How playwright Chinonyerem Odimba turned a traumatic memory into Black Love music

YesA few years ago, award-winning playwright Chinonyerem Odimba overheard a conversation that horrified her. It was at the supermarket, between two black men, who were discussing the supposed disadvantages of dating black women. She was almost struck speechless by the intensity of their language, but felt compelled to confront them. “I remember not being able to express how upset I was hearing that conversation, as a black woman,” she says. “I remember saying to one of them, ‘Do you have any sisters? Do you know what that might look like for black women you’re linked with? ‘”

When I ask her to share what the men have said, she hesitates, but still gives the gist. “The long and the short of it is that black women are hard work. That we are hard to love, that we make our love difficult. And that when you choose a black woman, you are not choosing an easy life. She stops briefly. “That was a lot more…explicit than what I’m giving you.” But it shook me. I’m sure there was a part of me that understood that was something that might have been out there, but hearing it out loud from two black men in London? It shook me.

So when Odimba was commissioned to write a piece for Paines Plow seven years later, she knew early on that this encounter was something she wanted to use as inspiration. Where the men in the aisles of the store had been an example of mutual affection gone wrong, she wanted to explore the ways in which love for your siblings – biological and theoretical – can positively influence the way we see life. love in other areas of our lives. The result was black love.

Many will deduce from the title that the play will deal with a romantic relationship, savoring the joys and facing the various challenges of partnership in a combative world. I certainly did. Yet the musical, which just premiered at the Kiln Theater in London, is instead about the family bond between siblings Aurora and Orion. Living together in their parents’ apartment, they have a bond that seems unbreakable. But their relationship is threatened when Orion begins dating a white woman who is not quite You understand. Brother and sister must work to find each other.

When I tell Odimba what I had mistakenly assumed, she seems thrilled – her intention has always been to subvert the idea of ​​black love. “I love that the first surprise people have is that it’s not about romantic love,” she explains with a knowing smile. “For me, a lot of this has been about representation – how black love in the broadest sense is represented in all media and all of our cultural life as a society and as a country. And realizing that we don’t see as many depictions of full black family life.

Much of what we learn about love “is through how we experience love within the family,” she explains. “Let’s start there. The collective imagination is that most black people, most black experiences, come out of dysfunctional situations. They are images painted to us of where we come from as people, in terms of family homes and backgrounds.

“It means that people don’t expect us to come from places that are healthy, that support us, that love us, that have a history, that support us, that feed us, that take care of us, that feed. This is not the story we are ever told. Sure, there are some whose life looks like this, but not everyone does. “Where is the balance? asks Odimba. “Where is the balance in this story that we are told – not just about ourselves, but the stories that culturally are told about us?”

Beth Elliott, Nicholle Cherrie and Nathan Queeley-Dennis in rehearsals for ‘Black Love’

(Camilla Greenwell)

Addressing these stories has always been a key motivation. As a Nigerian-born writer, she wrote from a West African perspective and relayed the Caribbean experiences of the Windrush generation. Since 2021, she has also taken on the role of CEO of the tiata fahodzi theater company, which has produced plays representative of multicultural Britain since the 1990s.

And the awards for those years of work speak for themselves: for his play How to walk on the moonshe won the Channel 4 Playwright’s Fellowship, the 2018 Sonia Friedman Prize. In 2020, she was a finalist for the Women’s Prize for Playwriting, while the first series of black love last summer received wide acclaim and won Best Musical Theater Writing at the 2022 Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Awards.

With so many achievements, it is all the more surprising that his theater debut was by chance. As a single, working-class woman in her late twenties, she wasn’t looking for a career she liked; she just needed to make money. When the opportunity to be paid while training as a stage manager in a small theater presented itself, she seized it. “I was about to become homeless, so it was just a job,” she shrugs, remembering her ambivalence about the industry. “I haven’t seen any of the thing. When I finished training and was done with performing, that was the end of my relationship with acting for years. I went on with my life.”

It wasn’t until she gave birth to her daughter a few years later that she thought about what she would actually like to do: “Maybe there are other things I might want to do who are not just surviving.” After moving from London to Bristol, Odimba signed up for a six-week playwriting workshop at the city’s Old Vic theater run by Winsome Pinnock. Seeing her, a successful black playwright, lit a spark in Odimba for the first time. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is a playwright? “, she recalls. “The young, amazing, talented Winsome Pinnock was there to teach me how to write plays, and that was really the thing. We can talk about models, and I don’t always think that the mere idea of ​​models is in itself a way of approaching anything. But seeing someone who looks like me? That was the thing.

Chinonyerem Odimba and Garen Abel Unokan in rehearsals for ‘Black Love’

(Camilla Greenwell)

Still, it took another seven years before she seriously considered writing plays as a permanent part of her life. His second track, An ode to Adam, centered on a black teenager dealing with grief and growing up. After repeatedly reading the play, a boy the same age as Adam told him what the play meant to him. “He said, ‘I’ve never seen myself portrayed on stage’ and was talking about what he had just seen in a pretty moving way. I thought, ‘OK, that’s what theater can do .’ It took a long time for the theater to convince me of what he is doing. At that time this boy said that he felt like he saw himself, so I knew what the theater meant to people and what I, as a writer, could do for people.

With black love, Odimba wants to show that black families do not need outside intervention to flourish. Complex and flawed, the siblings’ love for each other, in the space where their parents shared their own affection, gives them enough strength to face the world. When I ask what black love means to her, Odimba leans toward that feeling of camaraderie and shared understanding.

“Black love is when we share painful things together,” she says. “It’s when we sit in silence, watch a performance by other black artists and are in awe of this work, and the fact that it exists, that it exists. Black love is when we see and we see ourselves in all our fullness, not for the bits that suit this person or the bits that we’ve polished up for others to see. You know, we need to stop striving to be perfect. She nods gently her head to herself, “Just strive to be full.

‘Black Love’ runs at the Kiln Theater until April 23