On Sunday night, I put on my make-up and dusted off a dress to go to the theatre. The unusual aspect was that it was a virtual one, where Zoom became the stage, but still a theatre nonetheless. It was the first reveal of Theatre with Teeth’s witty comedy, Hair, and with the COVID-19 pandemic putting a full, in-person performance on hold for the foreseeable future, the talented members of the society decided to virtually showcase extracts from their upcoming production. Written and directed by Leila Lockley, Hair tells the story of a young, aspiring Black actress, Ali (Marion Ojua) in her pursuit to break into the industry. However, Ali quickly discovers that the people around her, particularly casting agents, are far too concerned with appearances and stereotypes, as she faces multiple microaggressions and instances of discrimination. Following the performance, I had the privilege of chatting with the cast and crew of Hair to discuss the rehearsal process and the inspiration behind this moving play.
Theatre with Teeth chose three unrelated yet defining moments of Ali’s trajectory to showcase in their performance. Each of these seemingly unconnected extracts introduced a new setting and situation where Ali faced discrimination: from casting calls, to flashbacks of the prejudicial treatment she faced at school. Despite this non-linear, incomplete storyline, just these three scenes themselves established a budding friendship between Ali and the audience. On asking Leila about this directorial choice, she admits that “before COVID-19 came into the picture, we did envisage just having Ali on stage by herself, so Ali is very much that unreliable narrator because we are pulling bits out of her memories. What Ali says we believe, because we only hear her thoughts and the voices that she hears in the way she hears them. Everything is through Ali’s eyes.” To further establish this bond between the audience and Ali, Theatre with Teeth utilized a lot of breaking of the fourth wall, which as Marion stated, allows the audience “to see all of [Ali’s] emotions and thoughts. Obviously, when Ali speaks to her mum or the casting directors, they don’t see what is going on in her head, but the audience does. This just brings the audience closer to Ali, because they can understand how she behaves and why she says or does something. The audience is definitely supposed to be Ali’s friend”.
I then went on to ask Marion about the challenges of playing the protagonist Ali, to which she replied: “I remember thinking that certain aspects of Ali’s character were quite similar to mine”. So, “how did you get into character?” I asked. Marion laughed and answered, “what I tried to do was try and really get into [Ali’s] head and do everyday tasks that I would do in my day but as Ali and see how she would react to stuff. I think I also tried it out on one of my housemates, who was speaking to me as Ali, which was nice, but funny. It was also really helpful as it made me feel more connected to her”.
For Eliza Horn, who embodies multiple voice parts in the show, the heart of the production “is how Ali acts as a role model in so many people’s eyes. Her determination to go through all the stuff that she goes through, which she does so so positively. That is the moving point for the play, as everything revolves around Ali and her interactions are very personal. Ali has this connection with the audience, and she is letting them into her life. For me, going through the rehearsal process and seeing Ali’s emotions, interactions and relationships develop is at the heart of the play. The whole, shining beacon of Ali”. By centralizing this confident Black protagonist, Theatre with Teeth are not just diversifying theatre at Exeter, but as they illuminate audience members to covert but ever-present racism, they have succeeded in establishing a safe space for Black voices to be amplified here at the University.
I then turned to Leila to ask about the writing process of Hair, which was an emotional release for her, as she jokingly admitted: “I am not very good at debating or speaking my opinions. I just tend to cry when I get really emotional and passionate, which is very unhelpful, and I found that writing was the best way to channel my thoughts and ideas”. Expanding on this, Leila explained that she was inspired by “mainly anger and frustration [at the injustices highlighted by Black Lives Matter protests over last summer], but also the desire to do something a bit different at Exeter”. She modestly outlined that Hair, “by no means has done anything for the greater good when it comes to racism in the world, but I think it’s about making that small change where you can, and this was my way of getting my thoughts down”. Leila confessed that “hair can seem like quite a trivial issue”, but in rehearsal she discovered that both her and Marion had faced discrimination in their own lives, surrounding their hair before. This, Marion acknowledged, allows for the play to have “real emotion and real feeling”. Faith Makyao, who plays Ali’s mum expressed, “Hair explores microaggressions. When theatre looks into microaggressions, it helps educate people and address this problem”. Theatre with Teeth are ensuring that theatre at Exeter interrogates racism and educates its audiences, whilst also preserving the light, humorous entertainment value of drama, a difficult balance to maintain but one Hair does with great sensitivity.
Speaking about how Theatre with Teeth has been functioning during the COVID-19 pandemic, Leila positively points out that the society “is adapting really well. Theatre with Teeth is based around student writing, which is really beautiful”. She even expressed that the pandemic has allowed for more creative dramatic submissions “because it has given students the chance to write under different circumstances, using different technology and different amounts of people”. Leila admits that the pandemic has allowed for more creative license, as the society “receives more plays about relationships, rather than attempting to satisfy a big cast. We are definitely still going strong”.
I then turned to the cast and crew to ask what the rehearsal process was like under such unusual circumstances. Eliza replied, “we’re really lucky with this play, especially because Faith (Ali’s mum) and I (multiple voice actor) aren’t ever seen on camera, so it’s a cleverly written script and it works well over Zoom. Obviously, it’s not ideal, but it allows us to jump in with all our different characters and with overlaying the script. It just works really well because Ali (Marion) can always be seen. Also, we can keep the energy high, and we can still do loads of exercises that ensures that we are collaborating well. Obviously, we experience the odd Zoom glitch here and there, but that is normal, and we’ve learnt to deal with that. So, I think that we are doing really well considering the circumstances and I think that Zoom works really well for this play”. Leila also added that the pandemic has helped the cast grow individually as actors, as for a few weeks they just focused on “homing in their skills, such as connecting with the characters and sharing stories.”
When explaining what the cast enjoys most about being a part of Hair, their responses were unanimous. Eliza exclaimed “just being involved in a production, full stop, is amazing. I feel really privileged to have been chosen for this production. Working with the girls and the Production Team has been such a fun journey’. Faith, in agreement, stated ‘I’ve really enjoyed working with people that I have never met in my life. I really love the script because I can relate to it. It’s been an amazing experience”. Marion added, “being able to perform is an honour. On top of that, Hair is a play which I really resonate with and being able to perform a Black female lead is such a cool and new thing, which Exeter University has not really seen before. So, I really love that I could take on this role and meet these lovely girls and get back to performing again”.
To tie up the interview, I asked the cast and crew if they could give the audience a bit more of an insight into what the rest of the play is about. The cast sheepishly looked at each other, not wanting to give away any spoilers. However, I can reveal that there were some hints at a potential love interest, a further exploration of Ali’s different relationships with her mum and dad, more auditions, and a STRIPTEASE. The cast and crew are looking forward to hopefully hosting a full, in-person, performance of Hair in March. Until then, I can only confirm that Theatre with Teeth have created a moving masterpiece, which showcases a brilliant and fearless protagonist, in this poignant exploration of racial categorization and microaggressions. This play is not one to be missed.
– Miriam Higgs
Featured Image Source: Theatre with Teeth