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Marilyn Ricci, Crossovers writer, talks about her play ‘Sixteen’

The war in Somalia has been raging for almost twenty years.  Living close to Leicester and being part of a Quaker community some of whom work with refugees and asylum seekers, I often heard stories of the terrible suffering of Somali people who finally made it to here.  So, when TWP announced last year that they were looking for ten minute plays around the theme of Young Britain – Embracing The Storm (to accompany the Young America season at the Theatre Royal in Northampton), I thought of young Somalians living here whose lives are still deeply affected by that war and their later experiences in Europe.  The subsequent play, Sixteen, is about two sisters, Amina (16)  and Ayaan (21) who have lived in the UK with their mum for ten years but have been unable to get their father out of a refugee camp in Kenya.   Amina wants to go to a party down the road where there will be boys.  Ayaan thinks this is a bad idea (or is she a little jealous?).  She’s certainly worried, particularly since their mum has become ill – going to a party like this is not on.  The play revolves around the argument, ostensibly about the party, but gradually revealing the storms that have brought turmoil to their young lives.  It ends with a revelation about what has happened to their father – information recently known to Ayaan and their mother but not to Amina.  

What happened after TWP chose Sixteen was as much (if not more) about process as product.  Working with Kate Chapman on the script was a revelation in itself – a long conversation at the beginning as we started to knock the first draft into better shape – whose story was the main focus?   How could the narrative be made more clear?   I worked on these questions and several more; and every time I thought, right that’s fine, and sent it back to her, she rang me up and gently suggested changes of emphasis, changes of words, many more tweeks.  I learned a massive amount even in developing such a short piece.  

At the Theatre Royal I worked with Mike Hayhurst and two excellent actors – Jade Laurie-Hart who played Amina and Krissi Bohn as Ayaan.  At this point, of course, the piece somehow left me and became something in itself which other people invested in, worked on, got excited about!  That was a wonderful moment.

Subsequently, I entered Sixteen for the Bare Bones slot which The Old Red Lion in Islington has created to showcase new and emerging writers and directors.  A few weeks ago the organiser e-mailed to say that it had been shortlisted for that but would I mind it being shortlisted too for a new, more informal event to be held monthly called Saturday Matinee at The Old Queen’s Head, also in Islington.  I was delighted and it had another rehearsed reading there on 29th May.  This time it was directed by Shakera Louise Ahad and beautifully acted by Sharla Spayed and Magdalene Mills.  My contact was primarily by phone with Shakera.   It was fascinating to see what they’d done with it – they took out all the stage directions at one point, they changed the ending – in my draft Ayaan runs off stage, in this version, Amina takes Ayaan in her arms to comfort her, reversing the original power relations between the sisters.  It worked really well I thought – Shakera felt the chemistry between these particular actors somehow demanded it.  The Saturday Matinee is organised by upcoming directors and is well worth a visit – several short plays over a pint in the room above the pub – great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Writing Sixteen put me in contact with Somalian women in Leicester – I wouldn’t have been able to write it without their help.  Some of them are planning to publish a book primarily about women’s experiences fleeing the civil war and afterwards in Europe.  I’m helping with that.  I’m also writing a longer piece for the Crossovers Project (I write poetry mostly) based on these experiences.  It’s scary because I still know so little about my subject so I need a lot of help, but it’s also a fantastic challenge and opportunity.

Marilyn Ricci

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