Nicole Acquah has never been one to sit still – or keep quiet.

Since her debut play For a Black Girl opened at Vault 2018 to public and critical acclaim (Including a 4 star review from The Stage that called it “Vital and Vibrant”)  she has not sat back. She is not only back at Vault Festival this year, she’s back with her own company Acquah&Co, and a new show, I Stopped… When with much more to say on the black-British experience, and beyond.

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“I’m so excited to be coming back to Vault!” She exclaims. I Stopped… has gone into rehearsals this week at the Cockpit, and that’s where we meet. She’s giddy from the energy in the room.

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“I’ve been really happy with the progress For a Black Girl has been making… it kind of like blew up which was really awesome. Being at Vault last year gave us opportunities to perform it at other venues”. For a Black Girl went on to a short run at Camden People’s Theatre, and to the Curve Theatre in Slough. Nicki then went on to write and perform her own solo show at Omnibus Theatre, in Clapham. Another opportunity that grew out of this underground festival which is just as well, she’s got lots to say.

“I didn’t know what to expect from [Vault 2018], this year is a different kind of excited because I know a little bit more.”

For those that aren’t already familiar (and as it enters its 8th year if you like your theatre hot-of-the-press, you should be!) Vault festival is London’s hotbed of theatre types going places. It’s the closest you’ll get to Edinburgh fringe, but 8 months early. A stepping stone on the stream to success at the UK’s most famous theatre festival, and a stopping place afterwards on the way to Who Knows Where. It’s the litmus test for what will make us laugh, cry, think and get angry in 2019 and beyond – and it’s happening under thousands of unknowing feet.

This year Nicki has gone ‘full Vault’ in her chosen venue, “We’re in the Cavern… the cavern is a much longer space, a different kind of space” I rack my brain and retrieve the memory of an underground Church aestheitc, with rustic, dripping walls, a huge vaulted ceiling and wooden pew-like benches. “It definitely looks more underground I would say than Brick Hall did”, she acknowledges, perhaps more appropriately in keeping with the underground vibe of her latest play.

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Her new show takes a hard look at some challenging issues. Interracial relationships and racial identity are the cornerstones for her play, which delves deep through the guise of a poetry slam competition between three artists of different cultural backgrounds. It’s clear the conflicts on her mind which formed the spine of For a Black Girl (which surrounds a white male friend attempting to argue that ‘racism doesn’t exist in the 21st century UK’) are back for a re-match, too. They never really went away. “OH yeah” Nikki, laughs, perhaps part in acknowledegment and part in exasperation.

But it’s the subject matter, As well as her new team, that have got her fired up. “It’s really exciting. It’s Dorcas’ first time directing, but I have known her for five years and we’ve always been open to collaborating. I’ve performed with her before” They met at Royal Holloway University, where they both studied drama together. “I actually sent her the script first of all just for feedback, and this one she was quite excited about! So when I thought about directors, I thought I would ask her!”. Sitting in on the rehearsal, it’s clearly a bond of trust that benefits the whole room.

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Nicki is the sole writer, as with For a Black Girl, and the development process is one she is starting to hone and really call her own. An amalgamation of her own experience blended with news stories, and experiences from her community of friends and fellow artists. How does that blend come to be? I wanted to know.

“Not that much of my personal experience is directly in this show, I think things to do with my personal experience shaped the show but not in a narrative sense. It’s a lot about interracial relationships and being in love in the public eye and how your navigate your identity with that, so it all came about through conversations that I had with people… it was on my mind a lot anyway, but that isn’t directly in the show”

There has certainly been a lot in the press this year to feed into her pool, too. “While I Was writing the show there was a big news story about Kelechi Okasor, she’s a really interesting person to listen to, but there was a big controvercy around the fact she had a white partner, it was a really big thing”. We also talk about the controversy surrounding Anthony Ekundayo director of Talawa Theatre, who was granted a position funded by Arts Council England last year intended for ‘people of colour’. He applied as ‘mixed heritage’ but on receiving the position acknowledged his parents are white Irish. He has claimed in the press he “looks black” and has been treated as such his whole life. But does that equate to having lived a black experience? “Quite a few people had a lot of things to say about it”, says Nicki, whilst not offering her own personal view. “It made me think a lot about racial identity… we’ve got a character in the play who is white passing, and I don’t actually know Edundayo’s heritage, but the play concerns how they navigate that, as well”.

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The world of spoken word makes an eloquent meeting point for the multi-cultural in her work, and in her real life, too. “I do a lot of spoken word”, she tells me earnestly. “I’m a performer myself, poetry slams and things like that and I listen to and watch a lot of spoken word stuff. Some of it I watch live at small spoken words events and things like that” London is certainly a fertile place for spoken word, and her play is set there as a reflection of her experience. “I enjoy the work of Apples and Snakes, they work a lot with young people”, she enthuses. “They have their own space but other events around London, too I performed at one in West Norward last year… I go to Battersea Arts Centre too, where what they do is maybe not necessarily spoken word but playing with verse, beatboxing and things like that”

“I would like it if everyone come and to this show! I think you’ll be quite interested in the show if you’re interested in poetry in general. It’s interesting to Londoners – it’s set in London – and it’s very heavily focused on young people in London and their experiences and relationships”. Melting pot that it is, London feels like a great place to start, but the conversation is far from over and I wonder at how Nicki will continue it her future work, I don’t doubt that she will.

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Nicki has to get back to work, but then all over London and further afield right now, rehearsals are going on ahead of the festival opening on the 23rd Feb. Once again she has a covetted opening week slot, so what else will she be checking out at this year’s festival?

Inside Voices by Lazy Native – “It’s a show all about East Asian Women, one of the few stories that I have seen at vault focussing on East Asian culture – I will definitely check that out.”

Thomas by Snapper Theatre – “Which is all about masculinity and a young man living with autuism which sounds really interesting to me.”

Such Filthy F*ucks by Smoke & Oakum Theatre – “I understand it’s a show that looks at slut shaming and I haven’t seen much on that topic. It sounds like a powerful, female led show.”

See you underground!

I Stopped… When plays at The Cavern, Vault Festival 23-27 Jan 2019.

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