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from then to now

The first time I read a script aloud I was 10 years old, and as I spat out the lines my classmates descended into a silent awe. I got the role of the lead female character, a serious upgrade after several years of playing a wise man in the yearly nativity, and I loved it. I felt at home on a stage, I felt heard and seen. I started weekly drama classes; off stage I often felt a wee bit out of place, ignored or spoken over, a hanger on rather than part of the main event but I made a few friends, and I kept going because I was falling more and more in love. It wasn’t just about me, it was about making an audience feel something, anything, changing the way they looked at the world or felt about a person. It was — and still is — storytelling and being part of telling that story is special. 

I met Natalie Ibu over 12 years ago, the summer of 2008. I was 13 years old and Natalie was, I think, close to the age I am now. I was spending the first three weeks of my summer holidays at a theatre summer school. Thirtyish kids, three weeks of rehearsals culminating in a performance on the theatre stage, props and costumes included. That summer, the performance was The Red Shoes Re-heeled, and Natalie, was the director. 

To reflect on that summer feels weird and uncomfortable, I remember very little apart from being a little bit crushed that I didn’t get a part with more lines. The girl I see then is so different and similar in so many ways to the girl who writes this, in some ways I miss her naivety and optimism.

That theatre summer school was like my weekly drama classes on steroids, but I masked my uneasiness with excitement, not yet knowing that my feelings of anxiety and discomfort weren’t the norm or where they came from. I don’t know how Natalie felt, I wonder if our feelings were similar? At the time, seeing Natalie, a Black Scottish womxn in that position wasn’t some life affirming moment for me, it didn’t make everything fall into place, she was just there, doing her job. I’m 99% sure we were the only Black people in that space that summer. Admiration. That’s now how I know feel towards Natalie, knowing what I do now, the strength and energy she held to enter a space that was undeniably white and foaming with historic prestige, is admirable.

Summer ended, and I don’t think I’ve seen Natalie in person since. I kept up with my weekly drama classes and performed in my first and only professional performance as a Lost Boy in Peter Pan. In my final year of school, at 17, I decided that I would apply to both Drama School and University. My mum had taken to me the library to collect the plays so I could select audition texts, I had an excel sheet of audition dates and application deadlines. I often laugh at how my mum paid for singing lessons — I can’t sing — to help me prepare. Then, at some point in the first few months of that final year of school, I told my mum that I didn’t want to apply anymore. “Why?” she asked, “because it’s hard enough as an actor to get work, let alone a Black female actor.” My plan was to get a degree first and then apply for drama school. I ended up studying at Edinburgh, partly chosen because of its vibrant student theatre scene that I quickly realised I felt more uncomfortable and out of place in than my weekly drama classes, so I didn’t bother. I entered as a psychology student and graduated in history, by my honours years performing and theatre wasn’t really on my radar anymore, but writing was. 

Out of procrastination, I started a blog to avoid uni work and escape from myself — my mental health was bad, the worst it’s ever been. I found writing cathartic, and freeing. Stuck in an environment that was overwhelmingly white, my blog allowed me to feel heard, or read, and I could make other people feel things, or see things, or just keep them company. Like acting. That’s powerful and that’s special and it is something I would never take for granted. 

What I did take for granted was a fearlessness in speaking up. Something I am grappling with right now, is writing without thinking about the reader or the audience, writing without the white gaze, or any gaze. Writing without being fearful of getting it wrong. Or perhaps, finding comfort in getting it wrong, and that being okay. I want to write and talk fearlessly.

Writing for tiata fahodzi over the past few months and working for and with Natalie feels special but also not special at all, organic maybe, a natural progression. This is not a full circle moment, because whatever this is, isn’t finished. Maybe it will be more than another decade before we work together again, maybe it will be in a different way, maybe she’ll be directing something I’ve written, maybe I’ll be performing in something Natalie is directing. Who knows, I just know that this is a moment in my journey that is meant to be, and one I never imagined. 

tomiwa foloruso is a writer, presenter and creative based in Edinburgh. She specialises in communications and digital production and is also a project manager with the Empower Project. See her and read her here: instagram, twitter or website

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