Award-winning playwright Karla Williams speaks to Afridiziak Theatre News about her new play and being a former journalist admits she’s slightly nervous being in the interview hot-seat. As part of Talawa Firsts’ new writing festival, Williams’ new work No God No Girls is a thought provoking piece sure to get the conversation rolling. A native Londoner, Williams has had her works performed throughout the capital, in theatres such as the Royal Court Studio, Soho Theatre and the Oval House. Describing her play as an exploration of two brother’s journeys, the writer explains her motivations and how her own faith inspires her work.
How would you describe your play?
I would describe No God No Girls as a play that explores two brother’s journeys and one of the brother’s lives is based upon a good friend of mine. The two brothers were born into the Unification Church and the younger brother Elijah is having to face the fact he’s gay and the play explores how that fits with the Unification Church and their view on the gay community. The second brother, Jack, has never really fitted into the church or the family. So it’s an exploration of him leaving the church after being kicked out of his family home and how that shapes him as a man and the effects it has upon his future relationships.
Are both of the protagonists based upon real people?
Elijah’s story is based on my friend Jonathan’s story. He was in the Unification Church and was matched to a girl in Korea. It was planned for him to marry her, but he had same sex feelings so he went to a therapist to help rid him of these feelings. Jack’s story is more a combination of men I’ve encountered and their emotions as well as my own experiences with my dad. He’s not a direct interpretation of an individual in the same way that Elijah is, but he comes from truth and emotions I’ve experienced personally.
No God No Girls explores interesting topics and interesting themes in a non-obvious way. The play also looks at relationships and how we mask our feelings and how our past relationships affect our future ones. I think that’s quite a relatable play that people will enjoy.
You said Jack doesn’t really fit in. is that something you’ve personally experienced?
Completely. (Laughs.) For a very long time I didn’t fit with the status quo. At home I’m the second of four girls. My older sister was obedient and an academic growing up. Then I come along and I’m like ‘Why?’ to everything. I was the cheeky one; the one who as my mum would say ‘Gave too much talking,’ I was the one who pushed boundaries so for a long time I was compared to my sister. I also grew up in a Pentecostal church because my dad’s a pastor and there came a point where I didn’t necessarily see things as everybody else did so I felt like an outsider. Also growing up at school, I didn’t fit, even with the friendship groups I had. One particular group of friends were all a bit loud and typical London girls – I just wasn’t like that but I spent a lot of time trying to be the person I thought I should be. Up until recently when I accepted myself for who I am. I’m different and I embrace that.
Is faith still a big part of your life?
Does that influence your writing in any way?
Definitely. I can’t separate myself from what I believe; it’s a big part of who I am as a person. In the same way that I can’t separate myself from being a woman when I write. So it tends to filter through when I write with some pieces more than others.
Do you have a negative view of the Unification Church?
Not at all. I endeavoured not to portray the Unification Church negatively, but I had to accurately portray what my friend’s experience was. I worked closely with my friend during the writing process. He was my “Unification Guru” so to speak. So he endeavoured to help me understand the church so I could then portray it within the play. There are scenes, in particular the therapist scene which I think people may respond negatively to, but it was never my intention to portray the church in a negative light.
Rebecca Coley also directed your Van d’Or Award winning film Pretty Bitch. How does it feel to be working together again?
I like working with Rebecca. As a writer it’s important to have a director you can trust and who understands your vision and what you’re trying to do through your work. I submitted the play to Talawa as part of the Hot Spots programme and so when Michael Buffong called me and said they’d like to include it, there was no question that I’d ask her to be my director.
Talawa is dedicated to developing black playwrights and artist. Do you feel there is less opportunity for people of colour in writing?
I don’t think it’s as simple as that to be honest. As a writer I didn’t get far with plays that weren’t good. I don’t think it was because I was black, I think I just sent works off too early thinking it was genius. (Laughs.) With this piece of work it’s been though a longer development process so I think it’s a better piece of work. I think in other disciplines such as acting there needs to be a greater diversity of roles for black people.
As a writer it’s important to have a director you can trust and who understands your vision and what you’re trying to do through your work.
What role do you think Talawa fulfils within the British theatre industry?
I think Talawa showcases black British talent with regards to writers, actors, and directors. With Michael Buffong as artistic director there seems to be more integration into mainstream theatre. They’ve worked with the Albany and Shoreditch Town Hall Basement so they’re producing more diverse work which still has black people at the helm. If you look at how often you see black work being produced on the stage, it’s still a small portion of theatre in general. So the role that Talawa fulfil is necessary although I wish I could say it wasn’t.
When did you realise that you wanted to be a playwright?
I realised I had a playwright’s brain in 2006 when I did the Talawa Young Writer’s course. I’ve always loved theatre and I tried to be an actress but didn’t get very far. After Sixth Form the plan was to take a gap year and apply for drama schools. It was during the gap year that I went on the course and I realised I’m a playwright.
No God No Girls by Karla Williams, Talawa Firsts 2014
So your artistic journey started with Talawa?
Yeah, and I did the Talawa Young People’s Theatre when I was 15. I did the course with Nonso Anozi who’s now doing well in Hollywood and Femi Oguns MBE who runs Identity Drama School. It was quite a symbolic piece called ‘The Box’ where I was a girl who had a pickyhead and she had a magic box which gave her these luscious locks and all of this wonderful attention. But she couldn’t cope with it and went back to her natural hair. I had a wig made out of binliners stitched into a swimming cap. It was all rather creative! (Laughs.)
What would you do if you weren’t a playwright?
I’d be a chef. I’m a huge foodie, I love food. I’ve done a lot of food journalism purely ’cos you get to eat out for free. (Laughs.) I love watching cookery programmes so if I weren’t a playwright I’d endeavour to be a Michelin starred chef.
Why should people come and see No God No Girls?
It explores interesting topics and interesting themes in a non-obvious way. I tried to create multi-dimensional characters who you can feel for. It tries to elevate the conversation of faith and sexuality, but it’s also about depicting people that I feel an audience can identify with. The play also looks at relationships and how we mask our feelings and how our past relationships affect our future ones. I think that’s quite a relatable play that people will enjoy but will also make them think.
Info: No God No Girls is being performed on June 20th, 2014. Book tickets