Dipo Baruwa-Etti, just 27, is one of the most prolific and original talents I’ve encountered in three-plus decades of writing about theatre. I’ve met the British-Nigerian playwright at the Almeida – where he is this year’s resident writer under a Channel 4 bursary – to discuss The Clinic, his fourth production in two years. When he originally pitched it to the theatre in 2019 it was “a thought experiment about mental health and euthanasia”, in which a bereaved black woman asked a junior doctor from an influential black family to help her end her life. Then the pandemic happened, Ahmaud Arbery and then George Floyd were murdered in the US, and a storm of Black Lives Matter protests exploded on both sides of the Atlantic.
“I’m not the most political person but I think having more time in lockdown, more room to analyse and explore things, I started to get a lot more engaged in politics and the impact that it was having on the black community,” he says. “Before that I thought my activism was in my work, in putting black protagonists onstage and showing their stories, their layers and multi-dimensionality.”
The BLM movement made him ask himself if it is “enough to do your job and implement change there”, or if he should do something “bigger and wider”. He’s still figuring it out, but the question seeped into the play.
The Clinic opens on the 60th birthday of Segun, a psychotherapist, author and patriarch of a prominent London-Nigerian family. His wife Tiwa volunteers at a women’s shelter, their daughter Ore is a junior doctor, and their son Bayo a police officer married to a black Labour MP. Into their already scratchy family dynamic comes Wunmi, a beautiful young political activist whose partner has died and whose idealism has turned to nihilism. She challenges the family morally, spiritually and – in at least one case – sexually.
The play asks difficult questions. Who should be blamed for black-on-black violence? Does Labour “own” the black vote? Should you change the system from within or without? It also examines what happens when black people assume positions of authority.
Baruwa-Etti says he’s always taken aback when he sees a black police officer, though he also assumes he or she is trying to change the system from within. This reaction is entirely down to the history of policing and racial policing – neither he nor anyone close to him has experienced direct police harassment, he says – but he wonders why other professions are treated differently.
“Statistics show judges give black people higher sentences but if there’s a black judge we celebrate them,” he says. “Likewise, black women are four times more likely than white women to die in childbirth but we still celebrate black doctors.”
He rarely goes for the easy option in his writing. His first full play The Sun, The Moon and the Stars, staged at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 2021, saw the sister of a teenager murdered by his white friends threaten violence to one of the killers’ parents. His second, the astonishing An unfinished man (sic) at the Yard Theatre in February this year, featured an entirely invented language and asked if a mental health issue could be mistaken for demonic intervention, and vice versa.
Half-Empty Glasses, premiered at this year’s Edinburgh Festival by touring company Paines Plough, features a gifted black student and would-be activist, Toye, who wants more black British history in the curriculum, and less about Martin Luther King.
Baruwa-Etti insists that his characters’ opinions are not necessarily his own, and on this issue he clarifies: “I think there should be more Black British history, but I don’t think there needs to be less focus on Black American history to do so, because [as Toye learns in Half-Empty Glasses] there’s a great connection between the two, and you don’t really get as much understanding as possible if you limit focus.”
Still, when we stray onto the subject of colonial monuments, statues and the like, his view is firm, if delivered in the mildest of tones. “We should just get rid of anything that has any connection with colonial history,” he says. And he means everything: museums should return looted objects to their countries of origin; statues of slavers should be struck down; plaques – like the contentious one commemorating the imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oxford’s Oriel college, recently granted listed status by the (now outgoing) culture secretary Nadine Dorries – should be removed.
“Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s get rid of it all,” he says. “I doubt anyone is inspired by statues. But I do believe people see harm and connotations of colonisation in them.”
Though wildly different, his plays share a DNA, including undertones of suspense and elements of the supernatural. “I love exploring families and the battle between Western and West African views, Nigerian ones specifically,” he says. “I also love playing around with genre, blending things together like thriller, elements of horror or magic realism. If I’m writing I want it to be fun for myself and once it leaves me I want it to be entertaining for an audience, and not like I’m throwing a message at you.”
Baruwa-Etti was born in Woolwich and moved to Stratford aged 11, where he still lives with his mother, a former IT consultant, and a selection of siblings. His father lived in Nigeria and their primary contact was by phone until Parkinson’s Disease prevented him speaking (an experience explored in Half Empty Glasses); he died when Dipo was 18. “My dad had eight children, my mom has five and three of us overlap,” he says. His childhood was “very, very peaceful: we played out, went to school, did our work”.
Both his primary school in Beckton and secondary in East Ham were very ethnically mixed and he never suffered overt racism (covert racism, he suggests, might be another matter). Mental health problems are an abiding theme of his work though he’s had no immediate experience of those, either: “But culturally it comes up a lot, and I think there are probably more people going through mental health issues in the black community than the community acknowledges.” He adds: “I prefer to observe and write rather than experience and write.”
Obsessed with the movies of Paul Thomas Anderson, Nicole Holofcener and Sofia Coppola he wrote “awful” film scripts in his teens and completed a two-year film production course at Ravensbourne College in Greenwich after completing his A-levels. But he’d also been turned on to theatre by volunteering at The Space in Canary Wharf, and in 2015 joined the Royal Court’s Introduction to playwriting course.
His cinematic ambition isn’t dead – his short film, The Last Days, starring Bridgerton star Adjoa Andoh, is on the festival circuit and he’s in demand to develop TV project – but he likes the speed at which theatre happens, and the ability it gives him to “be poetic and play with language and form”.
It doesn’t pay much though, which is one reason people from non-privileged backgrounds are under-represented. Until March this year, Baruwa-Etti churned out his plays in the gaps around full time, hugely-valued but poorly paid arts jobs as a theatre director’s PA and a script reader for the National Theatre. “And the only reason I was able to go fully freelance is that I have family who live in London, so I live at home,” he says.
“Hopefully once this play is open I will be able to explore life more, but since I finished at uni I’ve just been trying to write while working. Every moment I wasn’t working I was writing something and it’s only this year that I’ve managed to really find some downtime for myself,” he says. This, like everything Baruwa-Etti says, is uttered in cheerful, relaxed tones, and he smiles as he adds: “I cannot have every minute be about the writing.”
The Clinic is at the Almeida to October 1, almeida.co.uk