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Playwright/performer Coco Mbassi: ‘Just let people sing from their hearts’

Coco Mbassi has been a singer-songwriter since the age of 18. Photo: Ewane Nja Kwa Coco Mbassi has been a singer-songwriter since the age of 18. Photo: Ewane Nja Kwa

Having been a singer-songwriter since the age of 18, Coco Mbassi is presenting her first theatre work at London’s Ovalhouse this February, as she turns 50. Mbassi tells  Giverny Masso how the autobiographical musical theatre piece is inspired by her experience of being hired as a singing teacher in a south London school mainly because, like most of the students, she is black…

Tell me about your musical, Haendel on the Estate…

It’s autobiographical, to a certain extent. It’s the story of a female teacher who had a singing career, which she has been trying to get to take off for 30 years. She moves from Paris to London and gets a job at a school. She slowly realises she has been hired because she is black and she is expected to understand all the black kids, just because she is black.

Is Haendel on the Estate based on a true story?

I moved to London from Paris 10 or 11 years ago to do a master’s degree in languages and communications, and was doing individual lessons and organising the choir at a Catholic School, so it’s based on those experiences. Also, my father used to play Handel’s Messiah to get us ready for church in the years we lived in Cameroon. This has been brewing in me for many years. I was born in France, but lived in Cameroon for 14 years before returning to France. It was when I went back to France that I realised I was black. That’s when people started saying stuff to me.

Tell me about your singing style?

I’ve been singing since I was 18, and I’m turning 50 soon. My music is a hybrid between classical, jazz, blues, pop and gospel. I generally sing in a language called Duala, which is one of the languages of Cameroon.

How did you get into writing?

I have some acting experience. I was in Yerma at London’s Cervantes Theatre, but this is the first show I’ve written. I started off learning to write TV scripts and then I thought: ‘What’s the difference between TV and theatre writing?’. It’s a musical theatre piece, not the happy, leg-kicking type, but it’s acting and singing. An extract is being tried out at the Ovalhouse’s First Bites Festival. I play the teacher. We’re going to see how people react and will move forward based on that. I’d love to see it in the West End one day – who knows.

What has been the biggest challenge in developing the piece?

I think because my music is such a hybrid there are many questions: “So, you’re not singing traditional African songs?” and [it can become] about ticking boxes. It’s great if you just let people sing from their hearts. I’m French and I’m Cameroonian and I’m becoming quite British. You can’t live in a place and be isolated from it. In my ideal world we let people be. I just want people to come and see what it’s like. What a middle-aged black woman might come up with in musical theatre. I don’t think there are enough women in musical theatre, people think: ‘Can I do this? I’m not Andrew Lloyd Webber.’ After this, I want to carry on acting and to write other musicals.

For more information go to: ovalhouse.com/whatson

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