Playwright Matilda Ibini on Afrofuturism, magical realism and disabled identity

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Matilda Ibini is a self-titled ‘bionic’ playwright and screenwriter. During her career she has been supported by highly prestigious arts organisations including BAFTA, Warner Bros, BBC Writersroom, Channel 4, and the National Theatre Studio. Her second full-length play ‘Little Miss Burden’ is about to burst onto the Bunker’s stage this December. Natasha Sutton Williams caught up with Ibini to discuss her experience of racism, sexism and ableism, and the influence of magic realism and Afrofuturism on her work.

headshot of black female writer

Matilda Ibini

Ibini was born and bred in East London and grew up in a predominantly female Nigerian household. Little Miss Burden is based on Ibini’s personal experience growing up with a physical impairment. This ‘coming of age’ narrative is told from the perspective of three sisters and explores what it means to be disabled as a young person. The show is a call to action to all young disabled people, encouraging them to find their voice in a society intent on labelling and diminishing disabled people’s potential.

The show is Ibini’s second full-length play to be produced in a nine-year career. It has taken a huge amount of patience and determination to get it to full production. “It has been a long journey that began in 2016. The idea grew as a seed at Bryony Kimmings live art workshops, which then led to an R&D at end of 2017 and dramaturgical development at Bush Theatre in 2018. I then worked predominantly on screen projects. After I wrote a letter for My White Best Friends and Other Letters Left Unsaid earlier this year, Bunker Artistic Director Chris Sonnex and Traverse Theatre co-Artistic Director Debbie Hannan asked me to send them some of my work. They invited me to a meeting and told me they wanted to program Little Miss Burden. I’d never had a meeting like that before. It was a surreal moment.”

play rehearsal photo of three black women

Michelle Tiwo, Saida Ahmed, Ani Nelson, in rehearsal for Little Miss Burden. Image © Kofi Dwaah

Ibini has had significant support and development opportunities from many eminent arts organisations. However, that doesn’t mean that she hasn’t struggled or that all of these experiences have been 100% rewarding.

“The positive experiences I’ve had include asking me what my access needs are and working together to meet them. This includes having meetings near where I live, or over Skype, covering my transport costs, flexible deadlines and having regular check ins. But there is still a lot to be learned and understood about working with disabled artists and dismantling barriers. Sometimes I won’t have the ability or time to work because existing as a disabled person means having to come up against daily systemic barriers in the world, both physical and attitudinal. Sometimes I wish I had more time to write and less time justifying my existence every. Single. Day. The current methods of working with writers are very inaccessible. If institutions, production companies and theatres are not willing to adapt, they risk not only missing out on disabled talent but further harming a section of society that is already under threat.”

Ibini flips between writing for screen and stage, and is currently co-writing a comedy-horror feature film about a serial killing carer. It is being developed with BBC Films and producer Dominic Buchanan. So how does her process differ when writing for these two mediums?

“Writing plays and screenplays is really different. It’s like flicking a switch in my brain when writing screenplays; you retrain your brain to think more visually. Story is paced differently compared to the stage. I plot more when writing screenplays. Writing the actual screenplay comes last, which can be frustrating as you have to write the pitch, synopsis and treatment first, so you really have love to the idea you’re developing.”

“The approach to every play I’ve written varies because each play requires something different. My process is quite flexible because I’ve started projects from a variety of starting points: devising, writing to a brief, responding to material, personal experience, and taking inspiration from subjects that interest me. The most consistent thing is that I handwrite the work first before I type it up. I use speech recognition software to help me type up what I’ve handwritten.”

The kaleidoscopic themes of 90’s pop culture, magical realism and Afrofuturism are woven into much of Ibini’s work due to her engrained affection for these cultural phenomena.

“My love of magical realism stems from my childhood. It was always what my mind was drawn to; creating epic fantasies and exploring difficulties I was facing through fantasies I would create for myself. I discovered Afrofuturism through Janelle Monae’s debut album ‘The ArchAndroid’. It cemented for me that black woman are the future. I started researching Afrofuturism’s aesthetic and philosophies. It made a young me feel seen, but also helped me understand why I was creating the work that I was. It helped me draw strength for my Nigerian heritage and express how global and varied the black experience is.”

theatre publicity image of two women on a street by a brick wall

Little Miss Burden. Image © Ali Wright

Having been asked what advice she would give to aspiring young playwrights, Ibini has not only one nugget of gold to offer but a whole treasure trove of recommendations! Here they are in list form, so go ahead and warm yourself by the fire of Ibini’s burning insights.

  • Remind yourself what writing/storytelling means to you. Have reminders around your workspace. Tell stories that excite you because you’ll be going on a long journey with that story and those characters.
  • Compile a list of people whose work you love and who you would love to work with. Theatre is collaborative. Find your tribe of collaborators. Read and watch as many plays as you can.
  • This job can be really hard and really exposing. Work hard but know your limits. Don’t exhaust yourself or give yourself too hard a time. Your health comes first always.
  • There is ‘no one size fits all’ rule on how to write for the stage. Over the course of your career, you will acquire a toolbox of techniques and it should be overflowing and varied. No one tool can fix all stories.
  • Rejection sucks. Let is sting. Allow yourself time to grieve. But then you have to move on. Rejection isn’t always bad, and it’s not always about you or the quality of your work.
  • Besides seeing theatre, go to dance shows, museums, galleries, opera, musicals, festivals, gigs, concerts, performance art, stand-up, exhibitions, and installations. You never know what could inspire you.

Little Miss Burden premieres at the Bunker Theatre, London: 4 -21 December. For more information and tickets, please see the website: https://www.bunkertheatre.com/whats-on/little-miss-burden/about

Accessibility

Relaxed Performances
Saturday 14th December, 3.00pm
Wednesday 18th December, 7.30pm (also Captioned)

Captioned Performances
Thursday 12th December, 7.30pm
Saturday 14th December, 7.30pm
Wednesday 18th December, 7.30pm (also Relaxed)
Thursday 19th December, 7.30pm

Wheelchair Access
The Bunker can accommodate up to six wheelchair users at each performance. If you are planning to visit The Bunker and need to reserve a wheelchair space, please contact us as you are booking your ticket.

For more information on the Bunker’s Access, please see their website: https://www.bunkertheatre.com/visiting-us/access-info