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Ailema Sousa: ‘There were never any black women with prominent speaking roles, so I wrote some’

Ailema Sousa. Photo: Paul Smith Ailema Sousa. Photo: Paul Smith
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My first job was in 2013 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The play was A Concrete Jungle Full of Wild Cars by Mariama Ives-Moiba. At the time I was attending Wac Arts at the weekends. The experience of doing a full play run was incredible, and not just on stage: there was always something to do, not least your own marketing. Handing out flyers is a bit nerve-racking if you’re not used to going up and talking to people. Luckily, we had a very strong ensemble and supported each other through everything. I believe everything happens for a reason, and that grounding in what actually happens during a production was part of the process that led me to create my first play, Fort Huachuca.

I was constantly seeing a gap in the period productions I was watching: there were never any black women at the centre with prominent speaking roles. I did some digging and stumbled upon Fort Huachuca, an army base in Arizona that still exists today. It has a rich history involving African-American nurses, the racial tensions they had to cope with and their immense contribution to the Second World War effort. I thought this was the kind of story I would want to go see, and that is what led me to write it as a play.

Drawing on everything I had learned about marketing and production from my acting work, I ended up taking the play to the US, as it is fundamentally an American story and I wanted to see how the language in the story would resonate with an American audience first.

Ultimately, it was another festival. The Hollywood Fringe Festival gave me a chance to show my material to an audience for the first time. Being part of the cast as well as the writer, it was important that the show was as authentic as possible – and performing in the country where the story originated was the best test of that.

As it turned out, I found that a lot of Americans had no idea about this history either. That in itself generated a lot of interest and coverage. Where will that lead? On that point, I’m taking the same advice I would give to other beginning actors or playwrights: not to think about the next job while you’re currently on an existing one. Be present and enjoy the process.

CV: Ailema Sousa

Age: Undisclosed
Training: Wac Arts; RADA (foundation)
Theatre includes: Sirens; Wherever I Lay My Head; Blood Red Barn; Homegrown; Gathering Dust; Macbeth; Fort Huachuca
Other credits: Drag Flick; Shut Up, I Love You
Agent: The Avenue

Ailema Sousa was talking to John Byrne

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