Ophelia Charlesworth & Luka Cvitkovic on examining the complexities of the African mother-daughter relationship
We caught up with the creative team behind You Are African First Before Anything, writer-performer Ophelia Charlesworth and director Luke Cvitkovic about the process of creating this semi-autobiographical piece portraying a complex mother-daughter relationship.
OMNIBUS THEATRE: Tell us what your show You Are African First Before Anything is about.
OPHELIA: YOU ARE AFRICAN FIRST BEFORE ANYTHING is a semi-autobiographical one woman show that explores the complexities of the African mother-daughter bond. We learn about the protagonist, Chile, a British Nigerian woman in her mid-twenties whose role as the first daughter leaves her bearing a huge responsibility. Chile’s mother who is very traditional in her beliefs is concerned that since moving to England that her daughter is losing her identity as a true African woman and wants to uphold her family by making sure her first daughter sets a good example. Among other topics, the drama explores feminism, marriage, and tradition. We are drawn into Chile’s world through the use of monologues, voiceovers, music, and video projection as she attempts to get her mother to see her for the woman she is growing into.
OMNIBUS THEATRE: Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind the show and why you chose to focus on the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship?
OPHELIA: The inspiration for writing this play came from conversations with my mother regarding marriage, customs, and feminism among other topics and because of our divergent ideas, my mother and I occasionally disagree, which has somewhat strained our relationship. Seeing a pattern and similarities with parents of my close friends, I was driven to write about our struggles perhaps it will spark a conversation with others like us one day.
OMNIBUS THEATRE: What inspired you to specifically highlight the issue of feminism in the play, and how do the mother and daughter characters differ in their attitudes towards this topic?
OPHELIA: As the writer I believe in equality for all and even though I have lived a greater part of my life in the diaspora I am still very much attached to my Nigerian heritage. Nigeria runs under a patriarchal system which favours maleness over femaleness and enthrones masculine dominance over women. As an individual I believe that your gender or what you identify as should not hinder you from benefiting from society. Women are seen as subordinates and to go far within Nigeria as a woman you need the support of a man to do so and that is where that struggle comes from. It is from this the character Chile questions what it means to be an authentic African or Nigerian woman. Do I have to rely on a man to help me push and carve my way through society? The character’s mother, having been brought up in this society, believes in its traditional structure. That a woman is born to serve the man and her family. Chile, who is in the diaspora, appears whitewashed to her mother with her views of wanting to be a feminist. She sees the world differently. She wants equality for all. She wants women to be able to pave their own way. As a result, her mother and her clash on their differing beliefs.
OMNIBUS THEATRE: What are some of the ways that this intergenerational conflict plays out?
OPHELIA: There is a scene in the play where Chile’s mother wants Chile to shave her head because tradition expects that a woman should do that. This only applies when something catastrophic like death has happened and Chile fights against this with her mother because regardless of the tradition, her hair is part of her identity as a woman. Her mother refuses to see reasons as she believes Chile is whitewashed.
OMNIBUS THEATRE: Luka, how are you working with Ophelia to portray the nuanced dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship?
LUKA: Ophelia makes my job smooth and simple, to be honest. She’s a generous actor who’s always ready to work and explore the life of this piece. Since Ophelia is intimately familiar with the writing, my goal was to help her extract the life she’s managed to put down on paper to the best of my ability. The development of these characters is well defined, so my role has been to aid Ophelia with taping into the breath and truth of both mother and daughter. They’re both fighters fighting for the right to be heard and seen.
OMNIBUS THEATRE: Ophelia, how did you approach the writing process for this play, and what challenges did you encounter in trying to balance the differing perspectives?
OPHELIA: I read a lot of fringe plays and one-woman pieces and went to a couple of theatre shows both west end and fringe ones. This was part of my research process on how to go about new writing. I did a lot of research on the Igbo culture and on the topics that I address in the play and worked with family members to clarify the use of the language in the play. From interviewing friends and coworkers, I got inspired to infuse their stories to mine in order to draw the line between my lived experience and the fictional plot. I would say the challenge that I had in this process was knowing when to drop the pen. I did drop the pen eventually, but I have intentions of picking it up again. This is just the beginning.
OMNIBUS THEATRE: Luka, what drew you to this play as a director?
LUKA: Primarily the sincere and raw nature of Ophelia’s writing. Ophelia was keen to read a bit of material for me and I kept wanting to find out what happened next! I thought it was an incredibly journey for both mother and daughter. It was bold, Unapologetic and fierce from start to finish. I expressed to Ophelia it was a story that needed to be told and she was happy to have me onboard.
OMNIBUS THEATRE: What was most challenging and most rewarding about the experience?
OPHELIA: Much of producing YOU ARE AFRICAN FIRST BEFORE ANYTHING has been challenging. As a small team we are juggling a lot of hats. The marketing process has not been easy, seeing that it is a first-time production. We have been doing a lot of scratch nights to grab the people we know the show is for and so far, it’s been worth it. Thus far we are putting more effort into marketing. As a result of juggling many hats it has also been a challenge separating myself as the writer and embracing the role of the actor fully. The reason this has been a challenge is because as a semi-autobiographical piece there are parts of the play that I connect with on a personal level, but my director Luka has been doing an amazing job helping me deal with this to bring the vision of the piece to life. Regarding the reward, I’ll say having amazing collaborators. It’s rewarding indeed.
OMNIBUS THEATRE: What role do you see theatre playing in discussions about race, culture, and identity?
OPHELIA: Our stories, people of colour I mean. We need to see our stories being told and from the voices of the people they belong to. I remember performing a monologue from my play YOU ARE AFRICAN FIRST BEFORE ANYTHING at a scratch night and having some African and Carribean people walk up to me at the end and tell me they haven’t heard a story that represented them like that with so much truth to it. Now that is a clear example of what theatre can do. Connect people with their culture and other people’s culture. Help people learn more about their roots and identity. Share perspectives about a particular race or background to a global community.
LUKA: Theatre plays an immensely important role, especially now in this time and age of so much change. As we are interconnected on a scale of epic proportions, we seem to be the loneliest and most anxious generation to date. How do we move forward? How do we integrate the new with the old? What does it mean to belong to a certain ethnicity and its culture? It would be almost irresponsible to give a simple answer whilst we’re still figuring it out for ourselves. In my opinion, staying curious and open minded is key to moving forward towards a prosperous future.
OMNIBUS THEATRE: Can you talk about any future projects you have in the works, and what audiences can expect from your future performances?
OPHELIA: We intend on putting YOU ARE AFRICAN FIRST BEFORE ANYTHING at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival come 2024 but for now, we are going to be partnering with a few London Theatres. So, follow the company Steelacts Productions on Instagram (@steelacts) to follow our journey and find out more.
OMNIBUS THEATRE: What advice would you give to young artists looking to explore similar themes in their own work, particularly in terms of depicting topics that are important and personal to them?
OPHELIA: I would say write! Start from somewhere, don’t overthink it. If it is important to you and you feel it’s something worth sharing, then write about it and share it. Do not stop yourself from going all out in expressing your humanity through your work. Your story is yours to tell so tell it and allow the audience to decide for themselves what they take from your work.
OMNIBUS THEATRE: What do you hope audiences will take away from the show and what broader conversations do you hope this work will inspire?
OPHELIA: I hope that the play sparks conversations within the African and Caribbean community as well as those from other backgrounds. Particularly for individuals with difficult parents. The hope is that the conversations lead to better ways for these parents to relate with their children and vice versa.
I speak up for the African girl child who does not feel seen or heard and say that they are deserving of their mother’s love, patience and support.
As an African person speaking from what I know and have experienced I can say that many black mothers don’t like to talk about their struggles because they think it makes them weak, my play is here to highlight that there is strength in being vulnerable and open with one another. Black Mothers be open to your children and vice versa.
One of the things I hope the audience will take away is that sometimes all you need to do as a parent is listen to understand your child rather than impose your beliefs on them, which then causes a drift. It is good to remember your children are their own persons too.
OMNIBUS THEATRE: Lastly, describe the show in three words.
OPHELIA: Unapologetic, Powerful and soulful.
LUKA: Poignant, intimate and inspiring.