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Bisola Alabi - Refilwe Interview

This Christmas, Talawa Theatre Company is touring a southern African retelling of Rapunzel, Refilwe, across London. Co-produced with and touring to Bernie Grant Arts Centre and National Youth Theatre, Refilwe is a bold African retelling of the classic European fairytale by Bisola Alabi, all about home, hair and connecting with your roots.

This fun-filled family adventure follows heroine Refilwe as she, her aunty Agnes and their new friend Tumi use dance moves, riddles – and most importantly – magic hair – to escape the British Museum after closing time. Refilwe is directed by Azieb Pool, Artistic Director of Bernie Grant Arts Centre, and stars up-and-coming actors from the National Youth Theatre.

We caught up with writer Bisola Alabi to discover more about the production.

What attracted you to want to put your own spin on the classic tale of Rapunzel?  

I was inspired by the children’s book Refilwe, which was written by Zukiswa Wanner. Her spin on the classical tale opened me to further inspiration of how I could expand the story into something modern and relatable but still blend in recognisable moments that are in Refilwe and the classic. I felt that there was an intriguing scope to excavate from the tale, such as giving the ‘witch’ an actual name and agency. Having the freedom to interrogate the story offered multiple paths of ideas and expansion of the tale. Zukiswa gave me the freedom to play with ideas and that in itself was such a wonderful appeal.  

How did you approach bringing your vision to the page and ultimately now the stage?  

The approach I took to bring my vision from page to stage started with the staple images of the story, which of course is the hair. Refilwe having long locs and the questions that arose led me to the ideas of how she looks after her hair, what tools does she need? Why does the witch, now known as Aunty Agnus, want to cut her hair? Is Tumi still a love interest? Why is Refilwe a passive lead? All these questions made way for further character exploration and the important themes that I wanted to flesh out, which was already hinted within the text. For example, having Refilwe move from a passive lead to an active hero of her own story helped me centre it and branched out into further story development. 

What led you to decisions such as Refilwe escaping the British Museum after closing?  

It all starts from her hair and me wanting to empower this character by taking back something that belongs to her. The ideas about beauty and identity were the focus, and how young Black children view themselves through the lens of our society. I then thought of what are the institutions that tell our stories and it hit me that this story must take place in the British Museum and it is for Refilwe to claim back what is hers. Not just a physical item but internally - her claiming her greatness and being proud of who she is.  

What was the biggest challenge you faced whilst writing the script?  

The biggest challenge that I had was ensuring that the audiences findenjoyment and fun, whilst peppering in these themes. Children are very honest and if they don’t like a show they will tell you. Luckily I had opportunities to test out extracts from the material to younger audiences, which was an eye opener. I also want to ensure that the adults watching the show enjoy it.  

Bisola Alabi

What keeps you inspired as a creative?  

Immersing myself in as much art as possible helps me to stay creative and inspired. I’ve also come to recognise that enjoying the small moments in my life, such as connecting with friends and family, travelling and challenging myself in other areas has played a great role. I have a habit of putting pressure on myself and so I have made a conscious effort to ensure that in all I do, I move with joy.  

What do you hope an audience member takes away from seeing Refilwe?  

I want them to feel empowered, affirmed and to have absolute fun watching Refilwe.

Refilwe runs in December at the following venues;
Bernie Grant Arts Centre - Saturday 2nd to Sunday 10th December.

The Workshop Theatre, National Youth Theatre - Wednesday 13th to Sunday 17th December.

Talawa Studio - Tuesday 19th to Saturday 23rd December.

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