Published: April 5, 2011
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Prolific playwright and screenwriter Ade Solanke was born and raised in the UK. Her work has been performed as part of Tiata Fahodzi's Tiata Delights at the Almeida Theatre, and Talawa's Unzipped at the Young Vic. She was on the writing team for the award-winning BBC radio drama,Westway, and has attended the Royal Court Theatre's Critical Mass Writers Course.
She is Writer-in-Residence at Goldsmiths College Pinter Centre and has previously worked in Hollywood as a Story Analyst for New Line Cinema and the Sundance Institute. Her lastest production Pandora's Box tells the story of a mother who must decide whether to send her wayward child back home to Nigeria and is set to open at Oval House Theatre as part of their London via Lagos season.
How would you describe Pandora's Box?
It's a funny play about a serious issue. Every mother, every parent, is first and foremost concerned for their child's welfare and wants the best. Sometimes you have to make choices that are hard and the adult may have to make choices that go against what the child's wishes are. So it's about a moment like that in a mother's life. Having been in denial to a certain extent she refuses to acknowledge that her son has gone a little bit off the track and that urgent remedial action is required for him to get back on the right path. So it's funny in that she is someone who we see wrestling and denying and avoiding the truth, and then finally she has to confront and grapple with the issue of where he is heading.
I wrote it back in 2008, thinking it was a drama to be honest with you, and I was sitting there looking at people around me when it had its first showcase, and I asked the woman next to me, 'why are you laughing so much?', because she was rolling, and she said 'it's really funny!' So somehow I had managed to make a very funny story about a very serious issue; teenagers going wonky, let's say. Now this one is not a little gangster but like a lot of young boys he is influenced by the glamour that gangster life is sometimes given – the sheen. So even though he is not involved in that life he thinks it is something attractive.
So what would you say inspired you to tell this story?
It was inspired by friends and family who had been through exactly this kind of scenario. Usually it's a male child, but I do know a few women who have had girls who've they have had to send back to Ghana, the Caribbean or Nigeria.
So it's a real life situation that I have observed very close up and even a very good friend of mine, her son who I met when he was like five minutes old, by the time he had got to 14 and a half had gone a bit nuts – as we say.
She was pulling her hair out and in the end decided that she had to take him back to Nigeria. Luckily she was born and raised in Nigeria so it wasn't such a huge leap for her. In my play it is a woman who is born and raised here, so it was an even bigger journey for her to go 'back' to somewhere where she had never really been.
Would you say the play has a specific audience or the appeal to many?
This is why I was so pleased in a way about the comedy I managed to insert into it; it now has a very broad appeal. It's a universal story in the fact of it being a parent-child thing and those stories connect in a very broad way, because even if we haven't been parents we have all been children and we all know what it is like to have someone tell you what you have to do. So it's amazing that so many different types of people like it; teenagers have asked for it to be brought to their school, mothers have asked for it to be brought to their groups. Another thing I should say is that I have been pleased that we got this play on because for once it has got a strong, female African Diaspora cast and they are the lead characters; they are not the wives or the girlfriends, they are the main players. But the play has also got juicy roles for men, so that is why I think that is why it also appeals to male audiences.
You mentioned that you wrote the first draft back in 2008; how long did it take for the play to get a full production and why do you think it took so long?
Well it has taken three years. The first showcase was in July 2008, so just under three years and from listening to people in the business ,it is not that long. If you are well established then you can get a play commissioned or write a play and have it sold by your agent, quite quickly. But this is my first stage play and looking at one of the other two writers [Lydia Adetunji] interestingly her play was also first showcased in 2008. So maybe it is the average time it takes for a first-time writer. I think it is more of a struggle for black writers to get their plays through the system, but luckily you have more and more theatre's seeing the audience potential and the fact that people enjoy seeing a different range of Briton's on stage.
This play is different from a lot of the plays we have seen in the past from black British writers – do you feel there is a lack of diverse stories being told about black British culture?
I would love to see real diversity within black storytelling; African-Caribbean storytelling. It's not just about having this play on, it's about enlarging the vision of what our Diaspora story is and that's why it was so important for me to come on board as a co-producer with my theatre company, Spora Stories to develop the field. I am hungry for stories about the women. You get lots of plays, some of them good, about the young boys, about the male African-British experience, which is valid. But I would love to see the female experience more centre stage. Mind you, some black plays don't have any black women in them at all, even if they have white men and women. Isn't that odd?
I have made it my commitment to tell those stories about different aspects of the Diaspora; about women here in the UK or women in America, women on the continent, women in the Caribbean – I'm writing the stories I would like to see basically; I'm writing what I would want as an audience member. One of the things that inspired me was my experience growing up in a mixed part of London, Notting Hill, where African and Caribbean and people lived together as part of a diverse community; we were not a war. There is a lot of co-operation and love between different pats of the Diaspora. My niece is half Jamaican half Nigerian and that is the Diaspora world I know. I'm not saying friction doesn't exist for some people, but it is not the whole story; let's tell the whole story.
Why should people come and see Pandora's Box?
Well for me, it's a pleasure to see people laughing at my work because I don't consider myself funny, so it's amazing. I think come and see it and enjoy yourself. Come see and experience a different view of Africa. These aren't people with their hands outstretched, begging for aid or suffering from AIDS, and they are not experiencing drought or war or famine. It is a different picture. It's the Africa I know, of people who are professional, well-heeled, well-educated; progressing in their lives and doing what they can to develop their families, their nation and their continent, and contribute to the world.