Homebody: An interview with Michaela Coel

If I were handing out awards for theatre, last year’s best performances would have gone to Michaela Coel and Toby Wharton. Coincidentally, they’d both have won for best writing too. Toby’s co-written Fog and Michaela’s Chewing Gum Dreams were undoubtedly two of the best shows on the London fringe scene last year and with both of these performers cast in Nadia Fall’s verbatim play Home, it topped my list of things to see. But I didn’t like the title for this National Theatre Shed production. Home seemed so generic, so familiar, so simple. Titles for plays, I think, should always be intriguing. On first hearing it, Home just wasn’t. Now that I’ve seen the show however, I’ve done an about-turn. It’s an entirely encapsulating title, clever and pretty perfect for this stellar production.

Michaela Coel confirms this within a few minutes of our conversation. Currently in Channel 4’s Top Boy as Kayla, Michaela,  who plays two characters living at Target East hostel, a temporary housing solution for people who find themselves with nowhere to go. Michaela tells me about the hours spent talking to an environmental psychologist in preparation for her roles, “about what it is to be homeless and about what homelessness is really about.”

Having bound across the foyer with a huge grin and limitless energy, she sits straight up and talks thoughtfully about the emotional state that emerges from an understanding of where one comes from and where once can safely go. “There’s a difference between just having a home and knowing that this here is my parent’s land. Knowing that they own it and when they die, I’m going to own it and no matter what happens in the world, I have this that I stand on, that I own. And when you don’t have that, your mentality changes because there’s no sense of surety, your standing on something that can be ripped from your feet at any moment.”

That relationship to our environment is made crystal clear in Home, it becomes something that extends beyond the people who live at Target East and into the audience. That feeling of living somewhere temporary, somewhere you might not be able to afford soon or somewhere you don’t feel you belong is what brings us close to the range of characters in this play. Michaela talks about a similar feeling when she tells me about her own childhood: “My dad came here as an illegal immigrant and he was caught and sent back to Ghana. Me and my mum, we don’t own no home, we’ve been moving from flat to flat since I was born and it makes me feel very invested in this play. When we’ve gone into the real hostel to do drama workshops with the people who live there, I look at them and I think, there is no difference between me and you. I know the same people as some of them, you know, mates from my secondary school. That’s why I have to make sure I honour these stories.”

And while Home might be a picture of people in dire straights, it’s not remotely preachy or guilt-inducing. “What this play doesn’t do is make people feel bad,” says Michaela, “it’s not saying shame on you and it’s not saying lucky you, it’s just saying this is what it’s like for these people. There’s just something quite unifying in the play, this sense of struggle.”

To Nadia’s credit, she’s found some great ways of creating a sense of unity and at the same time honouring the stories she tells. There is for example, Grace Savage, a beatboxer who doesn’t say a word but instead becomes the voice of the silent. “When you see Grace” says Michaela, “you’ll understand why no one else in the world should even try beatboxing because, she’s just the best. But even some of her beatboxing is harrowing and you kind of think how can something like beatboxing have that much of an effect? She sort of represents the people who refused to talk to Nadia, the people who didn’t want to share their stories, her character is those people who are so frustrated that they can’t speak or they don’t want to relive what happened to them or they’ve gone through such an experience that they only have a few words and can’t go any further than that.”

Grace also provides a lot of the lightness in the play, the humour and the comic relief that comes with an environment like that of Target East, where there are little babies, middle-aged security guards, wise case workers, stubbornly positive managers and persistent drug dealers. One of Michaela’s characters has a uniquely hopeful take on life and it can land her in some disastrous situations. “None of these people are stupid, that’s clear. But we all come with our own prejudices and Nadia’s been a great help in showing us that we’re here just to tell these stories. One of my characters for example, she’s caught Chlamydia four times, twice from her current boyfriend and you want to go: What the hell is wrong with you? But you hear her backs story and it makes it easier to step back and see why she might make the decisions that she does.”

The other character Michaela plays is Young Mum who has one scene that makes me laugh out loud just thinking about it. “She’s so happy. She considers herself a chairman of the hostel. She’ll give you a tour, she’ll show you the garden and say ‘yeah it smells of wee sometimes but today it’s nice’. She’s still together with the father of her child, he’s at uni and she’s climbing. A lot of these people are climbing, they’re just starting from a much lower place.”

Written for Spoonfed


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