Sankofa by Acquah & Co, shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, opens on 15th February at the Bread & Roses. We caught up with writer, Nicole Acquah, who shared her thoughts on the process of writing the play…
Sankofa is a semi-autobiographical show about my experiences as a British-Ghanaian woman trying to understand more about my heritage. As an actress, I have performed in many shows but not many centred around Ghanaian woman, which was part of my motivation for writing the piece.
I remember walking down the road when I heard a little whisper in my heart – wouldn’t I love to see a show that opened with worship? I could see it so clearly. Worship is a state I find myself in often – and most, stereotypically, I suppose, at church. But it feels so intimate, so hidden away, and so…unique yet also there are few things more beautiful than communal worship. It is so intense, and the atmosphere is so overpowering that I really wanted to see more of that spiritual connection onstage. In theatre, atmosphere is so important, and I know nothing more atmospheric than corporate worship, where people (families, friends but also strangers) are lost in abandon.
I wrote Sankofa during 2020. At first, I tried to force myself to write, and nothing happened. Frustrated, I told myself I was going to take a week off work – do no writing during that time.
And not to sound too much like a clickbait article title, but what happened next surprised me. Without the “pressure” to write, the desire to write and the ideas for this play, flooded in!
I had recently learned about my grand-uncle, Asiedu Yirenkyi, a Ghanaian playwright and a pioneer in his field. I was so upset that I had never met him and fuelled by so many emotions – I knew I had a lot to say on the topic of lineage and artistic legacy, amongst other things. And I was eager to tell a story centred around Ghanaian experiences.
The process consisted of a lot of brainwaves, intense writing spurts, getting stuck, deleting what I had written (or copying and pasting it into a separate Word document), then getting another brainwave, writing furiously for a few days, then getting stuck…you get the idea.
It was frustrating but I was so passionate about the story; I really believed it was something special and important, so the process – as much as I laughed at myself getting stuck so many times – was enjoyable.
The word Sankofa was KEY to the structure of this play…when I came across the word in my research I knew that this was the title of the play. It was perfect. Sankofa is formed from three words in Akan Twi dialect – san (to return), ko (to go) and fa (to fetch). Sankofa is essentially a word talking about journey – about returning first in order to move forwardThe word itself unlocked so much of the play – which had already been about uncovering my roots, but now felt like it was framed in the perfect language.
My writing process always involves giving the play to a few chosen friends to read through first, to get immediate reactions. So major thanks to my friends Dorcas and Tammy for being my first readers and giving me feedback! We studied Creative Writing together at Royal Holloway university and it’s a blessing to have both of their friendships and insight into writing craft. They were able to tell me what they wanted more of and how the play made them feel. I edited accordingly.
The piece also grew as a result of several drafts, and research and development periods at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama with the MA Advanced Theatre Practice cohort in both 2020 and 2021. The script was read by several students there.
In addition, I work professionally as a dramaturg, so I was able to take a look at my work through that lens, in addition to other people’s feedback.
The process of writing Sankofa was a blessing. It was the first time, I think, that I had been so stuck on a piece, and had to rewrite it over and over. But in the back of my mind, I knew it was and would be worth it.
And it really has been.
Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Playwriting
Weaving together live music, storytelling, and traditional pottery, Sankofa is a semi-autobiographical show about legacy, heritage, and what it means to belong as part of the African diaspora.
san – to return
Nicole’s grand-uncle, Asiedu, was a playwright, one who shaped the landscape of Ghanaian theatre. Nicole doesn’t know this. She also writes plays, thousands of miles away in London.
ko – to go
Discovering her grand-uncle’s work sets Nicole on a journey to learn more about her lineage. Touring her own work around Europe, she is faced with the significance of her heritage, her blackness, her art. Is there something connecting her and Asiedu – something stronger than culture, than bloodline even?
fa – to fetch
Before she returns to England, Nicole will have to learn what it truly means to go back into the past in order to move forward into the future.
Acquah&co is a theatre company led by Nicole Acquah, making multi-disciplinary work that showcases and celebrates diverse voices.
Twitter & Instagram: @sankofaplay Facebook: @acquahco
Supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.
Running Time: 80mins
Please be aware that this show includes content warnings for racism, sexual assault, panic attacks & references to murder. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you require more detail. Recommended for 16+