“Sometimes I feel really guilty that art doesn’t do anything, but it is the only tool I have in my arsenal.”
Just a few years ago, Theresa Ikoko did not believe she could be a writer, she thought it was simply not an accessible option for her.
Much to her surprise, after writing her debut play Normal less than two years ago, about a boy who wants to kill himself, and her latest work Girls, about three friends who have been taken from their home, she received the Alfred Fagon Award in 2015 and the George Devine Award for most promising playwright in 2016.
It is quite unbelievable that somebody who has achieved so much so quickly could ever have so much doubt. She explains: “It’s never been something that is part of the scheme of my life, I’ve never known or seen anyone who looks like me do anything like this.
“I’m sure somebody else would be able to pull out names more easily than I can, but when I think of black female writers they’re not in this country so it’s not something I felt like I had access to, like when you’re a child and someone says ‘that’s not for you’, because you don’t see it in your community or you don’t see yourself reflected back in that world.”
Theresa Ikoko grew up on an estate in Hackney with her Nigerian mother and eight siblings. She tells me how her upbringing "was a privilege".
“It was the most fun” she explains. “There was a real sense of community and ownership, which I think we were so fortunate to have as children. I don’t think kids get that nowadays because those communities are being torn apart, but it was so empowering.
“I didn’t know that we were poor until I applied for university and had my loan means tested. I got my mum’s P60 and I was like ‘is this what you make every month?’ and she told me it was for the year.”
Theresa explains to me how being ‘poor’ was a label put upon her, her family and the people she grew up around, and how the media and the arts continue to misrepresent certain areas.
“Sometimes I see things about places that I know and it doesn’t feel true. They miss out the joy and the excitement and the hope and all of those things. The communities that I grew up in, we are completely rich in joy. Poverty isn’t all about suffering and darkness, there is a light to it.
“Sometimes those communities are dismissed as being problem communities but actually there’s so much potential and so much hope there, often the negativity coming out of those communities are actually societal problems.”
It is with this ethos that she wrote Girls: “If people walk away from Girls and don’t see the joy and celebration of friendship I will feel like I have failed,” she tells me.
I wondered if Theresa had taken inspiration from the Chibok girls who were taken in Nigeria, but she explains to me: “It happens all across the world, not just in Nigeria. In the Midlands, across the UK, across Europe, in Iraq and Afghanistan and all across the world. There is sex trafficking, sex slavery, women who are collateral damage and weaponry in warfare, there’s child abuse, illegal foster caring and illegal adoption.”
Her inspiration was all the unnamed girls we see in the media. Theresa tells me she simply had to explore who those girls might be with the hope that others might care about them as well.
“If we talk about rule of law, the perpetrators or about government then those things are almost too big for us to deal with so we diffuse responsibility. I can’t do anything that I know of about sex trafficking laws or the government in Nigeria or the lack of a UN response. What I care about is do I see these women as of value? Do I connect with them in some way? Maybe a connection can do something.”
As somebody who felt playwriting was not for her I asked whether she felt a duty to represent women and people of colour in her writing. She is quick to point out that men are not asked about their duty to represent others – and I agree – but it seems to be a necessarily evil and she admits she feels a certain accountability.
“As a black woman I feel a responsibility to black people and to women. My responsibility is not to be compromising. Even if the content is not positively biased or doesn’t fall in line with an agenda or ideology, I want people to be satisfied by the honesty.
“I work really hard to not compromise the characters. It is really is easy to be expect women or to expect black people or expect a group to be presented as a whole. It is part of this idea that we are less than, so we have to represent a whole.
“I just hope women will connect with the story and I hope black people will be happy to see black people on stage. That we are afforded the same opportunity to enjoy art for arts’ sake rather than to look for justification for our existence in art.”
Girls is at Soho Theatre, 21 Dean St, London, W1D 3NE until Saturday, October 29. Details: 020 7478 0100