Features Published 14 February 2020

Temi Wilkey: “It feels like a bit of a reckoning”

Playwrights Nkenna Akunna and Temi Wilkey catch up, and talk ‘The High Table’, internalised homophobia, and what it’s like to want a play that’s made for you.

Nkenna Akunna

The cast of ‘The High Table’ at Bush Theatre. Photo: Helen Murray

Summer 2018, a theatre somewhere in London, matinee vibes. You are hot and sweaty, a little hungry, and counting down the moments to the end of a first half that is running quite a bit over, actually.

Finally the curtains go down and the lights up. You squeeze your way outside, thankful to catch a rare moment of generous breeze and sun. You start chatting with another writer who, like you, is trying to be optimistic about the play. Maybe the reason you both are trying to be optimistic is because the playwright of this production was described as ‘fresh’ and ‘new’, which are words that you both feel like you are. Eventually, though, you allow yourselves to be honest. You want to be optimistic because you were made to believe this play is For You. You are a minority person, okay? A BAMER, to those who lack sense and home training. The theatre engine asks that you be happy, nay wild with ecstasy, when bits and pieces of your identities are tugged on and marketed to. But what you just saw was… clunky, and dated, and, no offence, a bit dead. And a quick look at the programme also reveals a creative team that is a majority—

I’m getting ahead of myself.

As the bell signal end of interval, you and said writer haul yourselves out of a momentary, very specific kind of comfort. You walk back into the theatre, and the writer begins telling you about her play, The High Table.

Less than a year later, The High Table has a rehearsed reading as part of an LGBTQ programme at The Park Theatre. You are excited and a bit nervous. You want to like it. You want to love it. With what it’s about and who it centres: it all feels far too important. It has to be good.

And reader: it was good.

Even later. A few weeks before rehearsals for The High Table, opening at The Bush Theatre, begin, and I am sitting with Wilkey under a shoddy table umbrella in the wind and pouring rain. For effect.

“It feels like a bit of a reckoning, which is a bit… yikes, if I’m honest.”

The weather is loud and declarative, but Wilkey’s not talking about that. She’s responding to the idea of her Nigerian aunties and uncles seeing her play: “It’s weird feeling both worried about having a responsibility to the queer community, and also worried about it from a place of the black community. Nigerians [specifically], too. How are my parents going to feel when they see it? Are my aunties and uncles going to come?”

The High Table centres on these ideas of clashing communities and divided family loyalties. It follows Tara, a second generation British Nigerian woman, newly engaged and in the throes of wedding planning with her fiancée, Leah, who is also a black woman. When Tara’s parents suddenly refuse to attend her wedding, deciding instead that it is not something they can support, her life is derailed, and only the intervention of generations’ past can restore a new balance.

“The High Table is exploring family,” Wilkey expands, “and what it means when you can’t bring your partner to your family. What it means if those relationships can’t comfortably coexist. I’m exploring being African and being queer. And how, historically, lots of people think that those things are mutually exclusive when they are deeply not.”

Wilkey is drawing attention to the thing not often spoken about, the thing that is instead shouted away or ignored until it festers. The High Table is a play about a young woman, with the divine assistance of her ancestors, intimately unpacking and finding healing from her family’s homophobia.

For Wilkey, there aren’t enough people exploring internalised homophobia, or homophobia in the black community. She feels people are silent about it, that the homophobia isn’t often articulated. “[If it is] articulated, it’s in a church. It’s just a given that it’s not good, as opposed to really fleshing out why it’s thought about that way.” To confront this wall of silence, Temi says the play explores themes of “African spirituality,” of precolonial societies and their beliefs, and presents an example of how a meditation on ideas and ways of being that were erased by violent colonial expansion might provide peace and understanding in those African communities. In the present and the future.

What Wilkey is doing with The High Table is not straightforward. This is not a box-tick theatre kind of theatre, created predominantly by those with limited understanding of, or private access to, or any real stake in erased experiences. This is a play that forces us to see a new centre: a queer black woman’s reality, and the process of healing a generational trauma.

Temi Wilkey has worked for years as an actor, and was the co-founder and co-director of drag king collective Pecs. I first saw Wilkey as Drag King Cole at Brainchild Festival in 2015, and all I can say is I left that tent in a daze. Since then, Pecs have won fans with two successive cabaret shows at The Yard, including complex interrogation of masculinity and gender SEX SEX MEN MEN, and Wilkey has taken on major acting roles, including experimental performance Land Without Dreams at Gate Theatre. Watching Wilkey shift and sharpen on stage, both as a drag performer and theatre actor, has been exciting. So it wasn’t shocking that she would translate her keen eye for character, and her ability to create an event, into playwriting. She explains that “I think that people were incredibly [emotionally] invested in my work for Pecs, but I wanted to explore that in a way that wasn’t episodic, that gave me a narrative, that allowed me to be unapologetically African”. So she began writing The High Table in The Royal Court’s 2017 Introduction to Playwriting group, later sending a draft to The Bush during its open submissions period.

The reading at The Park Theatre was directed by Tom Wright, “an absolute babe, who spoke to the Bush about my play.” Wilkey then happened to be rehearsing at The Bush for a separate show. “[I was] making a show with my friend Celine. I knew Daniel Bailey [Associate Director at The Bush] so when we would see each other in the kitchen, he would be like “send us your play!” After I did, I just felt weird. The audacity of hope, I guess. I wanted it so much.” Soon after, Wilkey met with Bailey and Lynette Linton, the theatre’s Artistic Director. “They gave me notes and said it would be great to see a next draft. Then they wanted to have a reading to hear it. They got some actors in really quickly, which was a bit overwhelming. But it was really useful to hear other people do it. That was cool.”

Wilkey got another set of notes, and then a good few weeks of nothing. The silence, the waiting to hear back propelled her into a “state of hopeful anxiety.” She ended up getting advice from playwright Lucy Prebble, who she had met the year before. “She spoke to me on the phone about it all and said, ‘Remember you own this play.’”

As it turns out, the long wait was a result of The Bush Theatre securing a co-production with Birmingham Repertory Theatre. A few weeks after the play closes in London, it will open for another run in Birmingham. Perhaps this immediate success speaks to an unsatisfied hunger for new queer stories. But at the same time, that comes with a level of scrutiny: Wilkey says that “I’m most afraid of what queer people will think. Nationwide, across London, not enough queer work is programmed so it can feel like you have to speak for everyone, when you can’t really do that.”

The High Table is a welcome disruption. It provides an underrepresented example of black love, of queer love, and it doesn’t ask for anyone’s permission to do so.  And it’s also only her beginning. In fact, Wilkey is also currently working on an undisclosed Netflix show. “It’s all a bit mad, really,” she tells me as we get up to leave. I ask what is most exciting, most refreshing about this new move into writing, what feels fulfilling in these moments. Literally, for years, I’ve been like “give me an arc!” I ended up writing what I was hungry for as an actor. And I wanted to make something queer and narrative. I want to be emotionally invested. In a way that can be uncomfortable and not always make sense… but makes sense for me. That’s why I needed to write this play.”

The High Table is on at Bush Theatre until 21st March. More info and tickets here

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Nkenna Akunna

Nkenna Akunna is a culture writer and playwright from London who frequently writes about theatre and the African diaspora. She is completing an MFA in Playwriting at Brown University. @nkenna_akunna

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