In Conversation: Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini
Sleepova brings the joy & resilience of Black Girlhood to the stage
The sleepover - it’s a space notorious for being off-limits for Black children growing up; a place where, according to our parents, the possibilities of danger and the unknown were endless, and therefore, not an option.
But in Bush Theatre’s new play, the Sleepova is a safe space for all who attend; free from the watchful eye of overbearing parents and where any emotion, from joy to vulnerability can take centre stage.
Written by Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini, it explores the lives of Rey, Elle, Fumni and Shan, a group of friends navigating identity issues, family dynamics and all the other things that come with being a 16 year old Black girl growing up in London.
“I remember when I was doing a playwriting course at Soho Theatre years ago, and the workshop leader said to write what you know, or what you’d like to know”, Matilda says. As someone who didn’t get to go to sleepovers as a child, they explain that they wanted to use this space as a starting point to tell the story of these young Black girls.
“It felt like something worth exploring. But at the same time, a lot of it was inspired by my relationships with my sisters and my friends - I was writing it as a love letter to them, and to the other Black girls, femmes and non-binary people that have supported and held me in the darkest parts of my life."
Having written plays for over 10 years, primarily but not exclusively from the point of view of Black Britons, women, disabled people and queer people, Matilda knows a thing or two about finding the balance between levity and hardship. In one of the early scenes, birthday girl Shan is gifted a rape alarm, and underneath her polite niceties and the audience laughter, it speaks to the self-awareness the girls adopt as a means of survival in the outside world.
Over the course of the play, they deal with everything from grief to homophobia, to sickle cell crises, but in spite of all of this, they keep each other smiling and reassured that whatever they’re going through, will pass. I ask Matilda about the importance of the play running right now, in a time where we’re sadly seeing more and more videos of Black girls being harassed and bullied.
“I was definitely conscious that I didn’t want to make a play that was trauma heavy. For me, it’s important to think about the function of showing these hardships, and I wanted to write this play as a hopeful space of imagination that someone could enter and leave feeling good, feeling hopeful. Young Black girls deserve to feel good all the time because the world is trying to rob them of so many things”.
Finding that balance, Matilda says, was as much a team effort as it was a solo one, and they credit much of it to the team around them; like Director Jade Lewis, who, Matilda tells me, has long been on their list of people to work with. Or Movement Director Gabrielle Nimo, who was instrumental in helping the actors transform into a teenage stance. The performances by Amber Grappy, Aliyah Odoffin, Bukky Bakray and Shayde Sinclair, most of whom are making their stage debuts, are beautifully vulnerable and relatable, taking the audience back to life as a 16 year old, excited and full of hope about the world you’re stepping into.
“It was very exciting to be a part of and to watch the cast and crew put their stamp on it- it felt like a real collaboration.”
“I’ve always had a love of coming-of-age stories, even at my age, I still feel like I’m coming of age”, Matilda says. “I wanted to write characters that people can relate to, and there’s something about growing up, and how difficult that is, that any person, any generation can understand.”
Whether it’s a coming of age, or a dark comedy, Matilda’s work is an ode to the human experience, giving voice to those experiences that we don’t often hear from, and too often misunderstand.
This is what they hope their work does- both on and off the stage. With a few weeks left in Sleepova’s run, a short film, feature films and an Amazon thriller coming out this year, there’s no ceiling to the kind of stories that they’ll be telling.
You can book tickets to watch Sleepova here.