skip to content

Black Advisory Hub


By Maya McFarlane. 

Mojola Akinyemi, writer and director 

The Black Advisory Hub spoke to recent Cambridge graduate Mojola Akinyemi, the writer and director of Great Mother - Iya Ayaba, to find out more about the impact of the trailblazing work undertaken by alumna Justina Kehinde Ogunseitan in the theatre sphere. 



Q: Mojola, what were your first impressions of the Cambridge theatre scene when you first arrived?

I was really lucky because I knew someone when I arrived who was really helpful; she was also a Black, mixed race woman. And she was a member of the footlights committee, so she was in her third year and I was in my first year. She was really helpful, she was able to kind of guide me into what to do when I first arrived. When I first arrived, I thought it was really overwhelming. And also I thought that it  felt that everybody who came to Cambridge already understood what they were doing. I was quite lucky, also, in the sense that I've done this, I've done theatre since I was 11 years old, so I kind of knew what I was doing. But I thought, if you came in brand new wanting to try it out for the first time, it wasn't really the environment to fully do that. Because even in, for example, the freshers play I did, the people who were directing and the people I was acting alongside, it felt like a lot of people have done other things like National Youth Theatre, for example, before coming there. So they have more of an understanding.

And also, as I'm sure everyone knows, the Cambridge theatre scene - I think it's becoming better now than a few years ago -  was still quite white; overwhelmingly so. For example, in the main freshers play at the ADC, not the one I was in, I think it was an all white cast or a majority white cast. They were all majority white casts, even the one I was in. So again, backstage was all white, so that was the first question that I got. Also, again, the Footlights as well, in my first year I think it was one or two people of colour in the whole Footlights. I mean, again, it wasn’t much better in my year when I was in my third year; there were like three or four people of colour in the whole crew of 40 people. So yeah, that was kind of my first impression. But I think I was quite lucky in the sense that I knew someone coming in and that's not going to be a lot of people's experiences. I knew someone coming in and was able to really help me and tell me to audition for the freshers play, kind of let me understand what the Footlights were and what the committee was and what the members were. She was the one who encouraged me to do stand-up for the first time, a five-minute set in one of the smokers. It was purely her guidance that really changed things. And also there was some things like the Smoker I did, it was a BME one, it was for people of colour. So that was quite nice, it was a really supportive atmosphere. That was something I was more comfortable doing.

So I guess upon first impressions, there's a myriad of things I felt going in. The main thing I felt was kind of relief of having my mentor to talk to because she was someone who knew what she was doing. She was very involved, so it was really, really amazing to have someone to help guide me in that. But even with her assistance, it still felt quite overwhelming. And it felt, also, really kind of cutthroat. And it felt kind of, especially when you are going for auditions, it's kind of weird. There are so many people auditioning for the same parts and it was just that undercurrent of competition within the acting side that I didn't really appreciate. Since I moved on to directing or writing it felt very much less so. But definitely with acting, because of the demographics of Cambridge, you are competing against majority white people, or for majority white roles or roles the directors often can only see otherwhite counterparts in.


Synopsis of Great Mother- Iya Ayaba (via camdram): In the late 1960s, towards the end of the Biafran War in Nigeria, Agnes, a novitiate nun, experiences a complete nervous breakdown. Her path crosses with Taiwo, a photojournalist reporting on the brutality of the conflict, who quickly forms an attachment to her. After Agnes is largely shut away from human contact, he becomes her confidant, uncovering the malevolent reasons behind her mental deterioration, and the secrets of the convent she belongs to. This is a play on turmoil, both internal and external, and the difficult choices people are forced to make for survival.


Q: You wrote and directed ‘Great Mother: Iya Ayaba’ which had a hugely successful run at the Corpus Playhouse last year. What was your inspiration behind writing the play, and why did you feel it was important to put on in Cambridge?

Great Mother is my baby, it was the first play I wrote. The reason I wrote it? I guess there were multiple reasons. Part of the reason was, my second year, as we all had to deal with, there was COVID and lockdown. I was at home and also at home, living with me for the time being, were my cousins who are going to boarding school here. So they stayed with us for a bit and they grew up in Nigeria, which, obviously, I didn't. And it was kind of through them, like living with them, I was like, Oh my gosh, I know nothing really about the contemporary reality of what it's like to grow up in an area or live there or to have more of a connection with it than I do now. So yeah, the combination of multiple factors. So when I was finding out more about Nigeria, obviously, there was a massive civil war, the Biafran war, between Yoruba and Igbo people at the end of British colonisation when Nigeria was becoming an independent country- that was in the 60s. And so, finding out more about that information I was like, oh, this is actually really, really interesting, but also really sad. And I was also reading this website that had oral first-hand accounts from people who lived in that time. And also, even my dad has memories of when he was very young of having to hide and the protocol if there were bombs anywhere and having to hide in places and stuff. So it's all very interesting, and also really deeply sad. It was really amazing to reach back to my culture in that way. And also, historically, as well, by looking back at a time that I feel isn’t really discussed that much.

And why did I feel like it was important to put on in Cambridge?

Because, to be quite frank, I was sick and tired. This is my main thing: if you feel like there's not a space for you in a place or in a situation, and you have the ability to do something about it, that's really important. If you're able to do so, carving out that space is so vitally important because there was just nothing I felt that really spoke to me.  I feel like as a writer, you have to write the thing that moves you. This moved me and I wanted to share it with the world and I think it was important to put it on in Cambridge because if you look at what's been put on there…We all love Ibsen, yes, we all love Wilde, we love Shakespeare. Okay, perfect, great. We love them to death, but  if you look at the stories that are being told, they wrote about what moved them at the time because they are writing for their specific time, for what kind of affects them in their daily lives. And I think, for me, it was like,I love these writers, I love their theatre, but I want to write because this is something that affects me and I want to share it with the world. And also, I didn't really have any lofty aspirations behind putting it on, I just wrote this play and thought it would be cool to get it out there. But like a part of me was kind of like, it'd be amazing to have my culture and my history written by me, for other people, because demographic wise, there are a lot of Black Nigerians in Cambridge, and from all of the diaspora in Cambridge. And I was writing for that diaspora, and I was also writing for people from any culture to watch it and enjoy it, I think that’s why any playwright writes, is to get the public to see it and hopefully move them. Because for you to write a whole play, the story has to move you in some way. And the feedback I got, literally after it happened, like on the night from people, like my cousin who was doing an MPhil here and grew up in Nigeria, he came to watch it and he really appreciated watching it and we had multiple people again from the Nigerian diaspora coming to watch it, people I didn't even know, some people I didn't even know enjoy going to theatre. And they came to see that because it felt like something that was affecting them. And I feel as though that's a really important thing about diversity with the theatre. Yes, you can cast your one token black person for the Shakespeare play, fine, done. Who's gonna come and watch it? Because you say, oh, people of colour don't really enjoy going to theatre. Sorry, have you seen the demographic who attended Passover? Let's not pretend that people aren't going to come and watch stuff, if they feel like they can relate to it in some way. With Passover and Great Mother, the people that came to watch it felt like it was worth watching because it wasn’t a kitchen sink drama with five white people again. It was something different, something that they felt spoke to them.



Q: It’s interesting, what you're saying about it being an historical play in the sense of looking back at the war, and the influence it had on family relations and all of those different things. So in terms of Black History then, in the very broad sense, or in the specific sense of Nigerian histories, why do you think theatre is such a powerful tool to be able to explore those stories and those histories?

Theatre is a powerful tool in general. I feel like theatre has such a longstanding history because it is one of those things that kind of like, it's real time and you get to see these things depicted in front of you very tangibly, they're right there, you almost feel as if you can reach across and touch them. So, I guess the importance of bringing these stories to light within the realm of drama, for me, these things…yes, they are historical, but the after effects can still be seen today. And it's not even just the after effects, but also these stories aren't things which should just be lost in history for you to read about. These are things that you can see with a certain level of immediacy, which I think theatre grants to us as the viewer, which is what I really love.



Q. So, if you could give one piece of advice to like an incoming black student, what would it be? It could be for someone looking to enter the theatre scene, or it could be in general.

Don’t allow anyone to make you feel as though you don't belong, like every single space in this place, is one where you have a right to be here. Ultimately, do not allow anyone to feel comfortable making you the other. Because that's just not okay. And also, within theatre, if you feel like the space isn't representing what you want it to, isn't doing what you feel like it should be, carve out your own space and find people to collaborate with. Because theatre is not a thing you can do by yourself. Like I have had the most amazing production team behind me and cast that the play wouldn't have happened without. I know there's lots of things happening next year as well, shout out to the most brilliant, brilliant Black theatre makers in Cambridge at the minute, literally doing the most incredible work. I'm so excited to see what they do. So yeah, it doesn't even have to be huge. It doesn't have to be 'Oh, I want to do an ADC main show in week six'. Okay, but we can start out doing small things. And just because it's a small thing, it’s a college theatre and it's only on a couple of nights,  if you feel like you've made something that's worth making, and people you love come and see it and you get positive feedback and you enjoy it, main thing is to enjoy what you're doing. Because no one's forcing you, no one's paying you. This is all because you love it. If you're not enjoying it, you don't have to do it. So yeah, it can be something like that and you enjoy it, you make something and, you know, maybe 40 people come in total. That is still what you've done there. It’s still something worth celebrating, something incredible that you're doing there. Because it's not about numbers of people, it's not about getting this slot or getting that slot. It's about whether you enjoy what you’re making, whether you feel fulfilled and whether you feel like it's worth investing your time into. So yeah, that'd be my main piece of advice. Enjoy what you’re doing, carve out spaces, collaborate with the most incredible people you'll ever meet because there are so many talented people, I'm just in awe of them all the time! And don't let anyone make you feel like you don't belong in spaces that you're trying to get in, because you absolutely do deserve to be there and you are incredible and talented and you wouldn’t have gotten into Cambridge if you weren’t!