INTERVIEW: Writer Matilda Ibini, ‘Little Miss Burden’, Bunker Theatre

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They are the coolest, fiercest, most super talentedest girl band ever assembled:

Big Sis and Little Sis are waiting for the third member of their trio to arrive. Little Miss is on her way. It just takes her a little bit longer.

At thirteen, Little Miss is given a gift which cannot be returned. It’s a part of her. She has to share her body and life with it. And she needs to find a way for the two of them to get along as they can’t both be Player One.

Little Miss Burden, coming to The Bunker this December, is a vital tale of growing up with a wheelchair. Providing a crucial platform for disabled people’s voices, lives and stories to be heard, this is not a triumphant tale about overcoming a disability, but rather a meaningful and refreshing story of acceptance and understanding, of love and survival. 

Mashing together some serious 90s nostalgia, a Nigerian family in East London and Sailor Moon, award-winning playwright and screenwriter Matilda Ibini’s new play draws on her own experiences as a teenager to tell the tricky, but often funny, truth about growing up with a physical impairment.

Ahead of the show’s run, I spoke to Matilda about telling the story of a black disabled woman through magical realism and the importance of representation onstage.

“self-acceptance is not a destination but a continuous journey”

Matilda begins by explaining that “Little Miss Burden is about my experience of growing up with a physical impairment in East London. It is a coming of age tale about understanding what it means to be disabled and understanding how it shapes part of my identity and show that self-acceptance is not a destination but a continuous journey”.

I asked Matilda what personal experiences she explores within the show. She comments, “Without giving away spoilers, the vibrant experience of being a black teenager in London in the early noughties, the banging music, being raised by a Nigerian single mum and the frequent culture and generational clashes that arose as a result and growing up with non-disabled siblings”.

Rather than simply being a tale about overcoming disability, Little Miss Burden is a meaningful story of acceptance and understanding. Matilda explains, “Little Miss Burden attempts to address some of the toxic tropes which come up time and time again when representing disability on stage, like disabled characters physically not being present on stage or being characterised only by their condition and often dehumanised. Little Miss Burden takes her narrative by the reigns and tells her own story with some help from her sisters”.

“humour seeps into every aspect of life, including disability!”

The show tells the tricky but often funny truth about growing up with a physical impairment. Matilda discuss how she was able to strike a balance between honesty and comedy. “I think there has always been humour in most things that I write. Humour seeps into every aspect of life, including disability! Life isn’t black and white and so striking that balance for me is important because society genuinely believes that disabled people can’t or won’t find joy in their lives and it’s just so absurd. So comedy is a useful tool in challenging those absurdities”.

The show tells its tale through magical realism. Matilda explains that “magical realism enables us to explore the interior of our disabled protagonist in eccentric and imaginative ways. My imagination has always been a powerful tool for surviving on this brutal planet. I believe the imagination is not solely for escapism but to think outside the box, to draw strength from and be a safe place to heal and develop oneself. It is important magical realism is in the story, as it represents both the present and the endless possibilities of the future. And our protagonist’s imagination is fun, bright and poignant”.

“imagination is not solely for escapism but to think outside the box, to draw strength from and be a safe place to heal and develop oneself”

Little Miss Burden demystifies the stereotypes and tropes of disabilities. I asked Matilda what kind of labels and stereotypes the show explores, and how it sets about rejecting these. “The show uses my experiences of growing up with a physical impairment to address the variety of discrimination that disabled people face, like gas-lighting, othering, bullying. Ableist assumptions about how tragic life must be with a disability. The show explores them by highlighting and hopefully subverting them”.

I spoke to Matilda about the significance of the show’s title. She replies, “The title was generously gifted to me by Bryony Kimmings. It is about reclaiming language and feeling empowered. Inverting the myths around living with a disability. The significance of the title is about making the feeling of being made to feel like a burden visible”.

“there is so much disabled talent out there who deserve these opportunities”

Little Miss Burden provides a crucial platform for disabled people’s voices, lives and stories to be heard. I asked Matilda how it does this, and why she believes this is important. “It puts a disabled narrative centre stage and illustrating that not all disabled stories are the same, which is crucial in representing the varied and complex experiences of the disabled community. I hope the show highlights the importance of disabled actors being given opportunities to play multifaceted leads, irrespective of whether they share the same condition as the character they are portraying. There is so much disabled talent out there who deserve these opportunities but they are not even considered or invited to audition”.

Matilda reflects on the importance of representation on stage. “It is important because historically society has made numerous attempts to erase and undermine disabled people’s existence and contributions. People assume a person’s disability subtracts from all aspects of life, socialisation, education etc. Authentic representation counters those negative and often ableist preconceptions”.

“it is important that there are a whole range of disabled people portrayed on stage”

Matilda continues, “I cannot speak for all disabled people and represent all their experiences. This is why it is important that there are a whole range of disabled people portrayed on stage to show audiences that disabled people and their experiences are varied and do not fit a single narrative. Disability is not a fixed thing, the journey to understanding and living with it is continuous and constantly evolving”.

Matilda speaks to me about how disability can be a key to freedom. “Disability is a part of human existence. There is no one on the planet who will not be touched or affected by disability and the denial of this only further harms disabled people’s lives and futures. Having a disability does not subtract from my humanity, every person has the right to freedom but in the current society that we live in that freedom is institutionally withheld from disabled people. And the people currently hold the keys are the non-disabled majority of society. But when you give disabled people the resources and support they need, access benefits everyone”.

“disability is a part of human existence”

Finally, Matilda ends by telling me the main thing she’d like audiences to take away from the show. “I would like the show to remove some preconceptions the audience may have had before seeing the play and spark some necessary conversations about access in our industry. I hope disabled people with similar experiences feel seen. I hope this story can be used as a tool to address and dismantle some of the ableist narratives society has concocted about disabled people”.

Little Miss Burden runs at the Bunker Theatre from 4th to 21st December 2019.

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