Memories of leaving her home in Sweden come flooding back for writer, Halima Hassan as she interviews Playwright, Lisa D’ Amour. They talk about her new show, Anna Bella Eema, the demonisation of mothers and giving actresses their moment to shine.
My family and I settled in London after a decade in Sweden. I have almost no personal recollection of moving here or our first few months in so what I know, and have come to believe, derives from my mother’s memories. I’ve been told I was distraught about moving; leaving my friends and the home I’d lived in for as long as I could remember was incredibly distressing. So much so, apparently, I’ve forgotten the entire relocation and resettling. I was young and afraid of change – much like Irene in the Arcola’s latest play, Anna Bella Eema.
Irene is a seemingly reclusive young mother who lives with her daughter (Anna Bella) in a trailer that’s falling apart, in a park that is being destroyed to make space for a new highway. She is referred to as ONE in the play, with her daughter referred to as TWO. Both have lived their entire lives in the once busy trailer park but are now the only remaining family and obstacle to the highway. Fantasy plays a crucial part with the authorities becoming fantastical figures: construction workers are vampires; the police officer is Frankenstein
Written by Pulitzer Prize finalist, Lisa D’Amour, the play is partly inspired by the Golem story from Jewish folklore, in which a Rabbi creates a man out of the earth. “I had a question in my mind of what it would be to change the genders of that story, and have a woman make a woman out of the earth,” D’Amour tells me. At this early stage of the play’s conceptualisation, D’Amour came across a news story of a woman residing in a trailer park who had lost her children to child protective services. She felt the reporting was framed to demonise the woman, with details of the case, like the lack of running water at the trailer, were delivered with a dramatic music score. “Finally [the reporter] let the woman speak and she was completely distraught,” D’Amour recalls. “I saw someone who was really trying to make things work under difficult circumstances. The disparity between the two sides of the story and the two points of view was really fascinating to me.”
The plays centres on three female characters and is told through monologues and song. “I knew that the emotions and the way I wanted the landscape of the play to grow, that it needed music to help it expand,” D’Amour explains. “It is a play that really moves back and forth from a gritty and real environment to the supernatural and storybook land, and I really felt that the music would help me shift between those two really quickly.”
Anna Bella Eema is an epic play that asks a lot of its cast. Reading it, I found myself moved by the intense lyrics and the descriptions of the movements and sound effects made by the characters, to accompany the words. During its lifetime in the US, the play was often performed in intimate venues, not unlike the basement of the Arcola, where it is being revived this month. “When people get in touch with me about [the play], it seems like it’s often about giving really extraordinary actresses a chance to shine in a way that they haven’t been able to shine before,” D’Amour shares with me. “I’m really hoping that for Atticist and these actresses, that [with this revival] something can really open up for them and that they can be seen in a way that maybe they haven’t been seen before in their theatre community.”
D’Amour’s writing is heavily impacted by her upbringing. From being raised by strong, rebellious catholic women, to spending her youth running around and camping in nature, her experiences have informed her work directly and indirectly. Moving to New Orleans when she was 10 also had a lasting impact, with this being the city that she feels rooted in, and homesick for when she is away. “[New Orleans is] a city where everything stops for a week to dress up and go to parade and take over the streets and listen to music. There is spectacle [in New Orleans], a sense of humour and there’s great joy, a buoyant sense that shows up in my plays.”
Anna Bella Eema is one of the first plays D’Amour wrote and it played a big part in the playwright finding her voice. “[Writing it] helped me understand that I don’t have to do things the way everybody else does them, I can be really quiet and find my intuition and let my intuition lead me and let the voices of the characters lead me. It was the first time that I had felt that so clearly and it has really guided me ever since,” D’Amour tells me.
Currently, D’Amour is working on an interdisciplinary piece, Ocean Filibuster, with music written by celebrated composed Sxip Shirey. D’Amour describes it as: “a piece about the ocean and climate change in which the ocean is speaking and singing in its own defence.”
It is tough being uprooted from a familiar environment, whether you’re a struggling single mother being forced out, a young child who is afraid of change or an adult leaving willingly, with a say as to where you go. Oftentimes, for people dealing with situations that are rendering their home unliveable, leaving is a last resort. Homes, the walls that form them, the people and the routines within them, shape us. People will always carry that impact with them, wherever they go, and, with time, new homes can be made. A life of travelling often for work has required D’Amour to find ways to deal with being away from home: “One way I cope with homesickness is I bring my home with me … by putting a sense of ritual ceremony and a sense of humour into my work that very much reminds me of home.”
Like the playwright, I find myself having maintained some customs and preferences I picked up from my childhood in Sweden, today. My mum from time to time will use a Swedish word to explain herself when no other word in the three other languages she speaks will suffice. Yet, I feel homesick for London now, when I am away. To D’Amour, New Orleans is the centre she orbits and is drawn to and at my core, I am a Londoner.
Anna Bella Eema is playing until 12 October 2019. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the Arcola theatre website. Lisa D’Amour will also be running a playwrighting workshop at the venue on Saturday 14 September