Theresa Ikoko is on a roll. She’s taken a quick lunch break from her day job helping to reduce youth crime in London and we’re having a natter about her play Girls, currently playing at the Soho theatre. Talk has turned to young people and their place in society, or rather lack of. Evidently something very close to Ikoko’s heart, she is concerned about the treatment of future generations and it is comforting to know she has no qualms about both discussing it in length and doing something about it.
Like many fresh, new voices in theatre, Ikoko aches to write the truth and has no intention of pandering to an audience that expects anything less. Stereotyped clichés of human relationships dominate plenty of the arts, making it difficult for an audience to truly connect with what they could never experience: a fictional fairy tale. But life is not like that. Girls certainly isn’t like that. Giving a voice to three teenage girls that were kidnapped from their school in Nigeria and made to coexist with a violent terrorist group, it can be an uncomfortable watch but ultimately the story is about friendship, love and how it endures during an extreme situation. It’s fascinating to find out where the characters originate from.
Ikoko explains. “I had conversations with friends about women, their place in the world and how they were in the shadow of men. I became curious and then ‘met’ Haleema. Then the others came along in my mind – we used to talk and then I wrote about them. It got to a point where I used to look forward to spending time with them. I’d get home, open my laptop and wonder why I didn’t know them before.”
Haleema is the most ‘female aware’ character in the play. She is a strong feminist, and that contrasts with the others: Ruhab, who is shallower, preferring to gossip and Tisana; a dreamer who has questions, and looks to the others for answers. Different parts of Ikoko’s personality perhaps? “They’re more like part of my soul,” the writer is quick to clarify.
The piece has evolved hugely from three characters meeting inside Ikoko’s head. Girls is based on the real life 2014 abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok by militant Islamic group Boko Haram, which translates into ‘Western Education is Forbidden’. On the surface it seems to have become a political piece. Ikoko is in two minds.
“I’ve had comments on the lack of political content in the piece. That’s fine. The play is about what girls know and I have been completely honest with the characters… the story was always there but it wasn’t until the production meetings that I saw the kidnappings were in background. Their friendship and love for each other always came first.”
It’s clear to see how passionate the playwright is when it comes to her girls and appears to be much more than just work.
“I wrote the piece in secret – no one ever asked me to do it. It was out of curiosity to get it out of my head and to know more about them.”
Working with young people very much like herself; growing up with very little and facing day to day prejudice must influence, inspire or drive her to write and give them a voice.
“I used to work in prisons as well and I’d just wish away my weekends so Monday would come. It was, ironically, such a hopeful environment. We grew up in same background – in poverty and difficult situations but the happiest people on the planet. It’s not all doom and gloom. When you’ve got nothing else, there’s laughter.”
There’s a quote in Girls‘ blurb: “why is everybody so bloody obsessed with hashtags? Can you use it to shoot your way out of here?” Offering an insight into the play’s content, it also provokes an interest in Ikoko’s personal feelings on the priorities of young people today. Our minds constantly seek increased amounts of stimulation and attention spans are dropping off the face of the earth, due to our fixation with smart phones. It’s absolutely terrifying to ponder over the fate of our children’s children. Is Ikoko worried?
“To be honest I’m more concerned about the lack of opportunities, access, chances and alienation. We’ve created a society that has its own version of the youth. We can talk about kids and social media but there are so many adults that glorify it. Kids don’t make the rules of society up.”
Has this always been the case?
“When I was a kid, you’d have to set fire to the school to get kicked out,” she continues, “if they fight in school now, they’re kicked out. People fight! They’re demonised and then expected to pay membership into a group they’re not allowed to access! Why follow the rules?”
It’s seems like the youth are being employed as scapegoats. Ikoko energetically agrees. “Society is falling apart at the seams. There’s so much energy wasted on blaming product of problem, rather than actual problem.”
While Boko Haram reject the fundamentals of Western society, it seems we are in turn often disregard young people, with many so labelled trouble-makers often actually severely misinterpreted and further, not receiving the help they need to reach their full potential. Many grow up in unprivileged backgrounds and despite, as Ikoko states, it not being eternal ‘doom and gloom’, there are other factors that contribute to anti-social behaviour.
“They say f-the police but why are people that way? What have they seen? There’s sort of a new generation PTSD going on where they’ve seen things young people should never see.” Ikoko elaborates. “There’s a fear of police that’s passed down generations.”
Are young people conscious of the world around them? Do they want to make a difference? Again the writer is passionate. “I’ve been to protests and there have been hundreds of young people there. They can really empathise.”
The writer has given London darkness with Girls, not that she’d let that carry through any more than necessary. Focussing on laughter, friendship and fighting, not with each other but for what is right and true shine through the play, as well as through her inspiringly passionate love for the young people she works with. When will we stop, take a step back and realise our planet’s future needs some open-mindedness and nurturing, rather than prejudice and alienation?
Girls is playing at the Soho theatre until October 29.
Image by Creative Nation.