This week, I had the fantastic opportunity to speak with Natalie Ibu, writer and director ofI know All the Secrets In My World. The show is halfway through its tour, having shown at Latitude, Pulse and Departure Lounge last year. It is now in Bristol and will be showing 17th-20th February at the Bristol Old Vic.
The piece is performed by the Tiatafahodzi Theatre Company, (the pronunciation of which is helpfully spelt out on their colorful and informative website as being ‘tee ah tah fa hoon zi’). The company is keen to meet and connect with lots of people to bring them this show which Ibu described as, ‘Exciting, entertaining and moving thoughtful.’
Enlighten me about the plot, I ask; “this is about a father son relationship just before mother and wife dies” she explains. Other of Ibu’s points which stood out were the play’s grappling with “what it is to live and to lose” whilst following the pair as they deal with tragic loss and the need to connect with each other.
Ibu references the almost wordless nature of the piece and this catches my attention. She explains that the play “deals with both loss and loss of voices. The concept of play is about the desire to speak but without words.”
Although featuring two men, the piece has been produced by an entirely female team. “It’s a conversation between men and women”, Ibu says, referring to herself as an “ambassador for diversity and equality”. I picked up on this
theme of masculinity. “It’s something not often addressed in theatre” I probe. Ibu agreed, outlining the importance of African diaspora in contemporary Britain as being a crucial motivator of her play. “As an artist I feel a responsibility to make my work a counter voice—not attempting to duplicate but to present plurality.”
Ibu expressed her feeling that black men are often shown as unemotional and inarticulate and how this breeds a stereotype of what it is to be a man. “I wanted to create a story in full colour” she says, expressing her desire to expose how the way society bring up boys may not serve them for life as it often leaves them ill-equipped to deal with grief.
The use of masculinity as a stimulus for the show gives it a deeply personal feel because men have been largely absent from Ibu’s world. Raised by her mother and amongst aunties and female friends, she was rocked by the discovery in 2009 of 5 half brothers. “I started imagining a life populated by men and how it could be enhanced by a more masculine presence.”
Her writing of the show hence focuses upon “what happens when you mourn something you haven’t experienced.” For Ibu, it was her brothers, but her audience mourn a mother they never meet.
This mourning occurs almost wordlessly. When I ask her about this, Ibu reveals this play is by no means silent. Helen Skier the sound director delivers a ‘rich dynamic and emotional soundscape’. Once the mother dies, the sound is created by her voice. Use of one voice to create an oral and manipulation through programming indicate this will be a nuance, technically beautiful performance.
Using many languages, it is set to be linguistically rich, even though Ibu reveals a surprising 98 percent of communication is non verbal. The play’s use of the sensory affects the audience like real perfume in a small studio space.
Having read some of the glowing reviews on the website, I ask Ibu about the audience response. It has been generous, people have found the show thoughtful, it has reduced people to tears. “Really we have had a range of emotions which are as varied as life. Everyone has been surprised and inspired by how much you can say without words”. It’s about a moment in time where words don’t cut it, they just can’t communicate the depth of feeling.
“‘Art is about life, what it is to live, love, be human. So it’s bold to go without words” she says. Yet, this play, which is nearly on our doorsteps, remains true to its moments and as Ibu concludes, “in this moment they would be silent”.