guest blog: “did they want an ‘erykah badu’ or a ‘thandie newton’ type of black?” – a conversation with babirye bukilwa / jesse bernard

“When you watch babirye bukilwa on stage, she brings an immense amount of passion, purpose and creative detail to whatever role she plays. It shines in other areas of her creative work, such as her poetry that can be found in Sista! An anthology of writing by queer women of African and Caribbean descent.

One of her most striking performances was bukilwa’s role as Rosa in ‘Filthy Business’ at the Hampstead Theatre in 2017. Although it saw her play the role of a single mum who had a controversial relationship with a white man, babirye is aware that these types of roles are often given to black women and she emphasises that the industry still has a long way to go in diversifying the characters that actors such as herself are able to portray.

Despite a blossoming career that spans nearly a decade, babirye still describes the industry as difficult to navigate but she’s also begun to take ownership of who she is and the stories she wants to tell, especially when they’re not often heard. As a black woman, she understands that this often requires having to carve out spaces with very limited resources but babirye’s at a stage in her career, after years of setbacks and triumphs, where it’s become increasingly possible to do so.

By carving out spaces for herself outside of acting, babirye has been able to find ways to use the narratives she explores, as a host and co-founder of the queer black womanist collective Sistren as well as her newly founded massage business Babirye Backstroke. In each of these spaces she explores healing and recovery of self and it’s something she’s been putting to practice in her work with Talawa Theatre Company.

Last year, babirye made her directorial debut with her Talawa Firsts production titled Hour, which she also wrote. Currently she’s working with the theatre company, particularly with deaf people, exploring ways in which theatre can be made more accessible to those with disabilities. Listening to babirye talk about everything she’s achieved and worked towards so far, there’s a sense that there’s even greater success on the horizon. It’s through telling and centering on those unheard stories that she’s been able to reach this stage in her career.

JB: How does it feel to arrive at a place where you’re able to take control of those narratives because it hasn’t always been easy?

BB: It had to go this way because the alternative was killing me and not having that ownership was bad for the mental health that I need as an actor. A lot of it is being able to accept rejection and using that as fuel. It’s a very difficult industry so it feels great and necessary for me to take ownership of those narratives.

JB: You’ve been working with Talawa Theatre Company recently?

BB: Big up Talawa. They have this really sick scheme – and they’re working with Graeae Theatre Company – for deaf and disabled people that want to work in theatre spaces. It’s quite revolutionary and I’m shocked that it’s being presented as something new and innovative because it shouldn’t be. It’s allowing me to understand that the industry and theatre itself is ableist.

JB: I imagine a lot of it is to do with physical spaces as well.

BB: It is, but it’s about the lack of dialogue around it and people feel uncomfortable having those discussions about theatre and disabled people. In one of the sessions, I saw three different conversations taking place in British Sign Language (BSL), American Sign Language (ASL) and Makaton, and it made me realise how cut off they are from theatre and shows. Can theatre ever be inclusive? I don’t know what the answer is but I don’t mind asking those questions, and I think it’s necessary to ask them. It’s not about writing the play about my blackness or about other people’s disabilities but instead we are just people living our lives and they don’t have to be the centre or focus of the stories that we’re telling.

JB: Is writing something you’ve always done when it comes to plays?

BB: I’ve always been someone who loves to tell stories. I’ve been fortunate to know that I’ve wanted to be an actor from a young age and I was so invested in learning how to do that. How do I become a team player? How do I take direction well? What does good direction look like? I love theatre so much, I could do it for the rest of my life. What does a small part look like? Even though there are no small parts in theatre but how can you make it as big as possible? What does this character think about before they go to bed? What is this character’s favourite colour?

These are all the things I had to think about, so I feel that I’ve always been a storyteller. I’ve always written and when I started to act professionally that’s when I started to write ideas down for plays. The first play I wrote was in 2010.

JB: What was it about?

BB: Soon come, I’m going to finish that. I’d just finished doing Truth and Reconciliation at the Royal Court Theatre and it was my first ever play with debbie tucker green. I’d written some pages for my own play and I asked if I could send her some stuff to look at and she said ‘send me thirty pages’, I was like “Rah, okay,” so I sent thirty pages. She gave me this feedback and just ripped me to shreds [laughs], and she said that I needed to read more about plays and learn about structure, the ideas were good but I just need to read more. So I’ve thrown myself into the environment of theatre and it’s my life now. I think after I finish with Talawa, I’ll pick up that script again.

JB: How does writing affect the way you approach and prepare for a role? I’m sure not all actors write so it must give a different kind of perspective, I imagine.

BB: It just makes sense when you get rejected from casting directors and you’re told you don’t fit the part. You could be the most educated actor, but if it’s something about your vibe and if you don’t fit the writer or director’s vision, it just won’t work. When I wrote the play Hour for Talawa last year, I had Susan Wokoma and Cherrelle Skeete in it and I just knew that from them being my friends that they’d be great for it. It makes me understand that I can just be myself and if somebody doesn’t want me for a role then I know it’s not personal.

JB: And rejection is something creatives struggle with a lot of the time so how were you able to block all of that out?

BB: I get quite moved by watching two people slowly hold hands while they’re walking down the street, I get moved by everything so I’m used to feeling strongly about scripts. I’m also used to rejection because I’ve been doing this for twelve years professionally, which a lot of people don’t know, and that’s all there was for me in the beginning. I’ve had a decade of hearing ‘no’ to understand that I’m not a fit for a lot of roles. It can be frustrating and impact your mental health if you don’t have a really good agent or support system that gives you healthy feedback. It’s taken a lot of time for me to understand that it’s not a personal thing. There were times where I was going through depression because I wasn’t getting roles then were times when I was doing Shakespeare at The National Theatre. And I’ve arrived at a place where I know that acting isn’t the be-all and end-all and I should be able to take time away for myself if I need to. I should be allowed to review where I’m at and if I should give my talents to this industry because there’s been a history of erasing black women. So when I approach roles and auditions, I always have to think about how it helps me.

JB: It sounds like you’ve learned to take the ego out of hearing ‘no’ which is a very difficult thing to do for anybody because we’re not taught that.

BB: That’s true and I never thought of it like that. What the ten years has taught me is that it’s so not personal, to the point where it’s about your beard being too short or I’m slightly taller than the leading man. I knew that it was never about my ability but it was about my physical appearance. Did they want an Erykah Badu or a Thandie Newton type of Black? Do they want a Black woman that knows she’s Black or do they want someone who is trying to assimilate? What type of blackness do I go in with when I go for this audition and the problem is that this industry is that there isn’t really a conversation about that. It can feel like a game sometimes.

JB: And that’s a different experience to what white actors would have to deal with when auditioning?

BB: When I was going for auditions earlier on in my career, they always wanted me to be more ‘ghetto’ or use more slang and I would tell that to my agent at the time and people in the industry. I was often told that I had to accept it because that’s the way things are. Now I’m at a place where I can challenge it now because I have the tools; I’ve done TV, film, radio and theatre. I feel so happy about taking control because I know that I don’t fit in a box. I’ve learned that I’m allowed to ask for as much as I want and I’m allowed to say that I don’t agree.

JB: What would you say to a younger version of yourself?

BB: You are perfect. The way you look is perfect. Your size is perfect. This industry doesn’t have to be your life and enjoy every moment, especially the good ones.”

jesse bernard is a London and Brooklyn-based writer, journalist & storyteller whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Okayplayer, TRENCH, Dazed, FACT, Noisey, Crack Magazine, BRICK Magazine and more.

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