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Love through the lens of a Black queer femme

Image: babirye bukilwa. Photo by Jennie Scott.

Producer and Co-Founder of hue agency and Black Femme Film, Martha Nakintu interviews award winning British-Ugandan Writer/Actor babirye bukilwa.

From gracing our screens in the internet hit Ackee & Saltfish and most recently on our TV screens in Dreaming Whilst Black and We Hunt Together, bukilwa does not stop there as they decided to bless theatre. Their love for the stage over the decade has developed into accolades that anyone would be proud of. Their debut play ...blackbird hour was commissioned by the Talawa Theatre Company and went on to be shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting. Considering ...blackbird hour being their initial effort, they went on to be a finalist for the Women’s Prize for Playwriting 2020 and on the shortlist for the Alfred Fagon Award 2020. Now with all their creativity in tow, bukilwa has written the origin story for ...blackbird hour, ...cake. ...cake was developed by the Theatre Peckham’s Artist - In Programme and will be running at the South-East London cultural hub from July 13th - August 7th.

Nakintu and bukilwa are long term family friends, they catch up on the development of …cake, what it means to them and past performances.

Martha Nakintu: To me, you are family. But having done my research and seen your achievements on paper, you are astonishing. There is no way you are one person, so on a scale of 1-10, how tired are you?

babirye bukilwa:
[*roars with laughter*] How tired am? 49,617 out of 10.

Martha: That’s a lot of thousands.

[*laughs again*]

Martha: The predecessor of ...cake, ...blackbird hour was shortlisted on many amazing lists. Did you complete writing ...cake by then or did ...blackbird hour’s accolades force you into gear?

That's a good question. I actually started to write ...cake years ago when I had a crap-ish draft of ...blackbird hour. How ...blackbird hour exists now is like draft 35 or something. But by the end of draft one I was like, 'I know exactly what the starting point for this (...cake) is.’ It took me a couple of years but ...cake was in the same year that I wrote ...blackbird hour.

Martha: So, at what point did you know it was going to be a trilogy?

What was frustrating was that I was happy with a non-traditional ending. But everyone kept telling me that the ending of the play isnt a satisfying ending.  but when I look at it now I'm like, ‘No, these people were just trying to help you Babs’. Because for me, ...blackbird hour had an ending which was satisfying but I was told dramaturgically that it's not. And it just kind of ended with a no end. And I was like, ‘that's not even revolutionary, that's not radical, it’s just, the play doesn't end?’ As in there isn’t this big, dramatic ending where everything is resolved, and everything is fixed. I was just like, in life, you have moments init? And it's the moment that end and start and end and start happens. It's all encompassing to you but it's an end. So, I’m like, well, if I'm trying to replicate moments and trying to replicate life - surely there's a beginning and an end to this. When do us black femmes get to have that experience? When do we get to see ourselves in trilogies? Or Sagas? When do we get to see a part one, a part two or part three? When do we especially in theatre when do we get to do that? Grey's Anatomy has been on for what? 20? How many seasons?

Martha: As you know, growing up I found it hilarious that you wanted to be an actress, but now you’re a director, writer, producer - basically an all-round bad bitch. In being so sure that this is where you wanted to be from a young age acting wise, which hat of yours is your most favorite to wear and why?

Odoo, I would say writer you know - playwright. I feel like I'm an artist, which is bizarre because acting is art and so is podcasting so is producing - all of it. I think because (writing) it’s so much of my soul, it feels like that is the place where I can be babirye and have a point of view. Whereas with acting, I can still have a point of view but it's like someone else’s words, it's someone else's story and I can bring Babs to it. But in regard to my point of view, and my questions on the world? I feel like writing allows me to ask those questions. Which acting doesn't give me. And I feel like podcasting is something that I really do because it's really fun and takes up a different place in my brain.

Martha: Why is ...cake important for the world to see right now?

This is a really interesting question. It’s not important. It is important all of it. None of it. I don’t know. Um, a friend of mine, they might read this, so I don't want to give detail about who they are, but they came to see the play at a staged reading of it last October at Theatre Peckham. Then I saw them, a couple of months later. And they sort of sat me down and continued to go on about how seen they felt and how the play moved them. And I was so overwhelmed by that... but people need to see ...cake because I think it's an important view or an important question that I don't feel like we're allowed to ask honestly. Because the whole entire team is black and the majority of them being queer; I'm speaking about, sound design, stage manager, audio producer, designer, costume design assistant - like everyone is black. Because of that nuance, because of that integrity that the play needs; I feel like it's an opportunity for us to actually tell our stories for ourselves and be in it and not have to conform or compromise. I feel like this is an experience that we don't get that often, I don't even know about the content, the content of the play - you might hate it and that's fine. But just for that experience of - this is blackity, black, black, authentically, and truly. This is blackity queer black. Happy Pride Month, in a black owned building run by Susan McLean - this amazing black woman. That’s not being done. We were in rehearsals and the director really made me take stock of that and I ended up in tears because I was like, ‘You're right, this doesn't happen’. We might have a black writer and black actors - cool. But that institution is hella white. We might have a black season of work but there'll be a white director or there'll be a white assistant director and the majority of the audiences are white in a white space. And it matters, it applies, because it means that we're not wasting time explaining ourselves. I think to answer your question, they would get an authentically black nuanced experience of theatre, knowing that the money is going to where it needs to, so is the detail and so is the care.

Martha: I just love that. I can't even imagine the energy during rehearsals, was this casting intentional?

Somebody read another project of mine and said, ‘You write really expensive plays’. And I was like, ‘thank you. Can you talk more on that?’ They were like, ‘We can't afford this show here’. I don't think ...blackbird hour is expensive, I don't think ...cake is expensive. They said, ‘People would have to give up a lot of space to put on this play, I don't know if you know that.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, that's very interesting.’ I do take that as a compliment. I enjoy the fact that non-white, non-queer people feel that it's work that they can't have access to. I enjoy that. And I enjoy that I make art that feels may be inaccessible to people that aren't the global majority.

Martha: If you could redo any performance of yours, what would it be and why?

One of my first jobs I did was an episode of Casualty. I'm not going to tell you what it is because… - please don't watch it. I re-watch it back now and I'm like, ‘AHHHHHH, you were so nervous’. I can see it in my face and how rigid I was. I wish I relaxed and enjoyed it more because that was such an amazing experience. When I was younger, it was something that played in my house like my mom definitely watched Casualty and Holby City and it just felt really, really big. I wish I felt bigger than that moment because it was all consuming and I think I kind of shrunk myself a little bit and I think that affected the performance.

Martha: What is the project, whether you enjoyed it or not that changed the direction of your career forever?

The project that changed my life... Genuinely, the first ever play that I did. I was 19, It was my first proper professional theatre job, and I was so happy. It was a play called Truth and Reconciliation by a writer called debbie tucker green at the Royal Court Theatre. And that shit, oooh, I get goosebumps thinking about it. It was amazing Martha. It was a cast of 21, majority black and I was thrown into this industry. But the connections I made, the things that I learned and the comfort I felt to be the majority in that historically white space was empowering. I got to speak to all these like black elder women whose career that followed and the self-esteem that I got was amazing. Then working with debbie tucker green, who at the time I didn't know who she was. As I knew her work, I had just done a film of hers called, Random and this was my second project with her. I just remember thinking, 'This woman writes how I speak and people that look like me are the lead in it. Wow, this woman writes really profoundly, a kind of poetry but there's a realism to it - I get this.' I wrote 25 pages of a play during that job, that was 10 years ago. I was so comfortable in my voice and who I was, that me, a third time actress, never written anything before, wrote 25 pages of a script, contacted debbie tucker greene herself. And said 'can I send you something and can you read it and let me know? Not only did she say yes'.

Martha: I’m really gripped.

[*roars with laughter*] She said, 'Give me 30 pages by Monday.' Bitch! - I had written like 25. I scrambled to put things together and then she met with me on that Monday and was like, I've, I've read your script. [*cackles*] And she gave me notes and she was like, 'maybe read some more plays, Maybe read some more' But it was amazing. She was like, 'you have something. Just read some more and learn'. I said, 'Okay,' and thought I'm going to remember this moment for the rest of my life. And as I've gotten older, I say debbie tucker green for me is the greatest of all time. I'm so lucky I had that because I think that not only triggered my writing bug, but my self-esteem was really high. So, I think that was the job that changed my life because I started to dream a bit bigger with that job.

Martha: So, you throw the best parties but how have you connected with your loved ones, especially at this time and with work?

I lost my mom when I was like 19 so I spent a lot of time trying to understand connection, love, identity, and community. I spent a lot of my early 20s sort of grieving obviously, but not really understanding life. Society associates me as a woman right? So, in this woman body, to lose your mum your identity erupts. I spent a lot of time being quite boundary-less actually, experiencing lots of different emotions and lots of different manifestations of grief, pain, and loss. And on the other side of that, I've had to basically bring it down to how lucky am I that I get to choose my family. It's amazing to me that somebody else chooses to be my friend and if I put out that branch and they give it back. Often I ask, 'Hi, how are you?'. I never really put pressure on a person to meet. I'll definitely be like, 'Let's meet up?' but it's always more of a 'I’ve been thinking of you. You're held or are you okay? I don't ever want to feel that anyone's wasted their time with me because time is very precious. I want someone to choose to be loved by me. I don't want to fall in love. Right? I want to step into love as a choice. I don't want to fall into my friendship. Like I want it. Join me and I want us to choose that.

babirye bukilwa
Instagram: @babiryebukilwa
Twitter: @babiryebukilwa

13 July to 7 August
Theatre Peckham
221 Havil Street
London SE5 7SB

Image credit: Cast of ...cake, Danielle Kassarate (Sissy) and Donna Banya (Eshe) Photo by Seye Isikalu.


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