Janice Okoh on taking Egusi Soup from page to stage
It was important for me to have a comedic aspect to my work, because I saw – and still see myself – as a comedic writer. The comedy in my writing was something that just developed naturally. I wrote a short piece called Baby Jay’s Bedroom as part of the Croydon Warehouse writers’ group, and it was selected for their International Playwriting Competition. I wanted to have a go at writing a comedy and I was encouraged when people laughed.
By then, I had seen Oladipo Agboluaje’s Christ of Coldharbour Lane and was enthralled by the writer’s skill for comedy. Furthermore, Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen showed me how creative stage plays could be. Elmina’s Kitchen is a simple joyful story with laughter and singing. It is a real feel-good play, although it has its dark bits too. I went to see this play with my brothers and sisters, and they said that I could do something like that.
I wanted to write a happy play and a play about black experience that was not just about knife and gun crime. Theatre needs to see black people in different settings and with different challenges and concerns. I was inspired by my experiences as a black woman growing up in a predominantly white environment and how this impacted on me and my “Nigerian-ness”.
In 2008 I started writing Egusi Soup in 2008, when I was studying for my MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. I was actually trying to write a play about life in the city, but the tutor didn’t like it. So, under the pressure of meeting the dissertation deadline, I went for writing about what I knew – grief – and at the same time I experimented with comedy. So Egusi Soup was born.
I used the MA as an opportunity to learn about playwriting so, literally, everything and anything went into it. Egusi Soup is about a British woman who returns from America to a family who has changed considerably and with whom she has lost a connection, but with whom she desperately wants to re-establish that connection.
I completed the first draft of the play on my MA over a couple of weeks, was given some feedback by my tutor and had six weeks to produce a final draft, which I did. I still felt as though the final version was very much a draft though, and wanted to develop it further.
So at the end of 2008, I sent it to Menagerie Theatre Company, who pick up new scripts for development via their SPARKS programme. Luckily, Egusi Soup was one of the submissions chosen and that started the play’s development ride.
Under Menagerie, the play went through a further four drafts and was performed as a script-in-hand piece at Menagerie’s Hotbed Festival (the new writing festival in Cambridge). It then did a six-stop tour around the East of England. In terms of content, the play was really softened down; a lot of the swearing and similes I had used were taken out (I am sure these similes will be used one day).
At the time, this process was hard as I thought my “voice” was being compromised but I now see that these “interesting bits” did not suit the tone of the rest of the play. After Hotbed, I wasn’t completely happy with what the play was saying or its structure. I think this stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing way back on the MA.
In January 2010 I had got onto the Jerwood Arvon Scheme on the strength of the existing Egusi Soup script, and I had the opportunity to develop the work even further under the guidance of a mentor, Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Parts of the play that had been taken out – for example, children being hit as a punishment being acceptable in Nigerian culture – were re-examined.
At the same time Menagerie had got Egusi Soup a reading at Oval House Theatre and the play was further developed by Ben Evans, then the theatre programmer, and po Agboluaje, who I so greatly admire. The reading at the Oval House was incredibly successful. The comedy was great and the story arc worked. However, it was still really dark.
In 2011, Soho Theatre agreed to co-produce the play with Menagerie Theatre, but the version that Soho based their decision upon was an earlier draft from the Hotbed Festival. Through some mix-up they never actually read the version that had been read at Oval House. I was gutted. They were keen to work on the bits of drama that I had always hated.
I felt that I had moved on from that version and it was no longer what I wanted to say so in the next draft I decided to write something completely different from all the previous ones, even the Oval House draft. I was sure this would blow everyone away! The play I was left with was bursting with comedy but had lost the emotional content from its early conception in 2008 and, of course, the drama.
So, this is when I started working closely with just Sarah Dickenson, the senior reader at the Soho Theatre, on the draft they had in order to inject the much-needed emotion and drama back into the script and find exactly what it was I wanted to say all the way back from the MA drafts of 2008. We also ironed out the clunky bits. The play we have now ended up with is the strongest in terms of drama and I have learnt so much from this process about playwriting and am definitely more confident about it than when I started.
During all this I have learnt that you have to know what you want to say in a play and stick by it. If you don’t, the people who help you along the way can only do so much. Funnily enough, this final draft is not much different to earlier drafts and it feels emotionally like the play that was read at SPARKS but with the structure of the Oval House Theatre draft.
It has taken four years to bring the play to performance, but it has been a very exciting, albeit challenging, journey. I am glad the play is on at the Soho because it is such a vibrant and well respected venue in London. Also, we have two preview performances in Cambridge and three days at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester. I have been involved with the casting of the play, choices on music and have been sitting in on rehearsals – it’s great to be involved at this level.
However, a piece of writing stops belonging to you at this point and is not just about your creative process anymore because actors, directors, designers bring their imagination, emotion and creative processes to the table as well. A play goes on an entirely new journey when a team of people are involved and that is the thrill but also the scary bit too. Will the final piece be close to what I imagined back in 2008 when the story was first conceived? Well, I’ll just have to wait and see.