Femi Elufowoju Jr: Why did Tennessee Williams marginalise African Americans?

His career has spanned more than three decades, but Femi Elufowoju Jr has never been as busy as he is now. “I’ve never had the opportunity to direct two shows back to back for the same building,” says the director. When he walked past the posters for both shows, side by side, he said: “Oh, this is crazy.”

Bim Adewunmi’s debut play Hoard opened in the smaller space of the Arcola, London, earlier this month, and now Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is in the main studio, after its run at Watford Palace.

“One’s contemporary, first-time writer, set in 2019 east London. The other is set across the Atlantic, more than 80 years old, has had so many outings, and is by one of America’s greatest, passed playwrights.” They couldn’t be more different, he says, and yet “there’s a marriage of themes”. Both stories explore “family, mothers, the home” and both are set in one place, “dealing with the trials and tribulations of the generation gap, needs, ambition”. He claps his hands together and grins. “I’m really excited.”

‘The African American presence in Williams’ plays is marginal’ … Charlie Maher and Naima Swaleh in The Glass Menagerie. Photograph: Idil Sukan

The oldest of five children, Elufowoju Jr was born in Hammersmith, west London, to Nigerian parents. His family relocated to Nigeria when he was 12. “I thought we were going on holiday. We were told, ‘You’re going to know your country.’” How long did the holiday last? He laughs. “Another 12 years.”

Returning to the UK at 24 to pursue his hopes of becoming an actor, he made his professional debut in 1986, playing Martin Luther King Jr in Flip Fraser’s musical Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame. He went to drama school at Bretton Hall in West Yorkshire and then arrived at the National Theatre. “I joined Richard Eyre’s company for three years. Back then, if you were in rep at the National, playing between those three theatre spaces, you could earn a bit of a fortune, but in minor roles. After years playing the fourth ferret on the right, I had to question myself: is this where I want to go?”

He remembers his first day of rehearsals at the National: “Forty-six of us, standing in a circle. Typical first day, you’ve got to say who you are. But we never did because Richard Eyre stood in the middle of the circle and introduced us all by first and surname, to each other.” Eyre was a huge influence, especially when Elufowoju Jr began to direct. “I wanted to be able to lead actors,” he says.

He went not just to directing plays but to becoming artistic director of the theatre company Tiata Fahodzi. Established in 1997, the company has a name amalgamating the west African languages Yoruba and Twi and means “theatre of the emancipated”. It is “my baby”, Elufowoju Jr says. He and his peers Patrice Naiambana and Jude Akuwudike were trying to fill a gap when it came to African theatre in the UK. “I was working with Talawa under Yvonne Brewster, and she was an inspiration, so my eyes were opened to the whole machinery of running a company, a black company. [But] when I was emerging as a performer, the black work [was to] do with the Caribbean persuasion.”

Ellen Thomas, Estella Daniels, Kemi Durosinmi and Elizabeth Ita in Hoard

The relationship between generations … Ellen Thomas, Estella Daniels, Kemi Durosinmi and Elizabeth Ita in Hoard. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

After 14 years at the helm, Elufowoju Jr stepped down in 2010 to encourage Tiata Fahodzi to move into a new phase. Now, under Natalie Ibu, the company explores theatre of the African diaspora, looking at stories for people of African descent who may or may not have close ties with Africa. “They’re moving with the times,” Elufowoju Jr adds. “The artistic capital of our self-being and our identity has rooted itself in a complete different way, and it’s more empowering. And there’s a cross-beneficial thing that’s happening, because that generation are recognising the past.”

In Hoard, the relationship between African generations is a prevailing theme, but he says “one of the reasons I wanted to do Hoard was for the first time I wasn’t doing a play where the family are dealing with issues only [black people] could deal with. It’s not about immigration, it isn’t dealing with issues of identity crisis, it’s not a play about displacement. It’s just a play about social values. It’s a universal theme.”

The play’s portrayal of a Nigerian-British family and the matriarch’s hoarding of more and more physical items, is something a lot of people from immigrant backgrounds can recognise. “As Wura in the play articulates, ‘You call it stuff. But do you know the number of people whose lives I’ve saved due to the fact that I can give? Do you know what’s in those boxes? You have no idea how those items are changing people’s lives back home.’ There’s a rationale behind her habit, but her daughters don’t see it that way.”

As to whether Elufowoju Jr is a hoarder himself, he replies: “I question what I keep. It’s things that I know will kind of enhance my understanding of my profession. So I keep a lot of magazines, a lot of industry stuff. I do surprise a lot of my contemporaries, some of whom I met 20, 30 years ago. I just whip out a programme and go, ‘Guess what?’ I started collecting ticket stubs in 1986. I didn’t know why. But now if you come into my home, literally the doorway into my kitchen, you can’t see the paint. It’s all ticket stubs, and people go, ‘Where did you buy that?’ They think it’s wallpaper.’”

For The Glass Menagerie, Elufowoju Jr has cast the Wingfield characters as African American. Why? “Tennessee Williams grew up in east Mississippi, before the Great Migration,” he says. “If you look at all of Williams’ plays, he sets most of his stories in the south, [but] the African American presence within his plays is marginal. They’re not in any lead roles whatsoever. But his plays are amazing stories, completely and utterly accessible. They’re psychological thrillers, historical pieces, cultural masterpieces, and you just question: was he doing it deliberately?”

Look at what the Wingfield family deals with, he says. “Single parent, ambitious mother, ambitious son who’s an artist, an older sister who is struggling with herself? Ambition, the way the mother looks to the son to be the breadwinner? All those things are just universally experienced across a tapestry of cultures. The only thing that’s kind of really novel about the whole thing is the fact that it’s the first time in the UK the Wingfield family [aren’t white]. In America it’s done to death.” Why does the “gentleman caller” who shatters much of the characters’ false illusions remain white?

“I didn’t want it to be a gimmicky play. It was enough for me to go, yeah, I want to make the Wingfield family [African American] and just go: ‘How much have they allowed us to hear the text differently?’”

Elufowoju Jr still finds the time to act, mostly for TV, including Sex Education and the forthcoming Year of the Rabbit, with Susan Wokoma. Next, he will be working on his debut feature film, Incensed, a corporate thriller that bounces between the UK, South Africa and Nigeria. Even though acting might afford him larger audiences, he still embraces working at venues like the Arcola, in pockets of the multicultural inner-city London similar to where he grew up.

“I’m asked quite often, ‘Femi, why aren’t you directing at the National?’ And I go, I am directing at the National. This is my National. People who will come and see the shows are my National people, they hit every strata. The arena’s probably not as big, but to see the all-inclusive British audience connect with the work … that’s important. That’s important for me.”

Hoard is at the Arcola, London, until 8 June. The Glass Menagerie runs until 13 July.

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