You’re invited to a sleepover! Put on your pyjamas and join us and Sleepova (UK) author Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini as we chat about her frank, funny coming-of-age ode to black women, its characters and her advice for young queer Black women.
The Guardian describes the play as ‘a safe space of erupting energy, girlhood and teenage dreams’. It is about sisterhood and coming of age. Did you take any inspiration from your supportive friends to create the four characters?
These characters are inspired by my relationship with my siblings (I’m one of four), my relationship with my mum and her friends, the aunties that raised me (the supportive ones and the judgemental ones), the girls I went to primary and secondary school with, the girls I used to go to church with (I was in youth choir and had a stint as an altar server), the girls I looked up to, the girls I had crushes on, the girls I wanted to be. The innumerable myriad of Black girls and women I’ve gotten to know or meet throughout my life so far. I also think these characters each have a quality that I admire in the people that I am in community with and so I wanted to honour that.
Funmi connects with her Nigerian heritage by borrowing a book of Yoruba proverbs. What is the importance of connecting to one’s heritage?
I think it’s so important to connect to one’s heritage, but I am also acutely aware of what a privilege that can be, whether that be your parents, guardians, relatives, neighbours or community that can help facilitate that journey, especially when you aren’t born or grow up in your home country. Having someone in your life almost play a kind of conduit between you and your culture can help you build bridges to your heritage in a way that can be so profound and transformative. Within all cultures there are clues, teachings, learnings, values, faiths that can help you unlock your future self or make peace with your present.
Do you relate to Funmi’s struggle to connect with your heritage?
Absolutely I can relate, that for me, the journey to connecting to my Yoruba heritage is a lifelong one. A commitment to myself because understanding one’s history is a gateway to better understanding oneself. I find I’m better at dealing with the hardships of life because I’m committed to understanding myself and therefore what I need. To know oneself is to affirm yourself and therefore others.
Shan portrays the realities of living with sickle cell disease. Did you feel any similar hindrance or struggles as someone with a long-term health condition?
Yes, I personally don’t feel like we see enough stories about young disabled people and how hard it can feel trying to keep up, fit in or manage conditions we sometimes don’t even feel well versed in. And though Shan doesn’t have the same condition as me, it felt important to highlight a condition that affects Black people in particular.
Approximately 17,500 people in the UK live with sickle cell. There is an urgent need for more Black blood donors to help save lives. Giving blood once can save or improve up to three lives. If you’re based in England, you can register to give blood here.
I wrote Shan and her experience in a way that I would have loved to see this type of character growing up. Living with a chronic condition isn’t the be-all and end-all of my life. And that there are other ways to live, and just because my life doesn’t look like that of my peers or siblings even, doesn’t make my life tragic or any less valid. It’s simply different.
Shan’s relationship with Elle, Funmi and Rey reminds me that there may be continuous obstacles and challenges you face in life as a result of living with a chronic illness. But there are people out there willing to learn, adapt and meet you where you’re at, who won’t ask you to become someone you’re not and accept you just as you are.
‘Resident pastor’ Elle battles with conflicts between her identity and beliefs. How did you navigate a balance between respecting or obeying parents and expressing the truth of a young queer Black woman?
I wish I could say that I have a clear and easy answer but it took a lot of counselling, soul searching and understanding of who I am. I think there comes a time in any young person’s life where they learn to prioritise their own happiness over that of their parent’s expectations of them. And that our parents aren’t gods but flawed and fucked-up mortals like the rest of us. I am very fortunate to have the mum that I have and how our relationship has evolved gives me hope for young queer Black women too that parents can change. And if they don’t, then your chosen family is out there. I think all parents or guardians want is for their child/ren to thrive but thriving is only possible if a child is able to explore and embrace all aspects of themselves. Suppression of any kind can lead to spirit-crushing suffering.
What do you want audiences to take away from the show?
Anything they want really… and to have more sleepovers in your life, be open to the planned ones and the spontaneous ones too. Don’t forget that the inner child in you is very much alive and needs tending to and, by honouring them, can soothe big adult you. Maybe trying watching some anime or whatever childhood show you loved, that could be a good start to reconnect with your inner child.
And finally, what film would you be watching with your friends at a sleepover?
Depends who I’m with—I like to curate the night, order takeout so that we can eat and watch something we’re interested in or can talk about after. Preferably a film neither of us have seen. But favourites I’d definitely watch again at a sleepover include (and in no particular order): Moulin Rouge; The Fifth Element; Train to Busan; Men In Black; Kill Bill; Hanna; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Pan’s Labyrinth; Coco; Black Panther; Spirited Away; The Sound of Music; Madam Dearest and many, many more.
Header image: 2023 Bush Theatre production promo photo of Sleepova (Helen Murray / Studio Doug)