A workshop in Soho
It was snowy that afternoon. I remember it quite distinctly because my Primark bought leather man shoes had had me slipping and sliding through the streets of Central London. I simply couldn’t miss the workshop with Inua Ellams, the writer of ‘Barber Shop Chronicles’. Before I went in, I made my way to the toilet and stared at my reflection for a while. I counted my breaths and told myself to calm down as I had done many a time before. After all, this was my ritual. With one last look, I fixed my black Fedora hat and took the lift to the third floor. I sat with my writer friends and anticipated what was to come. The man sitting before us oozed charm and charisma.
What does your name mean to you? That was the first thing he asked me.
Such a simple question but I found myself transported back to a little classroom in the North of England, a drop of sweat trickling down my forehead, my name seconds from being called on the register. My thundering heart would compel my stomach to churn as a deafening silence enveloped the room. I would almost feel sorry for the teachers as they struggled to curl English tongues around the curves, clicks and turns of my Zulu name. My moment of compassion would soon disappear when the other children giggled, stripping away my sense of identity, a sense of my Africa, a sense of me. Inua’s question carried me back to the pain of those days, the shame of being different. He transported me back to the fourteen-year-old me.
From then on, I knew the workshop would challenge me in many ways. It would pull me in different directions leaving me vulnerable and raw. Each exercise he introduced encouraged me to dig deep and compelled me to write freely. We sat around a small table in a tiny room in Soho relating stories of what our names meant to us. Experiencing each writer’s tale reminded me of sitting around a warm fire in my grandmother’s village. It reminded me of the full moon illuminating the dark sky while my cousins and I listened to folktales passed on from generation to generation.
I had met Inua a few years back upon my first arrival to London, and like our workshop, we had sat among mutual friends, sharing rich conversations about everything and nothing. I remember being fascinated with meeting an ‘actual’ writer who looked like me, but little did I know I was sitting opposite a man who would write one of the most brilliant plays in the history of British theatre. Being part of his workshop made me feel empowered and valid. It made me feel present and full. It made me take three random objects, a ring, a child’s toy and a Koran and turn them into a story about love, loss and betrayal.
After the workshop, I emerged with a greater understanding about creating stories beyond my personal experiences and how to give voice to those characters I have never met.
This all stemmed from one question. What does your name mean to you?
I remember a persistent buzzing rousing me from deep slumber. It was my phone. I didn’t need to check the caller ID, I already knew whomever was calling would change the course of my life that very moment. I could feel the desperate pound of my heart in my very toes when Chloe’s voice came through. The next few seconds were a blur.
‘We are happy to offer you at place on our Write to play programme.’
I never cry, but I sure did that day. Something good had finally happened to me! After the adrenaline wore off and the phone call a distant memory, reality set in, I thought to myself;
‘Shit, shit, shit! What have I done!’
Suddenly, all the doubts came tumbling down one by one with little mercy, forcing me out of my bedroom, a place lathered with depression and quail. ‘Shit had just got real.’
The day had finally arrived. I was so nervous; I woke up and cleaned my already spotless house. I scrubbed and polished until the floor complained. I glanced at my clock, damn it I was going to be late, not a good first impression! So, I did what one does when one’s panicking about time, I called Uber.
I concerned myself with mundane topics with the driver and let him fill my ears with stories I didn’t care much about, anything to ease the anxiety meandering through my veins. On shaky legs, I walked towards my very future, my rebirth, my second chance, knowing very well it was all up to me how I handled the next year. First, I had to get through the week.
I took my time writing my name on the signing in sheet, taking practised care to write each letter as if my life depended on it, as if a gold star awaited me if I spelt it right. That’s when I realised; I’d been holding my breath the whole time.
‘Just breathe Lettie, breathe before you pass the hell out and then you’ll be royally Fu…’.
A kind voice brought me to attention.
‘Hi, I’m Babs, I’ll be supporting you for the week.’
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, I had someone supporting me, someone actually cared enough to put this in place. I didn’t know what to do, I was overwhelmed, a rainbow of emotions. Then my mind took me back to a place that once was, a time when I’d felt visible and mattered. I thought of my mother. Her spirit propelled me forward and the next few days were spectacular.
I swam in an abundance of knowledge. All the questions burning in my unlearned playwright mind cascaded out of me with careless abandon. I asked, they answered, I cried, they soothed, I was afraid, they comforted, they encouraged…
By the end of it all, I looked around and felt warm hands connect with my own.
‘You are now part of the family’, they said,
I was in.
‘Welcome to Graeae Theatre, your home for the year.’