Matilda Ibini: You have to trust we know what we’re doing

Ali Wright

Matilda Ibini has plenty to say. The playwright, who has won more awards so far then most through their decade’s long careers, is tired of the way physically impaired people are treated.

Her most recent play, Little Miss Burden, is playing at soon-to-be closing theatre, The Bunker, for most of December and is a deeply personal topic for the rising star.

‘The play is about my experiences of growing up with a physical impairment and growing up with two sisters and a very religious mum, in a highly religious household in East London.’

The show focuses on three sisters trying to start a girl band… but siblings are infamous for tiffs and spats. And this trio can’t decide what sort of girl band they should be. 

‘They’re like the best friends that you never asked for and you’re not allowed to get rid of because you’re related. So there’s a lot of bickering over who’s who, who’s the leader, what did they wear, what is their vision?’

Matilda, who was awarded the BAFTA and Warner Bros Scholarship in 2014 to 2016 has credits in radio and theatre to her name also.

Yet she was initially reluctant to mine her private life for work inspiration because she wanted to be seen as a writer, not labelled by her physical impairment.

‘At first, I didn’t want to be known as someone who could only tell stories about disability. But then as I grew up and grew in confidence, I realised that it’s a strength and not a negative and that actually there aren’t enough opportunities for disabled people to tell their stories. So I have to make every moment count in a way. It then became a more kind of empowering experience. I felt like I had a clear enough reason to myself why I was writing this.’

On the current representation of the disabled in the arts, Matilda feels like a lot more can be done.

‘In this universe, at this present time, it’s piss-poor, it’s piss-poor, like my God, the idea that a disability can be represented in just one way is so dangerous. It makes a lot of people feel inadequate as disabled people or not realize that your life isn’t over if you have a disability. And then the biggest thing is not being trusted to tell your own stories.’

Having people write about their own lives and their own experiences, especially when the stories are about minorities or protected classes, is most important for Matilda.

‘I don’t know how that’s even a thing in this world, like Nigerian people not being able to tell stories about being Nigerian, women not being able to tell stories about being women disabled people not being able to tell stories about being disabled. How can you not be trusted to tell a story about who you are.’

The form representation often takes is also criticised by Matilda, who feels it often deals with a few very specific experiences depicted, and not the real experience lead by a lot of disabled people in the country.

‘A lot of depictions of disability are often about people with disabilities or someone acquiring a disability later in life. And it’s like, well, what about someone like me who was born disabled? Like people make people make them as if they’re not real. And for a long time when you don’t see yourself growing up represented on TV or even in the wider societies, in positions of authority or whatever, you do start to question whether or not any of it is real.’

Ultimately, her frustration turned into motivation. In the end she wrote the play she wanted to stage; a play that highlighted the experience of physically impaired people, showing them in their daily life. Their joys, their struggles, their highs, lows and boring bits.  

‘Because there are so many black disabled women the world over, I wanted to tell a story where that’s not all we are, and we do exist, and we can contribute to society in innumerable ways. I don’t have to prove to you my worth. I just had to know it for myself.’

Matilda has a few ideas about how to change the way these stories are told, but mostly she sees the solution as simple.

‘You’ve got to hire them, not just as creative, but hire them into the building. That’s the only way you’re going to open up your doors and root cause we’ve all got blind spots. But if you don’t have anyone checking your access blind spots, you’re not going to be able to see them. Your imagination won’t stretch. The things you may not have experienced or faced. I think it’s getting more disabled people into, into the industry. I think yes, as artists, but also as decision makers. Like you have to give us that power.

You have to give us funding and you have to trust us. You have to trust we know what we’re doing.’

Little Miss Burden is showing at The Bunker 4th – 21st December and you can buy tickets here:

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