Interview with Matilda Ibini

Matilda Ibini is an award-winning playwright whose latest play Little Miss Burden – a coming-of-age tale that brings together 90s nostalgia, Nigerian family, East London and Sailor Moon to tell the sometimes tricky, often funny, truth about growing up with a physical impairment – had a successful run at Bunker Theatre.

Ibini’s previous credits include Muscovado (BurntOut Theatre), My White Best Friend and Other Letters Left Unsaid (Bunker Theatre) and the radio drama She Didn’t Jump, She Was Pushed. She has always had a love of film and television, but began writing for the stage first, which collided perfectly when she won a BAFTA scholarship to do a Master’s degree in Playwrighting and Screenwriting at City University. The BAFTA scholarship not only eliminated a financial barrier, but provided mentoring, invites to events and opened doors Ibini believes wouldn’t have opened otherwise.

After earning a Distinction in her MA, Ibini went on to become a member of the prestigious writing development schemes The Soho Writers Lab and The Royal Court Writers Room. Her first full-length play, Muscovado, about slavery and the sugar trade, was produced in 2015 at BurntOut Theatre. Her turn on the stage, Little Miss Burden, about a young disabled girl, is her second full-length play to be produced.

Matilda Ibini speaks to Heather Marks about ableist tropes and why she writes against them, the importance of humour and magical realism in her writing and shares invaluable advice for aspiring disabled playwrights.

Little Miss Burden tells the story of Little Miss, a 13 year old girl growing up with a physical impairment. The play combines 90s nostalgia, Sailor Moon and magic realism in a heart-breaking but often hilarious narrative. Why did you choose magical realism as a way of telling this story?

I knew that if I was ever going to tell a story about disability it was never going to be literal. The way my brain processes story, it’s always about showing the feeling of something. I might not literally explain what it was like to grow up black and disabled, but I can show you the feeling. The great thing about magical realism is that it protected me from having to write a lot of pain because I didn’t just want to put trauma on stage. I wanted to show how someone processes these quite traumatic or difficult experiences, and how that affects them growing up, their sense of self and how they see themselves and their place in the world.

Little Miss Burden is very funny. Why was it important for you to reflect the humorous side?

Humour has always been important in a lot of my work, probably because of my upbringing. Laughter brings people together a lot more than pain does, and I wanted to show that. I also wanted to challenge the idea – the ableist trope – that you can’t be happy with a disability; that your life is somehow tragic, or it is a death sentence. Actually, there’s an entire community and generations of disabled people who’ve lived incredible lives because they’ve been able to find the light; they’ve been able to find the network of support they needed to live the life they wanted.

Challenging the trope of the tragic disabled person is hugely important given that the most revived narrative on stage about a disabled person is The Elephant Man, a play about a physically impaired man who undergoes a My Fair Lady-esque transformation from circus freak to gentleman, and whose death is surrounded by questions of suicide. Also, the fact that the titular character has largely been played by able-bodied actors. With Little Miss Burden, how conscious were you of writing against ableist tropes?

I realised this was an optimum moment to use [the play] to challenge some of the stereotypes that really bug me, get under my skin and to reframe some of those experiences to show why they’re problematic. These ableist tropes are so detrimental to an important part of your life – your formative years. That’s when you’re like playdough; you’re still being shaped and moulded, so to have those things attached to you to the point where the things people have said or done to you, you’re now doing to yourself. It’s really important to address them for the next generation of young disabled people to know that their lives have value.

What tropes bother you as a writer?

We could be here all day, but to give you some headlines: the idea that people would rather be dead than disabled; the idea that death is a better alternative than living as a disabled person. Or that you couldn’t possibly be happy: ‘Why aren’t you sad all the time?’ And people who think, ‘I could never live like you; I could never live with a disability’ because there’s this assumption that I must be miserable, that all I do is wallow over the things I’m unable to do.

Because I interact with a lot of government institutions in terms of welfare and social care, any time I to have an assessment or check-in, I’m battling against policies that have been created with this belief that I have no ambition, that I don’t want to leave my house. Constantly having to justify why I want to live a life, instead of staying at home and living off benefits – and not aspire to anything. Being told ‘Why do you want fresh meals when you could have just ready meals all the time?’ Or, ‘Why do you want to go shopping when you could just do it online?’ There’s just this assumption that I don’t want to live because I’m disabled.

One thing I find quite perplexing when I look at your credits – the prestigious writers’ rooms, the residencies, the shortlist nominations – is that it’s taken nearly five years for your second full-length play to be staged. Given these credentials, why has it taken so long?

I’d been given so much developmental support but very rarely a commissioning opportunity. I think that speaks a lot to a lack of understanding that breeds a lack of resources made available to support disabled people, because if you don’t know what the problem is or what the barriers are, you won’t know how to address them. And then the lack of a physical infrastructure.

Fringe theatre is entry level for all playwrights, irrespective of who you are or what your background is. No one gets to just walk into the National [Theatre] and get that commission, you’ve got to build up credit and experience. You’ve got to build up a catalogue of work. But if no one sees the work that you’re doing, or gets a chance to see the work, then they don’t know you write. All the fringe venues that are above pubs, in basements, are inaccessible spaces – not just physically but also attitudinally. For example, the staff don’t know BSL or there aren’t captioned performances or BSL-interpreted performances, or there’s no audio description. Not only can you not see work, you also can’t have work on. This, with the fact that I was hustling to try and find accessible spaces to have work on – they are out there, but they are fewer than non-accessible spaces – is probably why it took longer.

How did you maintain a sense of creative wellbeing through all of this?

Many, many times I very nearly packed it in, thinking, ‘I can’t do this. This industry is not for me. I don’t feel welcome’. You feel like you’re in a race and you’re just watching everyone go past you.  But I have a very supportive family, friends and network of mentors who made me value my voice more. Also seeing a therapist on and off for my mental health helped too.

It sounds really strange, but when you grow up devalued, often in innumerable ways, you just start to assume that you are worth nothing; that you have nothing to contribute. It took a lot of convincing from others, from more positive influences, to counteract those negative ones.

I’m incredibly grateful to the Bunker Theatre. They read my letter for My White Best Friend  and asked: ‘Is there anything else you’ve been working on that we could read?’ Before, it had always been a ‘Let’s go for a coffee’, ‘Keep us in the loop of what you’re doing next’ kind of thing. I’d never been at a meeting where someone was like ‘We want to programme your work; we want to put it on’. I had to pinch myself and say, ‘Did that actually happen?’ I needed to be sure I didn’t just dream that someone actually wanted to put on my work. Again, I was going down that road of devaluing myself and what I had to offer.

What’s next after Little Miss Burden?

A play at Bush Theatre is what I’ll be working on next. They’ve been incredibly patient.

It seems like you’ve found a collaborator.

Finding your tribe of collaborators is so important. You won’t find them if you’re not out there, going to see work and letting people know that you’ve enjoyed it. Since I first started, I keep a spreadsheet of people I’ve met, especially if they’ve given me their [business] cards. If I’m ever looking for a director, or want to approach someone, or have an idea, then I can quickly go through that spreadsheet and say, ‘Hmm, who do I think I could speak to about this idea I have?’

In the spirit of equity, is there something you would like to discuss that we haven’t touched on in this interview?

Writing this particular play is very overtly about disability and it took me a long while to feel comfortable writing about something so close [to me]. In a lot of playwriting 101’s, they usually encourage you to ‘write what you know’ but I’d also add ‘write what you don’t know’ or ‘what you would like to know’ because it’s not always easy for everyone to mine themselves for stories. Sometimes, that person might not be ready, might not have the tools to do it safely, so I think ‘write what you want’.

Little Miss Burden isn’t a disabled narrative. This is a story about a very specific experience of someone growing up with a physical impairment.

Little Miss Burden, the five-star production from emerging star Matilda Ibini, played at Bunker Theatre in December 2019.

Read Briana Carter’s review of Little Miss Burden here.