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Award-winning play Pandora’s Box set for Newcastle visit on its first ever tour

Collaboration also marks the first trip to the North East for playwright Ade Solanke

A scene from Pandora's Box by Ade Solanke
A scene from Pandora's Box by Ade Solanke

Ade Solanka could not sound more enthusiastic about her upcoming visit to Newcastle, bringing her first play with her.

So much so that it sounds as if this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

“This is my first tour - and of my first play - and it’s very exciting,” says the award-winning playwright and screenwriter whose family drama in question, Pandora’s Box, was nominated for a Best New Play award in the West End in 2012 and is currently short-listed for Nigeria’s biggest literary prize.

She’s written several works since but this one is proving such a hit that it’s travelling further afield and the North East, where it will have a performance at Newcastle Arts Centre’s The Black Swan on September 16, will be the northermost point on its tour.

And the person to thank for it all, she says, is local councillor David Faulkner, who helped establish the local Waka Waka festival celebrating Afro-Caribbean culture and was keen to host Ade’s play - which contrasts the British and Nigerian cultures - in a region where Nigerians form the largest of the African communities.

Ade and he have agreed that the performance will also be dedicated to Osa Omorogbe, the popular Newcastle playwright and dancer who died earlier this summer.

“David has been so instrumental in us coming to the North East,” says Ade, who trained as a screenwriter in America and worked as a story analyst in Hollywood.

“He has been extraordinary in his support.”

She hopes there might be further collaborations with a region she has never visited before and which she plans to explore when she comes up the weekend before the show.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been to the North East,” she says, “and this will be the furthest north for the tour - so it will be a good opportunity to get to know the area.”

While the play, described as British-Nigerian tragi-comedy, is about a London-born wayward son packed off to Africa to learn some discipline, it tackles universal themes.

It’s one for everyone says the likeable Ade, who herself was born in London to African parents who settled in the capital.

“There aren’t many plays you can take your five year old and your teenager to; it’s very much a family show.”

She tells me of a lovely tradition she’s known since she was a young girl which the title of her play is part reference to.

It had never been her parents intention to settle here, she says, and, like so many others who followed in similar footsteps, they had a box set aside for their return in which they would store new purchases they intended to take with them.

The box was a familiar part of the background of Ade’s childhood and she says: “Our parents’ generation came in the sixties and mostly never intended to stay - it was always on a temporary basis.

“The first thing they’d do was buy a box for taking stuff back with them, which they’d start filling up for people at home but often they wouldn’t get the presents as 20 to 30 years on they were still in the UK: they’d made friends, developed relationships, married, settled down.

“When I was growing up, they were gathering stuff for my older sisters who lived in Nigeria with grandparents.”

Ade got to meet her sisters when she was 18, between school and university, but London has always been her home, although suitcases and airports featured a lot, she says, as relatives’ visits bridged the gap between two worlds.

The play explores that dual-culture and question of identity common in many Nigeria, Ghana and Caribbean families.

Pandora’s Box also hints at all manner of problems that might be unleashed when the African mother sends her son to a strict school in her homeland.

As Ade is also the mother of a son, it begs the question - is she writing from experience? Not hers, she laughs and says her own sports-loving, now grown-up son tells her that because of the play “everyone thinks I’m a gangster!”

But it was inspired by the real-life story of a good friend of hers.

“She had a son who by the time he got to 15 was a little bit wayward and she was pulling her hair out.

“She was born and grew up in Nigeria and understood the cultural difference; what would help him there as opposed to here, and she sent him back.”

Among the differences is the respect afforded older family members when “to use a first name would be the height of impropriety and rudeness” and discipline, although the corporal punishment side of it raises a dilemma which is explored by the mother in Ade’s play.

School regimes there can be more like Dickens, says the writer: “They’re very much modelled on the British public schools in the old era.”

The struggle about deciding the right thing to do runs throughout the play, as does the issue of single parents and the challenges of not having a father figure.

“Parenting is the issue I’m really interested in.”

And what was the real-life result for her friend’s son?

“He was transformed,” says Ade. “So I wanted to ask what is the difference? What did he get in Nigeria that he’s not getting here?”

Ade was perplexed when she heard audiences laughing during the first outing of her play.

“I was a bit perturbed,” she admits. “So I asked one person what she was laughing at and she said ‘that woman doesn’t know what to do’!”

She realised she’d struck a chord and not just one with African audiences. Parents everywhere it seems can identify with it.

And does screenwriter Ade see a film version as next step for her popular play?

“I’m working on that with a producer,” she answers. “I can see it happening; there’s a very strong chance.”

* Pandora’s Box will be at the Black Swan, Newcastle Arts Centre, on September at 7.30pm, accompanied by a workshop and discussion. Visit www.newcastle-arts-centre.co.uk

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