Yomi Ṣode interview: Unpacking the experience of Black grief

·7-min read
 (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

Yomi á¹¢ode is recalling the moment that inspired one of the most powerful scenes in his new play. He was on a bus to King’s Cross in the winter of 2019 when he got the call to say that a family member, ill with cancer, had deteriorated overnight, and that he needed to come to the hospice right away.

“I broke down on that bus,” he says, “and not a soul asked me if I was alright. No-one asked me if I was ok, nobody checked in to be like, ‘mate, what’s happening?’”

This wasn’t anything like the movies or soap operas he’d seen over the years, where “at the point that anyone starts crying, particularly pertaining to white people, someone’s on aid”. Instead, he was sitting there amongst the other passengers, “wiping phlegm and the snot and everything on my coat, and still no-one’s asking me if I’m alright.”

In a way, the disconsolate loneliness of grief is something universal, as anyone who’s dealt with the death of a close friend or family member will attest to. But as á¹¢ode explains, this particular ordeal shows how loss is something distinct when experienced by a Black person. “Even in grief and hurting, I still have to find a way to fix that situation, and not make it uncomfortable for other people”, says the 36-year-old. “I’m the one that’s crying here, I’m the one that’s hurt, who’s just found out the news of a family member about to pass — but I don’t want to make you uncomfortable with me crying. So let me just stop crying.”

That instinctive behaviour is part of what á¹¢ode describes as his “manorism”; a reference to the “manor”, or the area you grow up in, and how that affects your mannerisms and ways of behaving. As á¹¢ode puts it, it’s about “how, physically, I adapt in different spaces — not only me, [but] how black men specifically, and boys, adapt in different spaces”. He gives the example of how, when he enters a nightclub, his manorism would prompt him to locate “every single fire exit in the event something pop off”, whereas a white friend “might just want to go to the bar straightaway, because that’s not necessarily their landscape of a situation”.

Manorism is also the title of á¹¢ode’s debut poetry collection, due out in May next year. The book will delve into the experiences of Black British men in relation to pride, culture, vulnerability and loss, and a sequence of poems exploring that last theme have now been adapted for the stage. The resulting play, and breathe…, which opens at the Almeida Theatre today, works through the memory of losing a family member, named in the script as Big Mummy, and unpicks all the personal, cultural and societal strands that became tied to that pain.

The play is the latest step in a writing journey that, for á¹¢ode, dates back decades. Born in Oyo State, Nigeria, he moved to England aged nine. It was then that he wrote his first story, a tale about a macaroni penguin — a neat coincidence, he notes, seeing as Manorism will be published by Penguin. “They looked super cool, these penguins, so I just decided to write a story about them. And I got a [school] merit for it. I think that showed me that I can really do this, I can write stuff”.

He also has a love of music — he grew up with his mum playing “a lot of early Nigerian music”, and started to develop his own tastes through everything from Oasis and Tupac to Lil’ Kim and the Space Jam soundtrack. That musical strand has followed him throughout his artistic career, performing at the likes of Wireless and Latitude, collaborating with the Chineke! Orchestra and, on this new play, enlisting guitarist and composer Femi Temowo to deliver a live score.

In his earlier years, that music obsession led him towards the world of UK garage and MCing, before he started to write “with no music at all, and it shaped itself into poems, because I found a rhythm within my own voice”. He’s a powerful spoken-word artist — seek out any of his live performances on YouTube, covering everything from race to mental health to fatherhood, and you’ll witness a honed yet visceral depth of feeling that could only be sincere.

There’s a sharp social awareness that manifests itself throughout his written work, as well the mentoring schemes he runs for writers and creatives, and the popular spoken-word and poetry open mic night he’s helped to run, Boxedin, that introduces writers “to audiences that may or may not be aware of them”.

á¹¢ode says his behind-the-scenes role on and breathe… (the lead part will be played by David Jonsson, who starred in the BBC series Industry) means he’s had more time to work on the marketing to ensure it attracts “an audience that are representative of myself, my culture, my community, and create a space that people can feel welcomed into”. It’s clear that á¹¢ode is aware of the bigger picture, and though his one-man play is extremely personal, full of specific anecdotes and soul-baring introspection, it forms part of a larger narrative.

In one section, we learn that Big Mummy had been keeping her illness secret from her relatives. Later, as she lies almost motionless on a hospice bed, she doesn’t respond to doctors or family members. But as the chaplain delivers the Lord’s Prayer, she mouths along, and even finds the strength to raise and lift a knee.

“I think there is a greater conversation in relation to religion, faith and health,” á¹¢ode says. Over the years, “Black people have been experimented on for the sake of science,” he adds, saying that they’ve been seen as “guinea pigs, lab rats”.

“It’s just horrible, horrendous stuff, and the residue of that over time has exacerbated the anxieties within the Black community and health,” says á¹¢ode. “And, to a certain degree, there are people within my own family that don’t necessarily put health or seeing a doctor at the forefront of their mind. This is something that conditioning has done over time.”

Yomi Ṣode:
Yomi Ṣode:

The historic worry of whether or not Black people can expect to be properly treated by institutions means there are now “generations down the line that are not as willing to potentially trust in something like the NHS in regards to their health, because they just don’t know if they’re gonna come out alive,” á¹¢ode says. “They just don’t know if they’re going to survive a situation. I went through similar things within my own family, in the sense that there’s a lot more faith in religion than the NHS. I think that’s something that needs to be looked into to discuss on a much grander scale, and I don’t think it’s the Black community’s responsibility to explain why this is such a big concern.”

á¹¢ode wrote all but two of the poems featured in the play in just one day, processing his loss in a single burst, three or so weeks after Big Mummy’s passing. And while that particular process of grieving was swift and spontaneous, going into rehearsals for and breathe… meant that he was “being reminded about this loss every single day”.

It gave rise to other emotions, thinking about “friends that I’ve lost over silly arguments or stuff like that, who I could really talk to right now”. Piled on top of the pressure of preparing for other gigs, plus all the extra admin of his play, things came to a head a fortnight ago. “I felt simply overwhelmed with everything,” á¹¢ode says.

“But my manorism over time has almost taught me, or conditioned me, to feel like there were no outlets — whereas there’s always been an outlet.” Seated at his laptop, trying to type away the feeling to no avail, á¹¢ode “just took my glasses off, covered my eyes, and just started crying. I started crying in missing Big Mummy, in feeling overwhelmed, in not necessarily having the wealth of people that I could talk to.”

He sat there for 10 minutes, letting it all flow out. Afterwards, he felt like he “could do a backflip. I was just like, I feel cool, I feel alright. Of course I don’t feel 100 per cent, but I was in a way better place than I was before.”

In that moment, his manorism didn’t apply. “It hadn’t made me think that the outlet could be: just cry, bro. Just cry.”

and breathe..., Almeida Theatre, June 16 to July 10, almeida.co.uk

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