gangster shows with black people”. But I don’t think anyone’s ever said, “We don’t want to see any more white couples on TV”, you know? There’s never a quota for how many white stories you can have, but I feel like as black people we have to fill niche curiosities. For some reason, we’re only allowed so many images of black people on stage and screen.
You balance writing alongside your day job working to reduce involvement in youth crime and violence [as part of a London Borough Gangs Team]. Within a gang environment, how do girls’ experiences tend to differ from boys’?
I actually don’t really like the word ‘gang’. I feel like it’s a political term; it’s a term we use to diffuse responsibility. If we say the problem is a gang, we’re not saying the problem is poverty, or access, or education, or overcrowding, or social exclusion. We’re saying the symptom and the problem are the same thing, which I struggle with a lot.
If you don’t give a woman the autonomy to choose wrong, I don’t see how you can give her the autonomy to choose right.
And I think “girls in gangs” is a fashionable thing to talk about, but it can lead to a certain anonymization of girls. They often say that at the centre of all female crime is a man, but that makes it sound like we aren’t autonomous; like we’re victims purely by having ovaries, or however you want to identify as a woman.
That grind my gears a bit, because you’re then – again – not focusing on the woman, but connecting her to something male. And I always say that if you don’t give a woman the autonomy to choose wrong, I don’t see how you can give her the autonomy to choose right.
How did you balance such an intense full-time job with writing an award-winning play on the side?
My work is so supportive, but it was really just about grabbing bits of time here and there. Sometimes something [about the play] would suddenly reveal itself to me during the day, and so I’d write it on my phone and email it to myself, or put it down in a notebook and type it up when I got home.
For this play I’d write really late into the night, until one or two in the morning. I think it was something about the darkness – I’d light candles to make me feel really cosy. And I found the girls really nice company, which I think makes me sound strange, but I actually really looked forward to spending time with them. They’re the most amazing girls I’ve ever known.
Girls by Theresa Ikoko is at London's Soho Theatre until Saturday 29 October. Tickets are available here.