Black Love by Chinonyerem Odimba

Photo by Marc Brenner

‘Black Love’ is part of the acclaimed Paines Plough theatre company’s Roundabout programme of world class theatre and performance which is taking place in Brixton’s Slade Gardens over 10 days from 19 August – see preview here 

Leslie Manasseh spoke to ‘Black Love’s’, writer, Chinonyerem Odimba, about her work and what inspired it. 

The setting is simple – a brother and sister in the family home. But this is not a simple story. Rather it’s multi-layered narrative  and performance which “take us into the home and what home represents for Black people”

Aurora and Orion look after each other in their small London flat, filled with the memories of their parents’ Black Love.

When that love is threatened, they have to find their way back to each other and to what it means to love. Using real-life stories, imagined worlds and new songs inspired by an R&B heritage, they begin a  journey to confront their own worst fears.

Photo by Marc Brenner

Chinonyerem Odimba explained how the work developed and changed over a period of almost two years and how a number of factors and ingredients fed into the process.

It’s a piece of fiction in which real voices speak. It is about love, but not romantic love. It began life as a celebration of Black families and familial love in part as a response to the way Black people are represented by the advertising and marketing industry. But was given a sharper edge in the light of the George Floyd murder. And it was a chance to incorporate music.

Photo by Marc Brenner

Each ingredient is worth exploring. 

An initial trigger was the furore that greeted advertising and marketing materials featuring all Black families rather than the more usual practice of including individual people of colour as part of an ethnic mix. The idea that depicting whole Black families should be controversial, or seen as extreme, gave Chinonyerem Odimba the idea of a play which celebrated Black families and the centrality of home as a place of joy, love and sometimes sanctuary. It’s a counterpoint to the way the world is presented on TV and elsewhere in the media.

Photo by Marc Brenner

As a writer, Chinonyerem Odimba is very comfortable creating fictional worlds. But she felt something was missing in the early drafts of ‘Black Love’. So she posed a simple question to friends and family. “What does black love mean to you?” The responses – inevitably diverse to such a broad question – are woven into the narrative and bring “truth and real life” into a fictionalised story. As the script developed, ‘Black Love’ was becoming not just a piece of fiction, but a work firmly rooted in the moment with elements of testimonial and record. 

Then came the murder of George Floyd and the shock felt across the world. This enlarged the scope of the story and moved it beyond a subtle and nuanced commentary, to a much more direct statement about the reality of Black lives.

Photo by Marc Brenner

Chinonyerem Odimba also wanted to go beyond the traditional format for a play, hence the decision to include songs and music to create a genuinely multi-disciplinary and innovative piece, and “an ode to Black music”. She hopes that ‘Black Love’ is transformative and thought-provoking as well as enjoyable. On the basis of my conversation with her, I’m sure it will be.

Tickets for Black Love and the rest of Roundabout: Brixton are on sale now via the Paines Plough website.