Rare alumnus Ifeyinwa Frederick is one half of the sibling duo behind Chuku’s, London’s first Nigerian tapas restaurant (see our interview with both founders). She opened a dance school aged 16, made Elle’s list of 23 top female entrepreneurs under 30 aged 24, and completed her first play over the summer last year as part of the Soho Theatre Writer’s Lab. What had started out as one scene in £5 writers’ workshop grew into a play about three friends on holiday in Ibiza, titled The Hoes. The Hoes was nominated for 2017’s Verity Bargate Award longlist, Character 7 Award shortlist and the Tony Craze Award shortlist. Hardly bad going for a first time playwright. Rare squeezed into Ifeyinwa’s busy schedule to talk about her passion for the arts.
RARE: People will know you now as the front of house maestro at Chuku’s, but might not realise that your first love is the theatre. You’ve actually been heavily involved in it since your childhood. Tell us a bit more about how you first got behind the scenes in theatre.
Ifeyinwa: I always loved dancing and drama, but my school was highly academic and dance and drama weren’t on the timetable, as if people couldn’t be both academic and into the arts. We did do shows occasionally but they were always musicals, and my voice isn’t great; I only ever danced in them. It was only when I went to sixth form and got cast in the lead for a play that I realised I could act and enjoyed it. I got to university and kept dancing in first year, but in my second year, I signed up to audition for For Coloured Girls, and I got cast. It was amazing and historic, as it was the first all-black, all-female cast production in Cambridge University history. [Editor’s note: Soon afterward in 2013, the director, Justina Kehinde Ogunseitan, became our youngest female Rare Rising Star.] We put the show on again in London and that time I co-produced it - I’m comfortable with numbers and my commercial acumen has always been strong.
RARE: You co-directed your first theatre production, Grey Matters, at university, while also performing as one of the cast members. How and why did the show transform into a community afterwards?
Ifeyinwa: By my second year, I knew of a few people struggling with their mental health at uni, without the support they needed. I was faced with wanting to do something and since I was adamant I couldn’t write, I thought that interviews were the best way to do it.
I’d just been in a production of The Vagina Monologues, and I partnered with the director of that show to produce Grey Matters. After our show, I got an anonymous letter in my pigeon-hole to say that they had cried so much during and after the performance, but that it had encouraged them to start to see a doctor and to realise that they weren’t alone. I couldn’t believe that something I had created had touched someone like that. And it made me wonder how I could reach out to more people. And that’s where the blog came from - a space to share stories in the hope that one person might read a story and have a realisation that they weren’t alone.
RARE: Rare’s been talking to you about your professional life since 2012, when you were first applying for internships, then for graduate programmes. You’ve been a dancer, a marketer, a theatre director, and you seem to be doing all of it simultaneously these days...how did talking to Rare over the years helped you establish what you wanted to do?
Ifeyinwa: I was always tormented by what I wanted to do...ask Raph and Daniel, I almost used to live in that Rare office, I was there so much! I was always worried about how I was going to be creative and still earn enough money to be self-sufficient; there’s always that belief that you have to be in the arts to be creative, and there’s so little money in the art space.
I had quite a full-on time at uni between dancing, theatre and studying, so I knew I wanted to take a year after Finals to just breathe. When Rare helped me apply to the Sainsbury’s graduate scheme, I got the place but I needed to defer for year to just take some time for myself.
RARE: So what made you realise the graduate scheme route wasn’t for you?
Ifeyinwa: I’d promised myself years before that I’d live in a Francophone country, so after uni, I applied to the British Council Scheme and got it. I was in Martinique, teaching English and improving my French, and getting a break. I think it’s the closest I came to living the typical student life – something I missed out on at Cambridge, and I learned to relax. The people I met were just quite chilled - both Martinicans and the other teaching assistants like me - and I learned to just say yes and take a risk. It probably prepped me to be out of my comfort zone with Chuku’s later, to be bold and not know how things are going to work out. I learned the beauty of what can happen if you just go with the flow. It also made me realise I’m more open and social than I thought I was.
It got to February and I woke up with a chest ache; I knew then that I really didn’t want to join a graduate scheme. My main driver, financial stability, was gone - I didn’t have money and was having wonderful experiences without it. I spoke to my older brother Emeka about it and he was really supportive. He just said, “If you can find a way to keep living well without getting on the corporate ladder, do it.” My friends weren’t enjoying their experience of working life, so I couldn’t see why I would! I renewed my British Council contract and went to teach in Laval, France. Emeka and I kept talking and sharing ideas and when I got back, we started working on the idea that became Chuku’s.
RARE: You joined the Soho Theatre Writers’ Lab in 2016 and finished your first play, The Hoes, in summer 2017. It made the longlist for the Verity Bargate Award, and got shortlisted for both the Character 7 and Tony Craze Awards that same year. That’s incredible! How did it happen?
Ifeyinwa: I’d found coming back to London hard after my time in Martinique and France hard; the change of pace and lifestyle was immediate, and then when I started Chuku’s, it was all-consuming. People started asking how the business was before they’d ask how I was - it made me question who I was, what I liked, what I wanted to do - I felt lost personally. I went back to what I loved, and started going to the theatre again. I was always convinced I couldn’t write, but since Grey Matters, I’d had this long-term goal of writing a play. When I’d thought about putting on another production of Grey Matters, I realised the difficulty - I’d have to get sign off from all the writers and it’d been in my mind since then that writing plays would give me more creative freedom than coming up with the idea and directing someone else as they wrote it.
And so I put it out there into the universe that I was going to write. A couple of weeks later, I saw a tweet about theatre workshops at Theatre Royal Stratford East that only cost a fiver. One was with a director and playwright called Lynette Linton. She got us doing a free-writing exercise, writing a scene we then had to share with the group. When I read mine out people chuckled in all the right places and I thought, ‘Maybe I could do this.’ After I contacted Lynette on Twitter to say thanks – it was the first time I’d thought maybe I could do this writing thing - and she told me to apply for the Soho Theatre Writer’s Lab. It was easy and affordable, just like the workshops, so I applied and was accepted. Those few lines in Lynette’s workshop, developed into the scene that I sent to the Lab, and is now the basis of the first scene of The Hoes. So now I’m running a business that I love and I’m in the theatre that I love - I have everything I wanted. It’s surreal.
RARE: The Hoes follows the holiday of three young women in Ibiza - can you tell us a bit more about the story? Will friends of yours recognise themselves in the characters?
Ifeyinwa: [laughs] It’s about 3 black Essex girls, inspired by the women I know and the holidays I’ve been on - not based on any one person or any one experience but I was definitely writing women I recognise. I don’t appreciate how women are often shown in the media. I’ve grown up with proper sisterhood - that’s often lacking in stories. The stories I see aren’t real enough to me - as women, we talk about real things, and we’re the full version of ourselves. The play’s set inside a hotel room because we so often project a different image of ourselves when we step out. Perhaps someone is a very sexual being in conversation or just a prolific farter at home - I wanted to set it in a place where the women would be free. You get to see girls at their most intimate, stripped back - as sleepover queens!
And I absolutely hate that often when you see a plotline with black characters, it generally revolves around their blackness or the hardship they endure because of their blackness. And that doesn’t represent my experience. My challenges have generally been more about my socio-economic background rather than my race or my gender. The black experience is diverse and I just hadn’t seen my story represented. I think the “black stories” given a platform are often monolithic but they’re often so hard. We never get to experience joy. But we experience it in real life. We fall in love, we laugh, we have fun – and with The Hoes I wanted to show that. Yes, The Hoes is a play about three black women but their race is not relevant to the story. You will not go to the theatre and see three black women on the stage having a laugh - that’s what I wanted to write about, real women and real sisterhood.
RARE: One of the biggest difficulties many creative people face is working in the arts while balancing their finances - the stereotype of the struggling artist often isn’t too far from the reality. How have you managed to make your passion pay off?
Ifeyinwa: I think it’s important to remember that your passion doesn’t have to be your job. When I told my mum I wanted to dance back when I was 17, she reminded me that when you’re relying on something to make you money, it can change how much you enjoy it. I have no desire to be a full time writer - I don’t want to be concerned as to whether my writing sells and I don’t want to have to rely on it to earn money. The writing is really just for me - I’ve been able to keep it as a passion and just for fun. It think that’s helped me come back to Chuku’s feeling refreshed, which also helps me write better, because it’s not my bread and butter. It’s so freeing not having to be ends - focused.
RARE: So what’s next for you?
Ifeyinwa: Opening the first Chuku’s site and building the brand is my number one focus. I’d love to see The Hoes on stage, mainly because I haven’t seen the gap that story tells filled by anything else yet. People need to see black women in a different light. I’m also writing another play, but I can do it at my own pace, like reading a book. No one is there telling me that I need to finish by a particular deadline, so it doesn’t have to compete with my business, although it does compete with my social life. I basically wasn’t around when I was writing my first play!
But I’m really enjoying the experience of being comfortably out of my comfort zone. I think that’s why I don’t have the panic some people have when they turn another year older - I’m doing the things I want to be doing and I’m making myself proud. I don’t know what’ll happen with my writing - I had very clear goals throughout uni and I think like that with the business, too, but I like not knowing what’s next with writing. I hope to keep it as a passion - I can pause it when I need to, but I’ll always come back to it. I’ve never loved a guy like I love the arts - and I’d love to go back to dance. Watch this space!
We will, Ifeyinwa, we will.
Ifeyinwa was recently part of a showcase of four new plays by upcoming writers to watch at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Keep an eye out for updates from on both her writing and Chuku’s here.
Find out how to apply to become a Rare candidate here.
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