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Interview: Writer Livia Kojo Alour discusses internalised racism and reclaimed identity

Anyone who's had an international career as a sword swallower will naturally have a tale or two to tell. Livia Kojo Alour's raw and illuminating new show looks at her life on the stage alongside the challenges and stereotypes facing black women in the Arts. Black Sheep fuses physical theatre, spoken word and song with a special accompaniment on selected dates by London-based electric bassist and composer Andrew Sinclair John. It's an empowering journey of reclaimed identity and further cements Livia's status as a pivotal UK Queer Black voice. RR caught up with Livia to discuss the show's creation and her experience of diversity and inclusion in the capital...

RR: Congratulations! We hear your poetry collection, the sister project to the show, has just been longlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. Where were you when you found out the good news? Can you tell us a bit about the award?

Livia: Thank you! I was out with friends when my publisher called me. He was so emotional. It was really sweet. Receiving the news I cried a little bit to be honest. ‘Rising of the Black Sheep’ is my first substantial piece of writing. I never had anything published before. Receiving this kind of acknowledgment so early on in my writing career is a big deal. It really created more excitement for advancing my skills now. The Polari Prize and the Polari First Book Prize are awarded annually to a book & debut book that explores the LGBTQ+ experience. It’s the UK and Ireland’s only dedicated prize for LGBTQ+ literature and the big Polari Prize has previously been won by writers like Joelle Taylor & Andrew McMillan.

RR: Your show Black Sheep is obviously a deviation from what your audiences usually expect. What's the format for the show?

Livia: There were two major experiences that arose out of touring Black Sheep last year. One, I really felt the show no longer accurately applied to the life I am now actually living in the U.K. I am talking mostly about past experiences and 'things I would love to have in my life.' It was correct at the time as the show was written in lockdown and I was mostly alone in producing it. However, in the last couple of years I was able to build a great community around me making new friends and collaborators. My day to day has totally changed and I am much happier now then back in 2019 when I wrote the show. I wanted this to mirror in the work. I am currently reworking the ending to reflect this. I also got much better at roller skating and want to show off that skill! The second thing is, I felt quite lonely touring the show on my own. Since I also wanted to advance my musical skills I had the idea to bring live musicians onto the project. It obviously depends a bit on budget but I managed to get a few dates confirmed where the amazing bass player Andrew Sinclair John will join me. Hopefully we might have a piano player as well. 

RR: What's more terrifying - sword swallowing or live theatre?

Livia: Oh definitely sword swallowing. It’s an amazing job but you can get easily hurt and possibly die. The anxiety of always having to protect my health took over my life. I think at the end of my career I couldn’t really be relaxed or feel joy anymore. I was tense, depressed and sick all the time, hence I stopped. But live theatre, on the other hand, feeds my soul! I love the fact that things could possibly go wrong and you have to be ready to improvise. It keeps me artistically on my toes. Performing in front of a live audience is my favourite thing. Exchanging energy, telling stories and hopefully inspiring people to look at their own life differently after a show are gifts that I hope to never be missing.

Photo Credit: Rob Penn

RR: You moved to London with the hope of joining a more diverse community. Did it meet your expectations?

Livia: Absolutely! It was really the diversity on the street alone that made me feel better. Sitting in the tube with so many different nationalities present gave me an instant feeling of belonging I’ve never had before. In Germany I was often the only black person in the room. However, I also had to do some soul searching. I was raised by white parents and didn’t seek out black communities in my adolescence. When i came to England I felt awkward around fellow black people especially if they had grown up with proximity to their heritage. I was worried i don’t act ‘ black enough’ in terms of my way of articulating, dressing and queerness.I was scared of basic things like admitting to people that I didn’t know much about African food for example. But there are a lot of mixed heritage black folk in the U.K.  They became ‘my people’. Eventually my circle of friends started to reflect that. I realised I’m very comfortable around people who, just like me, are well travelled and have a lot of [chosen] family all over the planet. It was a slow process but now if I look around me I have friends from every possible background. This makes me very happy.

RR: How can people even begin to combat internalised racism? What made you fully aware of how much it had affected you?  

Livia: My personal journey of understanding the impact of it was through my community. Mainly reading books from black authors and conversations wth peers. I am still learning. It’s hard to answer this question. Combating internalised racism means fighting the self. Thats is such an aggressive approach. I don’t think that’s the way. I believe learning to love oneself could be a good start. In accepting ourselves for who we are - beautiful capable people deserving of love - we can maybe overcome internalised racism and heal.

RR: How vulnerable do you allow yourself to get on stage? Are there some things that are too personal or painful to talk about?

Livia: I am still working on allowing myself to be vulnerable in front of others or an audience. My writing and theatre work is very personal and I've been supported by a therapist since 2019. I want to process my trauma in private first before speaking about them on stage. There is definitely a difference between the painful things that happened to me that I had no control over, for example my mother's death, and the things I decided to do that created trauma for myself or others. Naturally I feel more shame around the latter and it’s harder to speak on them. I’m a work in progress.

RR: What do you do when you need a break from 'creating'? 

Livia: I don’t think I ever really need a break from creating. Rather I need breaks from life to create more! There is always this pushing feeling on the inside of me. Like art wanting to be let out. A book idea, new poetry, shows etc. so usually when I go away to rest, ideas become clearer in my head. I try to go away at least once a year for a beach holiday. I adore doing absolutely nothing but reading books and sunbathing. Again, reading feeds my inspiration. Oh yes and I roller-skate. It’s a fantastic way to disconnect from my phone and social media while exercising, learning and enjoying the London skate community. 

RR: What's next on the horizon?

Livia: My solo show Black Sheep is coming back for a second autumn tour this year! We kick off in September. I am really looking forward to the big homecoming gig at the Albany in Deptford, London on 10th November. After that, I will go on a European tour with the poet Anne Clark. I am also currently writing my first full length book, a memoir, and there are plans for a new theatre show in 2024.


Black Sheep plays at the Albany in Deptford alongside other UK Tour dates. To find out more, please head here.

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