As a playwright, Eno Mfon finds power in untold stories
Introducing BS-ME, a print and online collaboration between Crack Magazine and Ace & Tate celebrating five creatives doing amazing things in our home city of Bristol. Ace & Tate are the Amsterdam brand offering eyewear for every side of you. To celebrate their arrival in the city with a store opening on Park Street on 12 July, we spent some time with five people who embody the fearless, boundary-free ethos which makes our hometown so special.
Eno Mfon is a playwright originally from London, who graduated from Bristol University two years ago. Her experiences of the city were mixed: she felt lost in the confines of the university, yet through building a creative network soon found space for her work to flourish. She performed her first full-length script Check the Label at the Bristol Old Vic in 2016 – a one-woman play that deals with the dangerous and too-common trend of skin bleaching among women of colour. Her plays since have been similarly deft in their handling of race and family, with a particular focus on Nigeria where Eno’s mother is from.
Her writing has been staged at Hamilton House, the Colston Hall and London’s Young Vic. We spoke about communicating identity through theatre, finding a place in Bristol and how much of herself she is prepared to give.
© Dean Davies
Glasses: Max Metal Temple in Lilac, Ace & Tate
What were your early experiences of writing?
The first time I realised I had writing in me, I was in Year 10. We were given a task to write the opening to a short story. Everyone wrote a page, five or six at most, and I literally wrote 60 whole pages. I couldn’t stop. My teacher read it and it was no Year 10 story, it was deep, it was dark. I think it came from the fact my mum is a detective, specialising in rape and sexual assault. From a young age I’ve had these big stories in my head.
Is she present in all of your writing?
Definitely. She was a force to be reckoned with, even in her home town in Nigeria. The strong female characters I try to put in my work all come from stories about her and my aunties. It’s how I see womanhood. There is strength in it – physical strength – which you don’t always see in literature and media.
What was your experience of university like?
When I got to university I was doing student productions – auditioning, getting into some – but it felt like the roles I was being cast in as a black woman were quite reductive. I didn’t see myself in those stories. When it got to midway through my first year, there was this scriptwriting programme that the Bristol Old Vic run with the university, where you work with a producer called Sharon Clark. I wrote a 20-minute script about three women in a society that was rebuilding itself after a disaster. That was the first play I ever wrote.
When did you write Check the Label?
In my second year when I got into the course again. It wasn’t originally going to be a one-woman play. I came to Sharon with the themes: it was about skin bleaching and colourism. I told her I wanted to present in a way that was universal. She said, “this is so personal, it has to be you telling the story.” I hadn’t performed in a while and was losing my confidence in performing, but she said the story was calling for me to perform it. So I thought OK, if that’s what the story is calling for then I’ll try that. The next year Sharon came to me and asked if I wanted to make that script into an hour- long show and perform it at the Bristol Old Vic as part of their spring season!
Why did you want to write about skin bleaching?
I’m really interested in is secrets. Taboos. One thing about bleaching your skin is that there are certain parts – your knees, your knuckles – that don’t colour well, so they remain dark where the rest of your body is light. Those are the telltale signs that reveal the secret. It’s something black women don’t address directly. It’s always whispers. “Do you think that person is bleaching?” But it’s never a conversation about why. I was touched by how many young black women came to see it. Some of them actually came up to me afterwards and told me their friends at school were bleaching their skin. It’s crazy.
Your work is very personal. Are you ever wary of sharing too much of yourself?
I’m happy to share my own experiences. What’s harder is this year I decided to write a play about my dad, who is currently suffering from Alzheimer’s. I wanted to write about his experience, but I really struggled because it was so close to me but it wasn’t my story. The way that I did that was by creating fictional characters. I found this incredible, heartbreaking story of older people in Nigeria, who are accused of practising witchcraft when they show signs of Alzheimer’s. I created these two women who are trying to look after their mother. In that way I was able to write something distant enough that it felt authentic.
What’s your relationship with Nigeria?
I actually feel quite distant from it. There are lots of young, British-Nigerians who feel so distant from it through a loss of language. There’s a sense of guilt there. I can see myself engaging with that guilt when I write. I do a lot with Yoruba language through my writing. I try to use it as a way of reconnecting with this Nigeria I feel so distant from.
Do you ever feel under pressure to write about your identity?
I think there is an expectation for black writers to write about certain things. Not to say that those stories aren’t valid, but there is a limitation that is put on us, or we put on ourselves, where we feel like our voices are most valid when we’re critiquing our own community, or putting white people at the centre of our narratives. And by talking about race we are often putting white people at the centre of our narratives. That’s a battle for me. How do I talk about race? Do I want to talk about race? How do I want to talk about my identity?
I think in my writing moving forward I want to challenge myself. What other parts of my identity can I find? There is more to me than I can see right now. Through my writing I want to find those parts that are hidden. Those secrets.