As the brilliant work of Talawa continues, we’re treated to a new voice on the block: Juliana Ayeni-Stevens. She talks to AYT about her auto-biographical show, Work this Pussy, the revolutionary act of being a funny woman and masturbating.
Juliana Ayeni-Stevens is a gregarious and excited personality when I catch her on a lunch break from the rehearsal room. She is preparing for the debut of her first full-length play, Work This Pussy, which is being live-streamed by leading Black British-centred theatre company, Talawa.
On Talawa’s website, it explains the company’s name ‘comes from a Jamaican patois term and means gutsy and strong’. Ayeni-Stevens thinks this is entirely what Work This Pussy is all about. She gushes that Talawa is, “a company that I admired and loved when it came to its work with black creatives.” Talawa has previously worked with the likes of Malorie Blackman and Michaela Coel and Ayeni-Stevens adds that, “to have the opportunity to have my say in Talawa is surreal… I just had a moment of wow at the fact they saw what I wrote and were like, we get this.” What I certainly get from chatting to Ayeni-Stevens, is that comedy is a powerful tool that cannot be underrated in its ability to broach new and challenging subjects of conversation.
When Ayeni-Stevens came to write Work This Pussy, she decided she wanted to tell the story of “a Black, British Nigerian woman who was queer, but didn’t quite know how to come to terms with her queerness.” It turns out the play is semi-autobiographical. Ayeni-Stevens says, “it was an opportunity for me to tell a part of my story.” In real life, “it took years and years for me to start expressing that… There was never that feeling of welcoming [discussion of her sexuality]. So, there’s elements of truth in the story’s parallels to mine.” There’s a constant dichotomy here between the subject matter and the delivery of the piece. Kathryn is a garrulous character who keeps the audience laughing while experiencing struggles many of us can probably relate to.
I ask Ayeni-Stevens why comedy comes so naturally to her when writing. She giggles, “the first time I kissed a girl and the first time I masturbated – these are the kinds of stories that are really funny when you hear them out loud.” This time we both laugh and exchange stories of conversations we’ve had female friends and how they can result in the most precious moments of comedy.
Speaking of her inspiration for writing such a funny play, Ayeni-Stevens asks me to imagine “watching this comedy show where the woman gives no fucks and she’s able to say what she needs to say but there’s still this feeling of being afraid of what she needs to say.” Ultimately, with this balancing act between giving ‘no fucks’ and being just a little afraid of the consequences, the humour naturally ensues.
“I say to my siblings and my partner, I think I’m funny and they’re like, ‘I don’t see it’… I think I’m hilarious so I would like to be writing comedy in the future. Drama is something that I have always wanted to start my writing with, but… I think I’ve found my comedy voice and I trust it.” Ayeni-Stevens’ candidness makes me laugh, though it does make me consider the relationship between women being funny and the apparently revolutionary act of them deriving confidence from it. After all, it’s a common, misogynistic put-down that women are not funny. Comedy itself can be hard to pull off and Ayeni-Stevens points out that in TV comedy, there does seem to be a “written rule-book.” I ask if she thinks there is a degree of gatekeeping within the genre, so often dominated by male voices. “There’s an expectation of how comedy should come across on the page… just punchline after punchline, whereas in reality it is sometimes about allowing that person’s voice to do that for you.”
Ayeni-Stevens also adds that in Work This Pussy, “there’s a sense that I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to have these funny stories about my encounters with women but I’m happy to share.” Sure, in recent years we have had the opportunity to hear more frank stories of women growing up within a patriarchal, heteronormative and racist society, however, Work This Pussy is all about spreading joy through this discussion.
Ultimately, the comedy also serves to engage the audience and helps flip the narrative that being queer and black in modern times has to be a story of struggle. Yet, whilst we do see more queer stories in mainstream culture, women loving women are less focused on and women of colour feature as an even smaller proportion of those stories. Ayeni-Stevens admits that, “I’m just a person who wrote something and wants people to enjoy it.” After watching comedy previously, Ayeni-Stevens has found lots to relate to. She elaborates on the feeling she gets, “that’s not my life but I so get it. I really enjoyed that story being told.” Not everyone will relate to the predicament Kathryn finds herself in but I think everyone will certainly be able to enjoy the intelligent, tempestuous romp that is Work This Pussy.
Work This Pussy played online for Talawa Firsts on Thursday 15th July 2021. For more information, visit the Talawa website.