Meet the Writer: Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini

“These characters have been incredibly patient and grown up with me, so I’m over the moon to finally let them loose on the Bush stage.”

Following on from the huge successes of their plays, including the Alfred Fagon Audience Award-winning Muscovado as well as Little Miss Burden which premiered at the Bunker Theatre, and writing for screen and radio including BBC Four’s CripTales, we couldn’t be more thrilled that Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini’s next play is part of our 50th birthday season. With Sleepova opening in less than two weeks, we sat down with Matilda to get to know them better!

“In a parallel universe this would have been the first play that I’d ever written” Matilda says about Sleepova. “I love coming-of-age stories because we all come of age in different ways. There is no singular narrative to growing up. I’m still coming of age now, rediscovering myself, embracing long lost parts of myself. When I think back to when the characters first spoke to me, they were asking me why me and my sisters were never allowed to go to sleepovers. And then realising how this was such a common experience for a lot of young black people, children of immigrants and so on. These characters have been incredibly patient and grown up with me, so I’m over the moon to finally let them loose on the Bush stage.”

“Writing helped me rediscover a lost voice.”

One of the things our #Bush50 writers share is that their paths into writing for theatre have been utterly unique. “I started writing Scooby Doo fan fiction in primary school, which evolved into writing poetry in secondary school. I discovered playwriting in college and university which lead me to the Soho Writers Lab in 2011. As someone who was bullied throughout secondary school, college and a bit at uni, writing helped me rediscover a lost voice. And now I hope my writing might help someone else rediscover theirs.”

The cast of Sleepova in rehearsals. Photo by Helen Murray.

Matilda’s inspirations come from a huge range of sources. “My family, support networks and Nigerian heritage and spirituality. Afrofuturism, magical realism, the works of Lina Iris Viktor, Asiko, music in general but also the music and music videos of Janelle Monae, TLC, Missy Elliott and Lizzo just to name a few. Injustice. My emotions and the process to understand them. The disabled and LGBTQ+ community. And lots and lots and lots of writers.”

They talk of the huge influence Bola Agbaje’s play Gone Too Far! had on them. “It’s not the first play I read but I remember it being a play that I enjoyed so much I had to call my mum just to tell her about it. It really spoke to that hyphenated experience of being British-Nigerian. I resonated with the characters a lot, they were like the people in my family, the people I went to school with, grew up with. I remember finishing it and being like ‘woah – I didn’t know you could write plays like that.’”

“The world hasn’t returned to any kind of normalcy for me, so I try to focus on the tiny joys in my day to day.”

Self-describing as a “bionic playwright”, a term they adopted when they became a full-time wheelchair user, Matilda has become recognised as one of the foremost disabled artists in the UK. Their plays often centre fully-realised disabled characters, exploring an honest – and often joyful – perspective of existing as a disabled person. In their previous work, Little Miss Burden told Little Miss’s story of growing up with a physical impairment, and her episode of the BBC’s CripTales told a story of queer love and the judgement one woman was faced with from her carer. Sleepova tells a story of four young black girls, one of whom lives with Sickle Cell, a condition that is particularly common in people with African or Caribbean heritage.

The cast of Little Miss Burden (Bunker Theatre). Photo by Kofi Dwaah.

We chatted about how things have changed since the pandemic began (or “pandemonium”, as Matilda calls it). “The world hasn’t returned to any kind of normalcy for me, I’m still adjusting to this endemic world. So I try to focus on the tiny joys in my day to day. Not waking up in too much pain, lighting scented candles, catching up with friends online and watching things together, listening to music and occasionally when I can going to the cinema in the middle of the day, when it’s usually very empty. Feels like having a whole screen to yourself.”

“I am drawn to stories where I can relate and feel seen.”

On the topic of finding joy, Matilda spoke to an enduring passion and something that has cropped up in her work – nineties nostalgia. “I feel no guilt about this and no one will ever shame me but I still watch Sailor Moon – the dubbed version. There’s something about it that soothes my inner child – every time I watch it, it feels like watching it for the first time and that childhood feeling of awe comes back.”

Director Jade Lewis with the cast of Sleepova in rehearsals. Photo by Helen Murray.

“My career has been and continues to be a collaborative effort,” Matilda says, and Sleepova is set to be no different. Led by director Jade Lewis, the incredible cast of Bukky Bakray, Amber Grappy, Aliyah Odoffin and Shayde Sinclair are busy bringing the world of Matilda’s play to life in our rehearsal room. It is a story that is bursting to be told. We asked Matilda what types of stories she thinks are most important. “My gut is telling me the extraordinary stories as well as the extra ordinary stories too. I am drawn to stories where I can relate and feel seen but I am also drawn to stories from people, communities, time periods or social struggles that I may have never heard of or encountered before.”

If you want to experience Matilda’s extraordinary play, get reacquainted with your inner child and have a joyful night at the theatre, Sleepova starts on 24 Feb. Come with pals, bring your snacks, and join Rey, Elle, Shan and Funmi on the sleepover of a lifetime.

Find out more and book for Sleepova here.