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babirye bukilwa on their new play …cake and surviving the theatre world in the pandemic

The actor and playwright talks us through their new project and how the world of theatre has chewed them up and spit them out.

29 Jul 2021

It’s the day before the opening night of …cake at Peckham Theatre, a play that asks: how do queer, Black femmes achieve legitimacy when their soil is hostile? babirye bukilwa, the playwright, sits fresh-faced and grinning over Zoom with braids tumbling down around their shoulders. “By the way, I love that we’re matching,” babirye interjects as I ask how their morning has been. I look down and we’re both wearing beige cottagecore-style items. They are warm and calm, in a way I’m not sure many people would be after their opening night had been cancelled and pushed back due to Covid-19 restrictions. 

babirye bukilwa is best known for appearing in front of the camera in Cecile Emeke’s Ackee and Saltfish, and more recently in BBC Three’s Dreaming While Black. Alongside on-screen projects, they’ve performed in plays at the National Theatre, Soho Theatre and Royal Court Theatre to name a few. But babirye’s career spans far beyond acting into poetry and more. They represent one-third of Dazed 100-selected collective Sistren, who fronted a cutting-edge podcast in 2015, ran college workshops around safe sex, toxic love and self-empowerment, hosted parties, and secured a residency at Transmission Roundhouse. They found time for all of the above and more, before honing in on their playwriting prowess. 

cake is the prequel to their debut play blackbird hour (shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2019 and Alfred Fagon Award 2020), and it dives into generational trauma. babirye says they were inspired to write the play as they pondered how to take the story from their debut further. “Why can’t this be a trilogy, why does the work have to end here? Life doesn’t end, it continues,” they say. In their words there are “20,000 fucking Greys Anatomys”, so, why can’t the same thing happen for plays?”

“The majority of my career has been in theatre, and it finished me, it chewed me up, and spat me out”

babirye bukilwa

Billed as a psychological drama, …cake tells the story of the strained relationship between Eshe (Danielle Kassarate) and Sissy (Donna Banya) as they try to find the person they once knew in each other. Set in Sissy’s flat as she drinks, smokes and croons along to the smooth tones of Prince and Sade, things become turbulent between the two. At times …cake is funny and comforting but mostly, it’s a bitterly hard and honest glimpse at the manifestation of trauma. 

The play found its home in Peckham Theatre, south London with the help of director malakaï sargeant, and together with babirye, they workshopped and developed it with love and care. The team, including cast and crew, are Black, and majority queer too an intentional decision and a far cry from the norm in theatre. “Unless the actors are being treated with respect, unless the piece has been treated with respect and unless there isn’t tokenism here, we can share a piece of work,” babirye says matter-of-factly. 

babirye intimately understands how crucial it is for cast members to be treated well, especially when dealing with difficult content. Life as an actor isn’t as glamorous as people might think. “We constantly have to be in front of people who judge us [and] not our talent, judge how we look judge our skin complexion, judge our weight, judge how we dress.” The list goes on and with each addition, they sound more and more exasperated. In their view, actors are treated like soulless puppets. 

So for …cake, the team went as far as having a therapeutic facilitator on-site to make sure the cast were being cared for. “When you’re Black and then especially on top of that if you’re queer, and then if you’re working class, they expect you to be happy to be in the fucking room.” babirye’s eyes begin to well and they pat them gently with a finger. “Oh god, I’m gonna get emotional.”

It’s easy to see why they begin to tear up. The last year has been anything but easy for them.  The arts, especially theatre, have been impacted massively by the pandemic – with many in the industry criticising the government’s slow approach to support it. babirye, who is freelance, lost acting gigs and projects halted while they mourned for their career. Then the real and urgent need to find work set in. “Everyone’s going through a madness with this fucking Tory government,” they blurt out, followed by a quiet “sorry” for the expletives.

Donna Banya and Danielle Kassarate in babirye bukilwa‘s ‘…cake’, photography by Seye Isikalu

“I literally entered every single writing competition that I could,” they add, as they knew the prize money would keep their practice going and help fund future projects. “The majority of my career has been in theatre, and it finished me, it chewed me up, and spat me out,” Now babirye is thankfully in a position where they can be pickier with who they work with. Soon enough babirye was able to develop new material from blackbird hour, become an associate artist at Theatre Peckham, and …cake was born. 

babirye loves the craft even though they feel that theatre as an institution “is gross”. “It’s white, it’s elitist, it’s boring, I’m bored. It’s boring that theatres decide to put on a Shakespeare play every year.” It’s clear to me babirye’s work is very much a love letter for Black femmes. “I’m just writing my friends,” they say. “I’m writing myself, I’m writing people that I know. I’m writing my aunts, I’m writing the Black woman you see down Brixton that is always outside that one Morley’s.” 

cake feels like an exciting new chapter in the next stage of babirye’s career. Now they’ve finished filming Season 2 of Alibi’s We Hunt Together, they’ve been writing for the National Youth Theatre, and have an audio play coming out about internalised misogyny within Black femme romantic relationships. The future is bright for babirye. 

They are part of a generation of theatre-makers who are continuing to shake things up on their own terms, rather than as an emerging artist – a category Black established artists often find themselves being flung into. “How long can one emerge, please?” babirye asks rhetorically, head tilted. I can’t help but cackle at their deadpan humour. “Like how long can one emerge? Man has been emerging!” 

Catch …cake until August 7 at Theatre Peckham