Sally Hales asks London playwright Diana Nneka Atuona why she’s brought 1940s Tiger Bay to life on the London stage.
Diana Nneka Atuona burst onto the theatre scene in 2015 with her debut play, the Liberian Girl, an award-winning tale of a teenage girl surviving the civil war. Eight years later, her second play focuses on the multicultural community of Cardiff’s Butetown. Now playing at the prestigious Donmar Warehouse, with a cast including TV favourite Sarah Parish and directed by Tinuke Craig, Wales Arts Review finds out how a story of diverse, working-class Wales found itself in the spotlight.
Sally Hales: I wanted to ask you first what attracted you, as a Londoner, to telling stories about Butetown.
Diana Nneka Atuona: I was born and raised in Peckham. I just fell in love with the history. People always say you should write what you know but I think you write things because they resonate with you – you somehow connect with them. I grew up in Peckham and, like Butetown, it’s a place that has a reputation that’s not completely deserved. It’s not completely undeserved either. And through massive gentrification taking place, they have a similar kind of trajectory.
Part of Tiger Bay’s cultural identity is the Nigeria and West African culture. I’m of West African descent. I felt like I could access it. I thought it was such a rich bit of history. At the time I started writing it, I was surprised that hardly anybody knew about Tiger Bay. The more I read and researched, the more I thought it was gold.
I was fortunate to meet people like Neil Sinclair [Cardiff historian] with whom I became good friends. He welcomed me and gave me access to the community. Talking to people and hearing their stories, I thought, there’s something here. And when I read his two books, The Endangered Tiger and The Tiger Bay story, there was a part in there that said when the American GIs came over during the Second World War, they weren’t allowed into Tiger Bay. I had to write something about that. I was reluctant at first because I didn’t want to touch Second World War. I thought it was going to be too much research but, in the end, there was no other way. The story was just so good. And I became obsessed with it and really fell in love with the people I interviewed.
And I know that a lot of people kind of think, ‘you’re not from Cardiff’ but I did my due diligence in many ways. Obviously, there’s a bit of artistic licence employed and that’s also to serve the story, but I did what I could to honour the history and I think portray people and certainly my characters in a realistic light. But a lot of my characters are like they’re the kind of people that grew up with. Gwen, the strong Celtic matriarch [played by Sarah Parish] is like a working-class girl from around the way, you know?
Sally Hales: Do you feel there’s less resistance now to telling multicultural stories or more diverse stories on the London stage – to represent people from all over and take their stories seriously – beyond ‘poverty porn’?
Diana Nneka Atuona: Definitely. Eight years is not a long time but, actually, a lot has changed in those years. When I first started writing, there was an interest from the theatre company that I was working with, so there was an openness there. But I didn’t know how audiences would take it. But there seems to just be an explosion of all kinds of stories.
There’s a real openness now because, for too long, so many people’s stories have been ignored. But I also, this business and they realise that if you continue to ignore certain stories, you stifle yourself as an industry.
Sally Hales: Have people been surprised to learn that there was this multicultural community in Cardiff, that dates to the Industrial Revolution?
Diana Nneka Atuona: They are. And I think that was the best part that was in many ways – the selling point. Because, growing up in London, you think Liverpool, London – those kinds of places. People don’t think of Wales, especially this small section in Cardiff – just one square mile. I knew that once people did find out that history, they’d be fascinated.
Sally Hales: Did you think that, as a multicultural community, Tiger Bay was or is different to other communities in places such as London? Or do you think all communities are kind of the same when different people are mixing?
Diana Nneka Atuona: Everybody brings their own culture. But when I was researching this play, I did a bit of research on places such as Liverpool and looked into London and even international port towns, and they all had similar characteristics. They were often quite dangerous places for obvious reasons. They had all kinds of people coming in and you didn’t know who these people were, and they were coming and going. And prostitution was a factor because it was part of what served the seafaring infrastructure. But, actually, I do think there is a common thing that goes along there, which is a sense of not only multiculturalism but the attitude that it’s just not a big deal. It is what it is. We don’t make a big deal out of it. It’s people from the outside who do.
Sally Hales: Can you draw a creative line from your first play Liberian Girl to Trouble in Butetown?
Diana Nneka Atuona: What I’ve learned is that there are always going to be people who, even if you write something with the best intentions, are always going to think ‘you’re not from here. So how would you know what we’ve been through?’ I’ve been extra vigilant about that and trying to be sensitive – culturally sensitive – but not to the point where you lose what makes the play interesting.
I’ve also realised that I’ve become interested in dramatising moments in history because of the way that they bring random people together. There’s something exciting in that. But other than that, I just love real stories. I love human stories and finding ways to fictionalise that in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m giving people a history lesson, which is sometimes quite difficult. I’ve got a real thing for history in a way that I wasn’t taught at school.
Sally Hales: Trouble in Butetown is set during the Second World War, with the American military police coming in [violently]. It seems like there may be resonance with the modern day – an unbroken line of police violence. Is that something that you thought about when writing the play?
Diana Nneka Atuona: Sure, but I never write like that. I’m focusing on the story. It’s usually somebody else who comes and tells me how it’s relevant today. But you’re absolutely right that, looking back, the distrust that a lot of communities have towards the police came from somewhere. A lot of people in Butetown at the time certainly did have that – definitely in the 1950s, 60s and 70s because I talked to a lot of people in their 80s and there was still that sense. There’s the Lynette White case. There’s always been that sense that the police had a lot of institutional racism and that plays into the culture of communities like Tiger Bay. Some of that I can relate to because I grew up in Peckham.
Sally Hales: You have an amazing cast and director. Have they helped you discover anything new in the play?
Diana Nneka Atuona: When you get a group of actors together, they give it a new life. I can be really married to my scripts and think that it has to be this way, this is how I see it. And sometimes that works. But sometimes it doesn’t work and being open to that has been beneficial for the overall production. Working with Tinuke Craig has been fantastic. She has an open, very collaborative approach, not just with me, but with the actors as well. Nobody feels bad about saying ‘this doesn’t make sense’ or ‘this isn’t right’. Then we’ll all sit down and go through it. It just was lovely.
Sally Hales: What playwrights do you particularly admire?
Diana Nneka Atuona: I have to say that I really love the old playwrights, the old American playwrights from the post-war period. I’m a big Arthur Miller fan. I love Eugene O’Neill. I adore August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry, writers like that. And I tried to copy their work in some ways. I think that their work still plays today for a reason.
Sally Hales: What’s next for you? Are you moving on to another play?
Diana Nneka Atuona:: I hope to write more plays but I’m trying to do a bit of television and film, focusing on TV projects. There are a few ideas for theatre kicking around, but nothing that I am set on. But I hope it won’t be another eight years before I have something on!
Trouble in Butetown is at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, London, until 25 March 2023. For information on performances and tickets visit Donmar Warehouse.