Jackie Sibblies Drury’s cleverly titled play We are proud to present a presentation about the Herero of Namibia, formerly known as South-West Africa, from the German SudWest Afrika, between the years 1884 and 1915, took the US by storm, becoming part of a growing trend of exploring Africa, its past and its culture. The show has now been brought to London’s Bush Theatre, where actor turned writer/director Gbolahan Obisesan is taking charge of the show.
“I actually found out about the show whilst researching another play,” Obisesan says. “I had been receiving newsletters from Jackie’s agent and I saw the name of the play in one of them and found it intriguing. I eventually read the play and was moved; it was funny, challenging but very tragic.”
Drury’s play is about six young actors in their 20s, three black and three white, who are doing a presentation about the first genocide of the twentieth century. With themes such as race, identity, belonging and culture within the performance, it’s no wonder Obisesan jumped at the chance to get involved. Not many plays bring up the eye-opening reality of such a historic tragedy in a modern day context.
“I really wanted to put the play in front of a British audience and see how they’d respond to it,” Obisesan continues. “In the same way that Jackie Drury intended to engage the audience in the script, I wished to do the same with the production over here – making it poignant and relevant to the audience on a high level. I was excited to get into the rehearsal process with the actors, unlocking and unpicking the play so that it would work theatrically. The play explores an obscure historical event that deals with a lot of issues which the well-intended characters deal with. They become challenged, battered and broken on the legacy of what happened as they look into their human sense of identity.”
Obisesan, a London-based director, originally started out as a member of the National Youth Theatre wanting to be an actor. I asked how he transitioned into writing and directing so successfully. The National Youth theatre started up a programme called Short Nights where it challenged members to write a play. As a result, Obisesan wrote his first play, Roadside, about a young man dealing with addiction and mental illness. “People responded positively to it and I also directed it. It was then I wanted to learn more about what I could offer actors, but I also had more stories within me that I wanted to explore and share through the medium of theatre.” From there, he began looking for outlets to further explore this creative side – and became part of the Soho and Royal Court writers’ groups whilst undertaking an introduction to directing course at the Young Vic. “I was keen to find out which I felt a stronger pull towards without limiting my potential by focusing on just one.”
Which does he prefer, I wonder? Cue another chuckle: “In a way, I think they go hand in hand. Part of my motivation is to remain visible and to not feel limited. I’ve been lucky enough for people to acknowledge me as a writer and a director. As a director, you need to communicate the play to actors and decipher the message. With writing, it’s about sculpting characters, the narrative, and elements of the drama and its structure which may be helpful for the director. So to me, both are valued and they feed off one another. If a writing job comes up, I’ll take it. If a directing job comes up and it’s a play I really want to do I’ll probably take it as well.” He went on to describe himself as a “hired gun”, going where the money is. “You don’t want to be struggling or on benefits and there’s an integrity about making a living whilst having freedom, so the balance of writing and directing for me depends on where the work is coming from.”
Although he had a busy press day ahead, I took time to ask what advice he would offer to directors and theatre makers who are just starting out: “One of the biggest challenges for directors starting out is breaking into the industry, so just jump in with both feet and immerse yourself, rather than half exploring it. Take every opportunity you can and ensure that you’re being creatively challenged whilst learning about the things you’re lacking. If you have a sense of what you want to achieve and where you want to go, you’re more likely to find yourself gaining momentum and not stagnating.” Because from there, he continued, you can find opportunities to match your dreams.
All this is easier if you live in or close to London – but what if you don’t? “Remain visible,” he advises. “Get involved with your local theatre the best way you can – even if it means writing a letter with regards to what you’re interested in. They might be able to lead you in the right direction or support you by making the theatre more open to you. When it comes to being taken seriously, how you present yourself on a professional level is very important. So make adjustments if you need to. It could be your sense of style, how you communicate or your attitude in how you relate to things. As long as you can present strong ideas and back them up there’s no reason they won’t take you seriously.”
We are proud to present a presentation about the Herero of Namibia, formerly known as South-West Africa, from the German SudWest Afrika, between the years 1884 and 1915 is at the Bush Theatre until 12 April. For more information and tickets, visit the Bush’s website.