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Features Q&A and Interviews Published 8 January 2018

Racheal Ofori: “People listen to poetry”

Ahead of her show 'So Many Reasons' at feminist festival Calm Down Dear, the writer and performer talks mother-daughter relationships, bypassing gatekeepers, and how to 'jolt' an audience.
Nicole Acquah
Artwork for Racheal Ofori's 'So Many Reasons' at Camden People's Theatre, January 16th to February 3rd

Artwork for Racheal Ofori’s ‘So Many Reasons’ at Camden People’s Theatre, January 16th to February 3rd

Making solo work is like having a “firecracker up your arse.” At least, that’s how Racheal Ofori, creator of So Many Reasons, describes it. Racheal is a powerhouse – not only a performer but a playwright, poet and speaker, who plans on combining her many interests in a new piece exploring identity and religion. Solo performance provides her with a unique opportunity to create high quality performance which is both exhilarating and, when working to short deadlines, completely hectic (hence the firecracker-in-arse comment).

So Many Reasons is set to headline annual feminist festival Calm Down Dear at Camden People’s Theatre this month. When I meet Racheal, she has just finished rehearsing in the CPT studio for the first time and is brimming with excitement.  She tells me So Many Reasons was written with a black box space in mind, so the transition between other rehearsal spaces to the studio itself hasn’t been too daunting.  As she chats about the joys and challenges of creating a solo piece, I gain not only a sense of her love for storytelling but also an understanding of why For So Many Reasons tells a story that matters now – and why Racheal is the best person to tell it.

Firstly, this is a play that explores cultural and generational shifts, particularly how mothers play a unique role in shaping our understanding of the world. As a first generation British Ghanaian woman, Racheal has a lot of insight to share. Secondly, the show draws upon Racheal’s multiple talents and is not a “straight” play by any means – Racheal almost visibly shudders at such a suggestion! So Many Reasons melds poetry with large amounts of multi-rolling and also dance (although Racheal insists that she is ‘having a good time!’ rather than performing complex choreography). And, as Racheal delivered a TED Talk hosted by Courtauld Institute entirely in verse, I’m certain we can look forward to more linguistic dexterity in her upcoming show.

“People listen to poetry,” Racheal says.  “At first, I was nervous about delivering the talk– people might think: ‘ugh! We have to sit here and listen to poetry?!’…but it made people sit up and listen.” Racheal has put a lot of thought into the ways she can make people ‘sit up and listen’ to this show. Quite wisely, she starts by considering what makes her listen and stays away from anything she finds boring herself – “It’s never about just telling a story…I want to jolt people.” Shows that ‘jolt’ her include Taha (at the Young Vic, 2017) Fleabag (BBC) and Chewing Gum (Channel 4). Much like Michaela Coel, who wrote and stars in Chewing Gum, Racheal prefers to create her own work, rather than waiting to be handed an opportunity. Indeed, one thing she loves so much about the theatre is the autonomy it gives her – “With theatre you can just book a room and do it yourself. There are less hoops to jump through when it comes to putting on work.” Stars like Issa Rae, who wrote and performed in Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, and whose web show quickly went viral and gained critical acclaim, might be inclined to agree. Artists are increasingly prepared to bypass the gatekeepers, a method which has been especially fruitful for PoC creators who, like Racheal, would rather have creative freedom over their work: “I’m so tired of talking about diversity. How many black women will it take to comment on it? Stop asking how it feels to be a Black woman in this industry or the struggles of being Black… it feels pretty sh*t! Just book us. I’m bored talking about it…just do it.”

It is important then, that So Many Reasons headlines a festival both diverse and politically active. Camden People’s Theatre will see a wide array of bold new work this January, from Vanessa Kisuule’s witty, poetic monologue Sexy to Vanessa Macaulay’s surreal riff on rap video tropes Enticement Machine and Dr. Hannah Ballou’s interactive surgery The Doctor is In, amongst others.   

Many of the performances at the festival will be by performer-writers, like Racheal who enjoys ‘wearing both hats’ when it comes to creating a piece. While some creators prefer to ‘split’ their artistic talents – ie. focusing on writing the script first and only considering the practical implications of performance later on, Racheal is always thinking in both roles and considering how the show might be performed even as she is writing.

Still, So Many Reasons has been a learning curve in her own process as a performer-writer. She states it has been a ‘different process’ working on this new show because this time she is working with a director from the very beginning. Her last show, Portrait, was highly successful [Exeunt review here], broadcast on Radio 4’s Front Row and featured at the Southbank Centre (Women of the World Festival, 2015). Racheal is enjoying working with a big team, supported by Fuel Theatre – “It’s awesome to have a team of designers on board…they love it; it’s their baby!” Perhaps one of the biggest differences between working on For So Many Reasons and Portrait is that the former focuses on only one character. “Having to switch between several states as one character is challenging…although I’m enjoying the challenge…sometimes I feel I’ve screwed myself over,” Racheal laughs.

Another bold move on Racheal’s behalf is in the content of the show itself – namely, in the challenging of religion within West African culture. “I’m not sure how my mum will take it,” Racheal, who was raised as a Christian, admits. Her mother is very supportive of her work, and very much enjoyed Portrait, finding the parts in which she was directly referenced hilarious. Racheal explains how a character in Portrait referred to ‘BMW’s as an acronym for ‘Be My Wife!’, an expression related to idealising British culture; the idea that migrating to Britain will solve many, if not all, problems. This line was in direct reference to her mother’s own comment and Racheal recalls her mother ‘really laughing at recognising things that made their way into the show!” But perhaps with a topic so close to home, there is a little more pressure on Racheal. The performer-writer says that it might take a process of ‘warming up’ in order to prepare for her mother’s reaction: “It will happen! Maybe not the first night…but after a couple of runs, I’ll be able to get the stage where I’m not hyperaware of my mum’s reaction in the theatre!”

As a British Ghanaian theatre-maker myself, I’m enthused to speak with somebody exploring the depths of mother-daughter relationships in their work, particularly as I was also raised by devout Christian parents. Still, this is a performance which will appeal to many people, regardless of religious identification. Whilst Racheal challenges Christianity, her motives for the play are not wholly unspiritual. She believes that there is something that gets us up in the morning – “I don’t know if that’s love or an energy…but everyone clings to something; you’ve got to…otherwise life is sad.” Additionally, she believes that there are different forms of spiritualism – “just look at people at a concert, or the energy of fans at a football game!” And although the play will not suggest what that belief system is, she hopes people will walk away with a clearer understanding of what it means to have hope, to have a certain ‘something’ that propels you onwards.  

She is still figuring out what that ‘something’ is and still questioning her belief in God. Her parting advice to theatre-makers out there, however, is less spiritual and more physical – she stresses the importance of checking in with yourself emotionally but, more so, physically. “I tend to focus on work but you’ve got to remember to look after yourself!”

So Many Reasons is on at Camden People’s Theatre from 16th January to February 3rd. Book tickets here


Exeunt MPU

Nicole Acquah

Nicole Acquah is a writer, performer and theatre director. She holds a BA in Drama and Creative Writing from Royal Holloway University, and has a particular interest in interdisciplinary practice, physical theatre, new writing and autobiographical performance. She has directed a number of productions for the Sky High Theatre Company, which she founded in 2013. Since then, she has gone on to perform in both short and feature films. She secretly wishes she could rap or beatbox but she can’t (yet) so she performs spoken word and performance poetry at venues across the UK. Close enough. She is currently undertaking an MA at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Nicole can be found on twitter @Nico_Deemus.