Francesca Ekwuyasi is exploring scriptwriting for the first time in a new play about a racialized queer couple.
Ekwuyasi is an award-winning Halifax-based writer and multidisciplinary artist from Lagos, Nigeria. She is best known for her novel, Butter Honey Pig Bread, and is now writing a new play to be called A Nice Ordinary Wedding.
Since Arsenal Pulp Press published Butter Honey Pig Bread in 2020, Ekwuyasi has become a household name for Canadian readers. Her next move has been anticipated in Canadian and specifically Nova Scotian art circles.
“It’s my first time writing a play or writing anything for theatre,” she said. “Unlike fiction or just regular text, I need to see how it works and how people perform in it.”
Being interested in all forms of storytelling, she was excited by this opportunity, “just having the opportunity to do it is what made me do it,” she said. “It’s a different format but it’s still writing.”
She is collaborating with Heist, a Halifax-based, five-year-old live art company focused on diversity. Together, they are looking for actors to audition for roles in the script. The call for auditions was put out last week and the deadline for submissions has been extended. She doesn’t know how the response has been yet.
She plans to workshop and read through it with the actors to see how it flows. The table reading next month will go through the first draft of the play.
“It’s going to be actors reading through it, not on stage, it’s not a rehearsal,” she said.
“It’s very much in the early stages.” She doesn’t know yet when the play will be ready for audiences.
Ekwuyasi previously collaborated with Heist as a co-writer for a project called Frequencies.
“It was such a positive experience for me, and I assume for them too because they invited me again to work together, I really appreciate the freedom that they allow,” she said.
Creative freedom and pushing boundaries are important to her when collaborating. Heist is “open to work that is new and different,” she said.
Heist artistic director Richie Wilcox said the company puts on an array of productions.
“We can do a concert or put on a drag show, or do a play or produce a party,” he said.
He met Ekwuyasi at an art-centric summer camp for adults called Make.Do.Camp while he was teaching a workshop. “We just got on like wildfire,” he said.
When Ekwuyasi wrote for Frequencies, “it was a really interesting process,” Wilcox said, adding that it was about the biographical story of his husband Aaron Collier, Heist’s technical director.
Ekwuyasi added to the story by taking pieces of Collier’s life and fictionalizing other parts. They also worked together on a show called the Creative Nova Scotia Awards, which Heist produced.
“Francesca wrote some of the awards’ script for us,” he said. “We kept this collaboration going.”
Heist wanted to give her the opportunity to write something on her own, “without us curating it or giving the seed of the idea. Just ask, ‘what does she want to write about?’ ”
For A Nice Ordinary Wedding, Heist commissioned Ekwuyasi to write the script.
“We went and found that funding to give her time to write, which honestly is the hardest thing to find for a writer, I think,” he said.
Wilcox is also serving as a writing coach, reading drafts and helping her get to a point where they can bring in actors to start workshopping it further.
Conversations between Wilcox and Ekwuyasi served as inspiration for the plot, Ekwuyasi says. Also, “things I’ve seen around me in the queer community, especially racialized queer people who come from cultures where queerness is not as wildly accepted,” she said.
“I’m always interested in writing about queer people, but more than that, I’m interested in writing about relationships, people’s relationships with themselves, with each other, with the larger society,” she said.
She says that the characters in A Nice Ordinary Wedding are complex, although being queer and politically radical, they are coming to terms with normative, everyday desires, like a nuclear family, Ekwuyasi said.
The play is “about a queer couple who are looking to start a family and get married and everything outside of their relationship is interfering with this desire,” she said. “It might end up being a bit funny, I’m not sure.”
The plot includes relationships with biological families versus communities of friends and acquaintances. One character navigates “difficult cultural differences because she’s an immigrant … so it’s about the cultural differences of trying to explain to her bio(logical) family that she is queer and wants to get married and have a kid with her genderqueer partner,” she said.
“I’m really excited to see how the workshop goes and to have a finished and performable play … that is a coherent piece that can be ready for stage.”
Over the past couple of years, Heist put on digital performances. They tour their work but usually premier it in Halifax. The venue for A Nice Ordinary Wedding is still unknown.