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Inside Broadway: British-Born Nigerian Playwright Diana Nneka Atuona to Share Her Inspirations with American Playwrights

Diana Nneka Atuona

By Gwendolyn Quinn

British-born Nigerian playwright, Diana Nneka Atuona will be among the commissioned playwrights and presenters at the Kenyon Institute during this year’s annual Playwrights Conference, June 11-17 in Gambier, Ohio.

Atuona and Max Webster, the Associate Director of the Old Vic Theatre in London, England, will join other playwrights and artistic teams from the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City, A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) in Seattle, Kenyon College, and the Kenyon Institute for the week-long conference.

Atuona’s parents migrated to London from Nigeria in the early ‘70s with five children; she was the first to be born in England. Raised in Peckham in South London, Atuona developed an innate sense of social justice at an early age. She remembers watching a Free Nelson Mandela concert that was broadcast on television. When she talked with her Dad about it, his explanation riled her and continued her interest in social justice. She became involved and volunteered with various community and charity projects. At one point, she thought about going into politics in an unofficial capacity to be engaged in the local political system.

After completing a degree in international politics at South Bank University, Atuona was awarded a scholarship to study law at London’s prestigious Gray’s Inn. An advocate at heart, she felt guilty that she was given a scholarship and didn’t complete law school. She wrestled with that decision for many years but says she’s at peace with it now.

“I was excited about the prospect of becoming a lawyer,” she says. “I thought that was something that I could do. It was during that time I discovered my passion as a writer. I knew I was destined to go down that path, but I always felt guilty because [Gray’s Inn] gave me a chance and believed in me. I always thought, whatever I did, I would make sure that I make up for it one day.”

Atuona is best known for her award-winning debut play Liberian Girl, which premiered in January 2015 at London’s historic Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square and earned critical praise throughout the United Kingdom, Europe, and the global theater community. After its five-and-a-half-week run at the Royal Court, Liberian Girl then moved to the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham, and then to the CLF Arts Café in her home town of Peckham, which made her especially proud. The play placed in the top 25 in the Verity Bargate 2013 competition at the Soho Theatre and was long-listed for the Bruntwood Prize 2013.

(LIBERIAN GIRL at the Royal Court Theatre)

(LIBERIAN GIRL at the Royal Court Theatre)

Liberian Girl tells the story of a teenage girl’s survival and experience of war. Atuona says her brother, an accountant, came up with the initial idea and provided the motivation and inspiration behind her story. Completely blown away with her brother’s initial concept, Atuona was fascinated with the idea, but she knew nothing about the Liberian Civil War. She began her research and became obsessed.

“When I was struggling to get into the industry, my parents weren’t too happy with my decision of dropping out of law school,” she recalls. “The talk was, ‘When is Diana going to get a real job?’ And one day my brother came to me and said, ‘I hear that you’re a writer.’ And I thought, ‘Is he going to give me the speech about getting a real job?’ And he said, ‘I’ve got this great idea about these two boys who form a friendship, and it’s about football and friendship, but it’s set during the backdrop of the Liberian Civil War.’”

The Liberian Civil War took place between 1989 and 2003 when more than 200,000 people were killed, and more than one million people were displaced into refugee camps.

LIBERIAN GIRL at the Royal Court Theatre)

During the initial stages of the story’s development, Atuona tried to make Liberian Girl into a film, but it didn’t happen, and then later Beasts of No Nation—a film about an African child soldier in a civil war—was released. Through her extensive research, the idea of child soldiers and the Civil War intrigued her and became embedded in her spirit, especially information about the treatment of women and girls. Through her findings, she uncovered startling statistics about sexual violence against females in Liberia. Although she wasn’t fully convinced of the reported statistics, which she felt were flawed, she wondered about how, as a woman, she might protect herself in a threatening wartime situation. As she continued to ponder that dreadful concept, she then thought that she would disguise her identity, from female to male. It was from that concept that she developed the storyline for Liberian Girl.

“I wrote the play, and my brother didn’t mind that I took his premise of the story,” says Atuona. “It was quite controversial because it had rape scenes in it, but it wasn’t done to be gratuitous. It was central to the story, but not everybody understood that.”

(LIBERIAN GIRL at the Royal Court Theatre)

Before the premiere of Liberian Girl in 2015, a traditional stage reading of it was presented in June 2014 at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in London. The summit was chaired by Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and William Hague, then Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

As a first-time playwright, Atuona was paired with acclaimed stage director Matthew Dunster by the Royal Court Theatre. During their first meeting, she and Dunster went through the script.

“He was ruthless about saying, you know, ‘Lose that or keep that,’ Which is what I love,” she says. “If you passionately believe in something, you can argue for it. In the end, when I finally saw what Matthew did, I felt like I couldn’t have visualized that myself if I tried. He totally understood what I wanted to do with this play.”

Atuona feels that she possesses a special gift and innate talent for storytelling. Though she didn’t grow up attending theater productions as a child, she does believe that she was predisposed to the theatrical experience through watching plays in grade school. As she began to work on the production of Liberian Girl, she felt disadvantaged and challenged because she didn’t come into theater through traditional routes. She did not attend drama school and had not read many plays before her big break with the Royal Court Invitation Writing Group. In fact, she didn’t fall in love with theater until she started her internship at the Royal Court Theatre.

“I will still say I don’t see myself as someone who knows how to write plays,” she confesses. “In some ways that’s a good thing. What I took from that is, you do whatever works for you and, hopefully, someone will get it.”

Atuona is a firm believer that things happen for a reason. “It’s no coincidence that I ended up interning at the Royal Court,” she says. “It wasn’t just about watching Shakespeare’s plays, it was the new stories, and these were stories that were about anything from Civil War to divorce. That excited me because at the time I was desperately trying to get into film and television, but I wasn’t having any success. I realized that with stage productions, you can have more autonomy as a writer, but also you can go anywhere in the world for a fraction of the budget.”

Atuona’s “aha moment” came one night at the Royal Court Theatre while watching the work of playwright Debbie Tucker Green. She was captivated by her production of Truth and Reconciliation.

“This [play] is about the truth and reconciliation condition in various parts of the world,” she says.  “It was graphic, hardcore, and gripping, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is a no-brainer.’ This is everything that I’ve ever wanted to talk about.”

Although she is now an avid reader of plays, the work of others is not what informs her writing. It is her life experiences, which are a crucial part of her development as a playwright. As a writer, she has also been informed by the narrative power of film and television, which were accessible to her growing up. These influences have been her strength and contribute to her uniqueness as a playwright.

(Diana Nneka Atuona)

Atuona is looking forward to the Kenyon Playwrights Conference, where she will lead a master class on playwriting. Though her appearance at the Kenyon Playwrights Conference will mark only Atuona’s third trip to the United States, Atuona says she has an affinity for American playwrights and always felt connected to the history and struggles of the American people. She notes that she is still learning about the work and legacy of playwrights across all spheres. Though she hasn’t been to New York City to experience Broadway, American theater, or black theater, she has seen several British productions of American plays such as Fences, A View from the Bridge, One Night in Miami, and The Scottsboro Boys.

“I often feel that American playwrights are more daring, more bold, and more willing to tackle certain subjects in a way that we [British] just shy away from,” she concludes. “August Wilson is magical. I love the way he writes women in such a tender way. People say that he’s massively verbose, and he is. But I think his dialog is electric. I love it. And, I also love Arthur Miller as well.”

Atuona’s choice to follow her dream and passion has proven to be one of the best career decisions she’s ever made. Atuona has three plays in development; currently, Atuona is working on The Boy from the Bay, commissioned by The Old Vic Theatre, and will be directed by Dunster, who directed Liberian Girl. The Boy from the Bay is a period play set in Cardiff, Wales, about segregation during World War II among American G.I.s. She recently picked it back up after laboring over it for 18 intensive months.

The other two plays in development are commissioned by The Royal Court Theatre and Headlong Theatre, respectively. Also in development is a four-part television drama titled Frontline with lead writer Simon Block. The story is set during England’s Brixton Riots in the early ‘80s. Finally, Atuona is also developing a movie project with Film 4 and DNA Films.