Opening this coming Tuesday at the Corpus Playroom, SCENE promises something new for Cambridge theatre, quite literally putting an exploration of race, gender and sexuality centre stage. I was lucky enough to sit in on part of a rehearsal and talk to writers Lola Olufemi and Martha Krish about the importance of their groundbreaking drama.
Taken as its bare roots, the play follows an interracial queer couple as they decide to write and stage a play about key moments in their relationship. It was partially written with actors Saskia Ross and Laura Cameron in mind, who play Ayo and Flo respectively. “I think the show’s important because it’s giving us a vehicle to talk about race in a way I don't think is often spoken about in Cambridge theatre,” Lola tells me. “It’s a commentary on race rather than a BME cast, or focusing on a specific issue – we’re confronting it head on.” Martha elaborates: the duo wanted to put on a play in Cambridge “that makes the audience question themselves and their complicity” in race issues. To do this, they’ve deliberately focused their play on a concrete relationship between two people who deeply care about each other, making the issues at play more than abstract and theoretical.
To create this concrete impression, Martha and Lola have drawn on the specific experiences of themselves and friends. Martha describes the writing process as “patchwork”, and Lola reveals that they’ve taken a very democratic approach to their script, allowing the actors to chop and change it according to what felt natural. This building up of the characters becomes evident when speaking to Saskia and Laura, who reveal they’ve explored the background of their characters in workshops. “It makes everything feel really natural,” Saskia explains, emphasising the benefits of gradually approaching characters across an entire Cambridge term.
This careful approach has solidified the complexities of the central relationship, and its clearly something the cast has a lot of thoughts on. “The power dynamics are difficult,” explains Laura. I don't think one is more powerful than the other at all, they dominate different areas of expertise. Flo didn’t learn much about race, but coming out and queerness are something she feels strongly about.” By focusing on a loving relationship with empathetic and relatable central characters, the play aims to show that the problems the characters face can’t necessarily be glossed over. “It’s a really interesting way to approach the topic, rather than just making the audience feel guilty,” notes Saskia.
The importance of this play being performed in Cambridge in particular is emphasised by the writers. “I think one thing we had in mind when we decided we were going to put on a show here is we’re dealing with an audience who might think they have more knowledge than an ‘average member’ of the public,” Lola explains. “We’re in a space where we’re constantly asked to intellectually think about things”. Lola recognises the achievements being made in Cambridge theatre – such as actor Saskia’s direction earlier this term of an entirely BME performance of Macbeth – but emphasises that there’s still much more to be done. “Who feels like they can audition for this show? Where is it set?” Lola questions. “This production was a passion project, but we also knew it would spark a conversation about something we knew was important in Cambridge, and in Cambridge drama.”
The weightiness of surrounding issues hasn’t made the writing process easy: as Martha explains, the pressure of feeling like your characters could be taken as representation of the entire LGBT+ or BME population can be incredibly off-putting. “One of the things we liked was the idea of completely privileging the story of a type of character not represented very often, but this brings an added fear as a writer,” she notes. “There’s a fear of responsibility – we have to do justice to queer women in their own separate identities and also as couples, and also consider race dynamics in relationships. There’s lots of things you feel like you have to get right.” Yet ultimately the duo are excited about their creation being performed. “It’s two women in love on stage,” Lola tells me. “I don’t really think I’ve seen that for a sustained period of time.”
SCENE plays at the Corpus Playroom from Tuesday 14- Saturday 18 March, 9.30pm