Hackney People: Oladipo Agboluaje

The playwright talks about how his Hackney and Nigerian upbringing influenced his writing

"I WAS nine when I left Hackney, the world I’d grown up in, for Nigeria,” says Oladipo Agboluaje. 

“I remember the heat suddenly hitting me, and the speed with which our car drove away from the airport... speeds limits don’t mean quite the same thing in Nigeria,” he adds.

This month, however, the award-winning playwright is back in the borough as his latest play, ‘New Nigerians’ (video below), receives its world premiere at the Arcola theatre in Dalston.

As its name suggests, the play is based in Africa’s most populous nation, where the young Oladipo himself remained for the rest of his primary school education, right through until completion of his BA degree at the University of Benin. In 1995, however, he returned to the UK and turned his mind, seriously, to playwriting for the first time.

“As children, my brother and I had made cartoon strips together,” Oladipo recalls. Adding: “He was good at drawing, so he did the pictures while I came up with the stories.”

The young boy wrote countless short stories too. He laughs: “In fact, I was writing all the time. Whether it was anygood or not… that’s another question!”

Settling in South London, however, he began to focus on theatre. “I decided to enter a writing competition at the Birmingham Rep,” he says. Adding: “But being young, and being me, I didn’t read the small print to the end. It turned out that the competition was only open to Birmingham-based writers. I didn’t find out until I’d sent off my submission and they wrote back saying: there’s a bit of a problem…”

The theatre, however, liked his misplaced submission so much that they offered to help him find a London theatre company to stage it, if he could turn it into a finished play. Even so, the young playwright did not quite believe in his luck.

He says: “A year later, I got a letter from them asking for my finished play. I had to knuckle down and pull it together in a matter of weeks.”

So it was that, in 2003, his first play ‘Early Morning’ was produced by Futuretense and performed at the Oval House Theatre in Lambeth.

“And it was then, that I first realised: this is real, it’s actually happening,” he says.

Since then, Oladipo has written an extraordinary 14 plays and won accolades including the prestigious Alfred Fagon Award, which celebrates the work of black British playwrights.

Nigeria looms large in his work but, says Oladipo: “I would say that my Hackney upbringing has influenced my writing, too. There was such a strong Nigerian community surrounding me during those years. We were in and out of the homes of uncles and aunts. I had no idea that not everyone in Hackney ate Nigerian food. Those communities and characters have definitely found their way into my plays.”

Oladipo himself has found his way back to the borough several times, too.

He says: “I’ve had two plays staged at the Hackney Empire now, and each time it was a big deal for me, a coming home. I’ve been coming to the Arcola as an audience member for years, too, so to finally have a play of my own here is very exciting.”

'New Nigerians' is on from today (14 February) to 11 March at Arcola Theatre. Tickets are £17, with £14 concessions available.