ONE of Britain's youngest, most successful theatrical talents Bola Agbaje asked “what’s that?” on landing an Oliver Award for her first play.
The former actress was just 26 when she stormed the stage with Gone Too Far! and “unexpectedly” scooped the Oscars-equivalent for playwrights.
After a hit run with her award-winning play at London venues including The Albany, she is returning to Deptford with new satire The Burial which explores family, grief, and storytelling.
When not in rehearsals, Greenwich-based Bola enjoys concerts and time spent with family and friends, as well as hanging out beside her muse Greenwich Park.
The scriptwriter said: “It is so cultured in Greenwich.
“I love it and Greenwich Park in the summer - it is the best place I can write.”
The Burial follows heroine Funmi – born a Muslim, married to a Christian and with budding Buddhist beliefs – who must confront faith and family after her father dies and his two Nigerian wives clash over the burial plans.
“It is something brand new for me,” the playwright, who lives off Woolwich Road, told News Shopper.
Renowned for her gritty, thought-provoking portrayals of London council estates, The Burial marks a departure into the surreal, with outbursts of song and dance to pay homage to her Nigerian roots.
“My thinking behind it was my last play Belong explored identity and culture, whereas this play is about exploring the storytelling craft.
“Other African playwrights play with dance and music - I wanted to do something that pays respect to those before me. I have tried to tell the story in a non-linear way.
“It is the first time I have played with taking people out of reality.”
She says tribal Yoruba folksongs weaved into the piece are her personal highlight and she envies the actors performing them. “I am just jealous because I can’t sing,” she laughed.
Bola says the play was inspired by a heritage festival – run by Lewisham-based Stonecrabs Theatre Company in 2010 – which looked into the varying religious beliefs and burial rites held by different Nigerian tribes.
She said: “What interested me was the different tribes in Nigeria with different beliefs – most Yoruba people are Muslim, and Igbo are mostly Christian.
“I was just really interested in what the family do if someone hasn’t given instructions.
“It isn’t necessarily about the belief system – that is the background – the play is about family and how someone copes with grieving.”
The play probes into questions of life and death without offering fixed answers and has prompted some soul-searching for the former housing officer.
“It is a difficult choice when figuring out what it means to be alive and what it means to die.
“I wouldn’t be able to say I am a Christian or a Muslim. Maybe this is part of me trying to look at the different faiths.
“My favourite scene is where Funmi and her husband have a discussion about what it means when you die. What do we believe in?
"Questioning this idea that there are two parts to us –our body and our soul.
“I found that a really interesting conversation. It is a bigger question than the play that I have done, but an interesting start there.”
After catapulting in to the theatrical spotlight with her Oliver Award in 2008, Bola also received an Evening Standard Award nomination for most promising playwright and has seen plays Belong and Off The Endz performed in major theatres across the capital.
Yet she remains refreshingly modest and grateful: "Everything that happened right up until now has been amazing but also surreal because I didn’t know about the Oliver award until I was nominated.
"I was [initially] like ‘What’s that?” and then found out it was like the Oscars.
“It was unexpected.
“It was a massive highlight and since then everything has pushed me forward.”
The Burial is directed by Franko Figueiredo and presented by Stonecrabs Theatre Company at The Albany, in Douglas Way, from May 2 to 11 at 7.30pm.
For more information and to book tickets contact The Albany on 020 8692 4446 or visit thealbany.org.uk