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Interview: Dipo Baruwa-Etti

Interview: Dipo Baruwa-Etti

Interview: Dipo Baruwa-Etti cover photo on Stagedoor
Lyn Gardner chats to the author of new play An Unfinished Man about its supernatural themes, his writing process, and finding your own path.

Juju comes to East London and the Yard Theatre in Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s An Unfinished Man, which tells the story of Kayode who hasn’t had a job for the last seven years and is feeling the pressure not just from his lack of employment but also from family members. Some suggest that he is depressed and needs therapy, but others think he has been cursed by evil spirits.

Baruwa-Etti points out that the black community has always suffered from high unemployment rates, but that Covid has exacerbated that particularly for black people in their twenties. But what makes An Unfinished Man such an exciting prospect is the way that it smashes that into Nigerian culture and the strong belief “that if somebody has had problems for some time it is because that there has been a curse upon your life and the spirits are battling you.”

But don’t expect lots of supernatural hysteria and chanting because Baruwa-Etti says that he and director Taio Lawson have been having plenty of discussion about how “to make it feel as grounded and nuanced as possible. You have to remember that for many of Nigerian heritage growing up the idea of curses is just part of their lives.”

Part of the fabric of everyday life, then? “Yes, part of the fabric of their lives”.

Baruwa-Etti who is a poet and a film-maker as well as a playwright (his award-winning BFI/BBC film The Last Days has been doing the rounds of international film festivals) might have reason to think that he is cursed because An Unfinished Man which was first due to be seen at the Yard in April 2020 has already been delayed three times because of the pandemic before the 2022 dates were announced.

“I do believe in curses. I have a strong faith and believe in God, so all those elements of the play are true to my experience,” says Baruwa-Etti, “but it’s not based on my personal experience. I feel very lucky, despite the delays the Yard have always made it clear that they are committed to the play and would put it on, and even though it hasn’t yet been seen, lots of people have read it and as a result of that I have got work. I was worried the delay would hold me back, and I’ll never know if it has, but I don’t think so.”

Promotional image from The Sun, the Moon and the Stars at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 2021.

So definitely not a cursed playwright, but rather one who since his debut play The Sun, the Moon and the Stars was seen at the Theatre Royal Stratford East last year has been attracting a lot of industry interest. He will have another new play, not yet announced, on later this summer and continues to work as a senior reader at the National Theatre while working on his own projects. The two roles inform each other.

“It’s really important for me as a writer that people who give me notes know and understand the play I want to write and are not giving notes about the play they want to see.”

Baruwa-Etti writes quickly and sees that the play evolves through writing lots and lots of drafts. “The current script for An Unfinished Man says its draft 13, but I know I’ve done more.”

Draft 13 maybe unlucky for some but is unlikely to be for Baruwa-Etti who says that he thinks that An Unfinished Man is about “identity and finding your own path. Something we all have to do. Kayode is essentially stuck between multiple people’s opinions and their truths. He is struggling to find his own. I think it’s a play about trying to figure what your journey is, how you persevere in your own life and take agency over your own issues and problems rather than being given the answers from outside. Ultimately, I think it’s asking: is there an ideal version of life we could be living, one where we are truly happy? Or are problems and dissatisfaction always going to be part of life.”

Cover image from An Unfinished Man at The Yard from Sat 12 Feb to Sat 12 Mar 2022. Tickets can be found here.

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Lyn Gardner

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