Tobi, 24, is having fun and reckons she’ll keep producing until she has figured out something else she wants to do.
We’re sat at a little theatre atop a bar in Islington. After a photo shoot that had her under a spotlight on the stage, the multi award winning Cultural Producer sits with me in the audience, and generously shares her thoughts. Starting with whether her parents have anything to do with her love for theatre; “not really, maybe in ways they didn’t realize because they were always telling me and my siblings stories in very theatrical ways, but we didn’t really go to theatre as a family.” After studying theatre in college Tobi proceeded to join the Oval house, which she says was her first significant introduction to the industry, “that was when I was first like oh THIS is what it looks like to be in a theatre space and to work with artists and to make work and all of that kind of stuff.” Up next was an apprenticeship at Battersea Arts Centre, a producer-run powerhouse where she worked in community arts administration, “there was a lot of working with young people and community groups to make work… I learnt very quickly what producing was in that context which is very different, but it was fun.”
There is a commonly held opinion that theatre, at least in the U.K., is one of the few art forms that have lagged behind in denouncing the traditional. That it still subscribes to a structure that renders it inaccessible, particularly to black communities. Interestingly, Tobi is of a distinct opinion; she has reiterated time and time again that she feels like theatre is actually all around us; “I guess I’m just really interested in the day to day theatrics of just life. Black communities, that I have encountered have always been theatrical in some sense and when I look at different variations of live-ness and live performance, even if we are looking at adjacent sectors like music that has such a heavy cultural influence or when I look at some of the like illegal raves I was going to when I was younger were all about engaging an audience or something and that the base of it that is theatre.”
This challenges the way we typically think of the art form. “I’m just really interested in expanding how people think of or what they identify as theatre to sort of get out of this bubble of like oh its got to be on a massive stage and have x amount of seats, but it can take any kind of form really,” she says. “I don’t want us to limit the way that we see theatre and I think it is also in how gatekeepers keep defining what theatre is I’m not really interested in that.”
The last few years has been dubbed the black renaissance, with pretty much all sectors seeing a resurgence of black British art in the mainstream. Given that collapsing limiting beliefs of art, as Tobi suggests, had a lot to do with this resurgence, I am curious what this has looked like in the theatre industry. “It has been quite interesting. I think theatre always has like peaks and troughs and over the past 5 years there has been a boom of like Black work specifically being made and staged on bigger stages, with a more kind of Black British perspective as well because as lot of the previous work was Black American. I still think its actually quite male heavy, when people talk about the notable shows that have happened. But mostly I’m intrigued to see how consistent it stays or if at some point its just going to be like ok we've done the black shows now.”
I wonder if she is of the impression that this peak in Black work is to do with outside cultural forces demanding that more diverse experiences be staged rather than the industry itself deciding its time for a change. “I do not think as an industry this was meant to happen. People did not look at shows like Barbershop Chronicles and Misty and think they would amount to that much success. I think it just happened and everything was like oh shit we've got to do something with this now that we know its a thing and it works the industry is trying to drive it in that sense. I think it was an accident."
The thought of an industry accidentally becoming more inclusive is laughable. The actual shows that led this movement were far from accidental however. “When you look at the notable shows, Inua (Barbershop’s playwright) and Arinze (Misty’s playwright) were developing those plays for 6/7 years before they were even staged. I feel like people assume that they just popped up out of nowhere and it was great but nah, this has been like almost a decade of work. And I wonder how many people are starting now and if we are going to have to wait another decade to see another sort of boom.”
In 2018 the 24year old producer launched the award winning initiative Black Ticket Project, which caters to working class black young people, some of whom will be the ones ‘starting the work’ now. Despite the odd troll once in a while, Tobi confirms that the response has mostly been positive. She continues; “I’ve always talked about this project being something that should be temporary and should exist in the foundation of our center instead of being a thing on the side.” On theatre venues not shouldering the responsibility: “I think that people have a way of romanticizing things to absolve themselves of any accountability. So as a way of saying ‘Oh I could never do this, I’m glad that you are doing it’ and its like no you could, and you should.”
Currently, Tobi splits her time between producing, running Black Ticket Project and embarking on the “mammoth journey” as she describes it, of writing a book. Expected to be published in 2021, Theatre Sh*t, will see Tobi, among many other young black writers, making her debut as an author. Her book will be part of the A Quick Ting On non-fiction series created by 24year old publisher Magdalene Abraha with Jacaranda books.
As she tells me about how Magdalene reached out to her for the opportunity, I’m surprised to hear what her initial response was, “I was like No, like why am I writing a book, I’m a producer I don’t write for a living.” I understand the sentiment as much as it beguiles me. On one hand, with contributions in gal-dem, Black Ballad and HowlRound among others, Tobi writing resumé is impressive. On the other hand, there is a novel daunt that comes with a book that likely does not compare to articles.
“But then we just had lots of conversations about if I did want to write about something what would that look like,” she says when I ask her what changed her mind. “Anything black related is just really hard to archive, like authentic, genuine archived material is a little hard to find. The things that we do find I feel like don’t reflect my lifetime, and as much its important to know the history, if I made something that existed while I was alive what would that look like and how would it compare to the history. And so that’s why I was like ok cool, I'll try to make something just to have that.”
Archiving our realities and experiences is important, even if only for the mere confirmation of one’s existence. With theatre being a bit male centric, however, I wonder how Tobi’s black womanhood will affect the work she produces; “I really want to make sure that I’m talking about people that are not being talked about. I feel like when people talk about black theatre pioneers you kind of go to like the same kind of names, which is absolutely deserved, like Sharon D. Clarke and Roy Williams, but there are like other people that I feel like sit on the sidelines a little bit that did a lot to impact the evolution of Black British theatre. So I’m trying to do a lot of research outside of my personal bubble, like going to Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland and other cities in England just to understand different perspectives on Black Britishness. I definitely want to bring especially those black women to the forefront. A big one is Bernadine Evaristo, who is getting her accolades now but she has been doing the work. She set up so many spaces for black makers back in the day to just like create work and people don’t talk about her in that kind of way. And Bernadine is a poet, and an author and all these other things, so the sectors are clearly malleable and we shouldn’t necessary box theatre into this kind of one area. It needs to spread across lots of different platforms. So yeah, I really want to bring everything together in that kind of way to make sure those people are amplified more.”
Lastly I ask her to talk me through what an ideal future for theatre would look like for her: “I'd be really intrigued to see a physical space that is run in a different way to like the physical spaces that we have now. I feel like a lot of the buildings that we have do have a certain hierarchy, like you have your artistic director and then you have an exec and then you have your producers and id be intrigued to see a physical space that sort of abandons that. Companies are so much better at being more malleable and working in more flexible ways, but they usually start off with not needing hierarchies to do the work and creating community and once they move to a physical space all that goes out the window. And I haven’t seen any justifications as to why all the hierarchy is needed and so I’d really love to see a space that abandons that and feels like a real civic space as well. Now, possibly more than ever it’s really important that these physical spaces are working towards the tangible needs of the community and its not just about putting on shows and the art. It’s about essentially mitigating the fact that these youth clubs are closing down and all these other community hubs that people attended, people are being displaced because they don’t exist anymore. Where do people go to have breakfast, or to read books or to see work? Do you know what I mean, like where do people go? And I feel like some of these spaces need to evolve with the times and do that, as well as create work to a high quality standard because I feel like people think you can’t do both. I don’t know if that will ever happen though.”