Features Published 11 September 2020

Rachel Nwokoro: “The thing that the arts industry doesn’t do for disabled people is create space and time.”

“We need to imagine the impossible”: after her nomination for a Stage Debut Award, Rachel Nwokoro talks disability and social change.

J N Benjamin

Rachel Nwokoro in Little Baby Jesus, at Orange Tree Theatre. Photo: Ali Wright

When I ask Rachel Nwokoro how it feels to be nominated for a Stage Debut Award in the Best Performer category, she seems keen to change the subject. So we talk about Love Languages for a bit instead. There’s a theory, popularised by Gary Chapman’s 1992 book, that there are five ways to express and receive love: quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, gifts, and physical touch. According to Chapman, everybody has a primary and a secondary love language.

Nwokoro thinks there are many more than five languages of love –for example, she considers accountability as a high priority – but of Chapman’s options, her primary choice is touch; followed by quality time and acts of service. She tells me she feels distance very heavily because her heart radar works better with proximity: “heart connection is strained with distance,” she says.

The past few years have in many ways been incredibly difficult for Nwokoro – she describes it as ‘living in shadow’ – which has made her struggle to trust the love that comes her way. Perhaps this explains why both gifts and words of affirmation feature at the bottom of the list of the ways in which she likes to receive love. There’s something about the potential for emptiness in gestures of that nature, whereas the other three arguably require a more substantial commitment. I think about this in relation to her slight reluctance to indulge in the occasion of her Stage Debut Award nomination and I think I get it; words are great and all but sometimes without any associated action, there’s a great sense of wonder about what it all means in the grand scheme of things. Love is a doing word.

It’s easy to understand why Nwokoro is more interested in actions than she is in words. She became disabled in adulthood and she believes it was inaction in the form of state neglect that caused it. She has fibromyalgia, a condition that causes pain both chronic and inexplicable; and ME – also known as chronic fatigue syndrome – which weighs down her days with a soul-heavy kind of exhaustion that feels like wading through sludge. The effects of both illnesses are compounded by complex post traumatic stress disorder, brought about by instances of police brutality and sexual assault that were perpetuated against her.

As a disabled woman in the arts industry Nwokoro thinks a lot about the action that needs to take place to make it more accessible to people like her. The reviews for The Orange Tree’s production of Little Baby Jesus saw her name-checked as a stand out performer, and she is eager to credit the production team who laid the foundations for her to bring her best self to the stage. “There’s not many things I cannot do if I am allowed to be my full and authentic self.” She means having her disability acknowledged and fully accommodated in all situations. But even though there was some access support during that run, she concluded that it was still difficult to participate in. “The Orange Tree Theatre was great but it was hard to do the play because there is no infrastructure to support disabled artists.” In her experience there’s a heavy reliance on the goodwill of kind-hearted people. It’s better than nothing, but she would really like to see a change in approach from a mindset of scarcity to one of abundance of space and belonging for all.

“The thing that the arts industry doesn’t do for disabled people is create space and time. And those two things are just so essential. And that’s a part of this capitalist world we live in. Everything has got to be so fast fast fast. And you’re constantly having to negotiate and stay on top of a myriad of symptoms – often co-morbid, sometimes invisible to the outside world – on someone else’s schedule, without one-on-one support. What people don’t understand about those with invisible illnesses isn’t that we can’t do it; it’s that it’s bad for us to do it. It’ll will make us unwell; it will take a very long time for us to do it; or, it will hurt while we’re doing it. It creates a climate where progress for the show is dependent on you denying your needs, and that puts disabled people at risk.” She suggests access should be a core part of every creative team, in the same way sound and lighting are. “Every production should have an access coordinator role, and access needs to be explored in terms of integration with storytelling. Not as an afterthought, but as a part of the process, because it is something that needs to be continually thought of. As the story progresses in a physical space, are the most amount of people that we want to be in this space able to participate in this? That’s a revolutionary movement to me. That’s theatre with a heart that says: we want you here.”

Nwokoro is no stranger to the accolades. Her creative career started off on the live poetry circuit, where she won the 2016 National Slam Poetry Competition, after which she was invited to represent the UK at the international final. More recently, she directed Funeral Flowers by Emma Dennis-Edwards at The Bunker Theatre and at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it won a Filipa Bragança Award and a Fringe First Award. Still, this time around she recalls it was – and remains – difficult for her to receive the news of her nomination, and gives a nervous laugh as she says this. She talks about ego and how hers has been so bruised and thereafter denied healing, that when she gets external validation or positive praise, it clashes with what she calls the ‘trauma body’ in a way that’s quite painful because there’s a dissonance between how she has been treated and what she is now being told; it’s another manifestation of her struggle to trust the love that comes her way. “It’s just made it hard for me to see my contribution to a creative process of storytelling as attributed to me, Rachel Nwokoro, because I didn’t do it for the accolades. It’s about the story. I am part of the many. So the nomination is not mine. We were able to facilitate Joanne coming alive. Wow.” She pauses. “But then I had to see this particular nomination was an acknowledgement of MY performance. It was difficult for me to receive it.” She pauses again. “But, I smiled a lot.”

Joanne – the role from The Orange Tree Theatre production of Little Baby Jesus for which she is nominated – is a character Nwokoro holds dear to her heart. “Bringing her alive in that space was one of the best gifts of my career”. Does she recognise any of herself in Joanne? “Oh, she’s much bolder than I am. But she helped me to access something inside me. Tristan (Fynn-Aiduenu, the director) would fight me on that because he would say she helped me to access the warrior that was already inside me. We’ve got many selves and most of my core is more nurturing and more caring – that’s where I feel most comfortable. But there’s a side to me that will fight when it sees an injustice. Joanne did that with an assertiveness, with an eloquence and a lyricism that was a journey for me to get to because I just didn’t have the confidence in that execution, to be honest with you. I would more likely do verbal gymnastics to disarm, to peacemake. Joanne really challenges. She would just say: “No.” Even in that big space with all those people laughing, she would do that. It was through Joanne that I learned to not laugh when I did not find something funny. I’m such a natural smiler that I realised I can be seduced into faux joy. It’s a defence mechanism to cover a moment. The majority of Black women will resonate with the difficulty of being perceived as an Angry Black Woman and how to negotiate that.”

I wonder if the awards and the industry recognition contributes to the healing process? Her answer isn’t yes, but it’s not a no either. “If I am being so honest with you it’s something that I feel weird about because people message me congratulations and say you must feel so proud. The truth is I’ve been high achieving my whole life and that’s part of the reason why my needs have been overlooked as a disabled, vulnerable woman. It’s a big reason why I have not been seen as in need. It’s like [people think] I can’t be in need because I’m shining; I’m doing well. But the majority of my life I have been so struggling.” It makes her challenge or think about how these institutions truly support creatives – too often it’s on a superficial level, with no regard for how they’re living and surviving. “How do we cultivate and nourish and empower and embolden? Because everything is so centred on appearances, rather than what’s really going on underneath. I can make a really good website and write a really good bio but if I am giving you my real story: I might not have been alive today because couple of months ago I was suicidal. Nobody would know that.”

Nwokoro intends for her future creative work to focus on building a better world than the one we currently have. “I want to abolish the police and I want to change the world. I want radical change. I want a better world than the one we have. My life has changed in the last few years and so have I.” Artivist is a term she has claimed recently – “I was turned off it for a while but it feels correct in terms of the projects that I am gonna be doing going forward. It’s really important to me because I think what we need now is radical imaginations. We need to imagine the impossible in order to create a new world, and I can’t imagine who better to do that than creatives. It means getting creative minds into policy rooms and into the highest commissioning rooms so that the methodology of thinking changes. How can the people in charge possibly think any different to the way they’ve been thinking?”

She’s also been taking time during the pandemic related lockdown to learn more about disability justice. “I just realised how much the world hates disabled people and people with long term health conditions and chronic illnesses. Hates. Like, wants us dead. Wants us not around. Wants us hidden away. Doesn’t want us to work. Doesn’t want us to live without working. Doesn’t want us to survive. It’s heartbreaking. I am heartbroken. I am heartbroken that I wasn’t aware when I didn’t have to be and I am heartbroken that I’ve had to go through this.” Disability justice is one of the themes explored in her recently commissioned debut play, the details of which are still under wraps but soon to be announced.

But, back to the present and thoughts turn to what would be in Nwokoro’s acceptance speech, if she wins the Stage Debut Award. She’s acutely aware that she was only able to give the performance that she did because of the support she received from the production team. In other words, this celebration of her talent is only possible because some people with some power cared enough to make a commitment to levelling out the playing field for disabled artists. It makes me think about all the unknown talented people who did not fulfill their potential because they were never given the resources they needed to be their full and authentic selves. Nwokoro and I are in sync on this point; “I just feel [some of these awards are] lifting and supporting artists in terms of their names and appearances and public profiles but not their hearts and souls and bodies and wellbeings. I feel like the theatre industry is so lacking in community and care.” She repeats the word care six times and her frustration is palpable. She’d much rather the people watching the ceremony engaged with revolution work or justice work. “I want to go back to thinking about art as the basis for social change. We’re in a terrifying time, a time of revolution – so what the hell is the theatre industry doing in the UK to be a part of that actively? That’s what I’d like to say at the ceremony.”

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J N Benjamin

J.N. Benjamin often has opinions about theatre, and sometimes writes about them. Talk to her @reviewsandtings on twitter.

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