The idea for the project was born on a beach in Lagos in March 2007. The Royal Court were doing a playwriting workshop with a wonderful group of emerging Nigerian writers and we were celebrating the end of the programme with a party. Some of these writers knew that the next Royal Court workshop would be in Cuba and were curious about the links they had to ‘Cuban Santoria’, the Yoruban belief system still practiced widely in Cuba which survived the Atlantic slave trade. The Cuban writers were equally curious about the Nigerians. “Please bring us some soil from Nigeria!” they said. Our writers based in Salvador, Brazil, were not going to be left out. They have a belief system called ‘Candomble’ there, but it had the same roots, and they were equally interested in exploring their differences and similarities. When the Royal Court was asked to propose a play for World Stages London, the curiosity of the writers turned into an idea for a play. When director Rufus Norris came on board, we could begin to see this as a single production.
The travelling began in 2010 and the countries increased to include the US and UK. At the first workshop in London in November ten writers, from all five countries, came to work at the Royal Court with Rufus to explore the impact of Yoruba culture on their lives. Since then hundreds of pages of text have been written, the number of writers involved has been narrowed down to five, and we have given the play a working title, “Sugar”. But nothing proved more daunting than the prospect of the workshop we had earlier this month, which was to find a way to finally put this all together in six days.
The workshop was attended by four of the project’s five writers: Tanya Barfield (USA), Yunior Garcia Aguilera (Cuba), Rotimi Babatunde (Nigeria) and Gbolahan Obisesan (UK). Marcos Barbosa, our Brazilian writer was unable to attend but had prepared a great deal of material for us. Rufus explained on the first day that our aim for the week was to create a groundplan – a map – that would find a way to honour each piece but weave a single story.
As we had so many scenes from each writer, Rufus made a selection of scenes that he felt would tell the story. And we had an incredibly gifted group of actors to work with us: Jude Akuwudike, Claire Benedict, Noma Dumezweni, Jenny Jules, Daniel Kuluuya, Marina Laird and Howard Ward. Chronologically, we started in Nigeria in the 1730’s during the slave trade, moved to the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888 and then to Cuba, the US, and then to the UK in the Olympic year. The actors read the texts and improvised around and beyond it- giving new ideas to the writers.
On the third day of the workshop, we were joined by George Cespedes, the Cuban choreographer from Danza Contemporanea de Cuba. We had a wonderful time dancing with him, and he explained some of the movements of the Orishas (Yoruban Deities). On the fourth day, we were joined by the singer and musician Mike Henry who taught us a Yoruban funeral song which had similarities to an American slave song. Yunior, our Cuban writer, said he knew a version of this song from his country. All the actors are wonderful singers and were able to move the Yoruban funeral song into this new Cuban rhythm and then into a contemporary rap. On the fifth day we were joined by the drummer Sola Akingbole and it was a great relief to see how the music made the influence and connection of this story more powerful.
Somehow with only a few hours to prepare, Rufus decided to run some of the scenes linked by music. We were visited by some of the Young Vic and Royal Court staff and the piece began to take shape. We were inspired by the experience of showing our work in rehearsal and the response of our visitors. The final day was brain aching as we acknowledged how far we had come as well as where we still needed to go. Now the writers are back home and at work again. They will be sending their final writing to us in a month. Watch this space as we get closer and closer to the production of “Sugar” (still a working title).
Head of International Department
More information on World Stages London available here: worldstageslondon.com