Theresa Ikoko interview: After Rocks, I dare anyone to tell me these stories aren't viable

Rocks star: Playwright Theresa Ikoko's debut film Rocks is released this week (Matt Writtle)
Rocks star: Playwright Theresa Ikoko's debut film Rocks is released this week (Matt Writtle)

If you want to remind yourself why we pay to sit in dark rooms with strangers, go and see Rocks. This effervescent coming-of-age story about the eponymous British-Nigerian teenager and her Hackney schoolmates will make your heart soar and make you proud of this city. Finally in cinemas this week after its original release date coincided with lockdown, it would have been easy to put it on a streaming platform when all we had to entertain us were our televisions. But the film’s co-writer, playwright Theresa Ikoko, wanted young women of colour to have the opportunity to see themselves on the big screen. “I felt like it was important, because there is something about seeing yourself 20 foot tall. For so many of us, we haven’t seen ourselves on small screens, let alone big screens. It was important to say, you are worth this big screen, you are worth taking up these spaces — these posters, this popcorn.”

Thank God she listens to her voicemail. If she hadn’t, she may never have written one of the best films of the year. Born in Hackney, where she still lives, she first started writing scenes for plays into blank emails during lull moments while working at Feltham Young Offenders Institution. With a masters in criminology, she was all set for a career in criminal justice policy — reading the scenes over the phone to her friend in the evenings was just for fun. But her friend insisted more people needed to hear what she was writing.

Eventually they came across a free script reading service from Talawa, the UK’s leading black theatre company. Nothing happened for nine months, until she got a call from a landline number and ignored it. She then got an email which she thought was spam, so she deleted it. Finally Michael Buffong, Talawa’s artistic director, got through to her on voicemail and said he wanted to put on her debut play, Normal, which was staged in 2014. “I didn’t know that would sort of change everything. I kept asking him throughout the process, ‘so, who cancelled? Who dropped out? How did I end up here?’ And he was like, ‘No, you’re meant to be here — I believe in you’.” A later play, Girls, a co-production with Soho Theatre and HighTide, won several awards in 2016.

There’s a sunflower next to Ikoko in her flat as we speak over Zoom — it feels apt given the joy at the heart of Rocks. She had written the story, about a teenager struggling with unexpected responsibilities (played by exceptional newcomer Bukky Bakray), as a tribute to her sister Tracey. Ikoko is one of nine siblings and has five sisters — “I feel like this film has made it really clear who my favourite is,” she laughs. Her mum is retired and her father, like Rocks’, has passed away. “She’s amazingly tough and strong in the way that Rocks is, and that so many black and brown girls are, who have to put on this armour to protect and preserve the childhoods of their siblings, in a way that can harden them,” Ikoko says. “So it’s really just an ode to them, to say that beneath the armour, that the bus driver or the teacher or your work colleagues don’t see, I see the joy and the love and the endless well of complex softness in you, and I want to say thank you and I love you, that I see you and that is valid and worthy of praise.”

The film’s casting method ended up creating its own community. The all-female creative team wanted to make a film about British teenagers with teenagers — so they went into schools and selected a group of young women, who had no prior acting experience, to do workshops with over the course of nine months. Real friendships began to form between the cast, so by the time Ikoko and her co-writer Claire Wilson began writing the script, “we had been infected with their magic.” The resulting film, she says, is “a gift from women to women.”

Ikoko no longer believes her stories aren’t viable — a word she’s heard often in the industry as a reason not to make films like Rocks. She remembers being blown away by a Saturday matinee of the film at Toronto Film Festival, populated by an elderly white audience who loved the film so much they wanted to tell her how it reminded them of their grandchildren, or being a teacher, or the sound of their street when they opened their windows.

“I’d been convinced by the gatekeepers and commissioners that there was no universality in my story, that in order to tell it I had to find an audience that looked like me. I’m annoyed at myself that I ever allowed myself to believe it,” she say. “So now I dare anyone to tell me these stories aren’t viable, because I’ve got ten old white people in Toronto that will tell you they will watch a story about a 15 year old black kids in Hackney.”


She describes the film as a “love letter to London” and “not just the Notting Hill parts”. It made her tear up watching a scene where Rocks walk through Dalston Market — not just Dalston, but “my Dalston”. It was the first place Ikoko ever got lost as a kid, and there it all was on screen: the woman buying plantain, checking the ripeness of the yam while kids dance around her.

It’s also a chance to go beyond talking about black lives as a monolith, and champion black British culture. This is something that Ikoko is passionate about and reflects on deeply and articulately. She’s proud to be a black British Londoner, loves the amalgamation of languages — white and black friends weaving pidgin English and patois into their vocabulary — but also feels that the community is often left out of the conversation about what it means to be British. “A lot of us are really proud, and it’s the only identity we have. My first time back in Africa was this year (she spent some of lockdown in Nigeria), so a lot of us don’t have a connection to any other black culture outside of what we know,” she says. “The threads we have sewn into the fabric of Britishness are valid and the picture of Britain would be incomplete without them.”

She has a lot coming up for someone who only recently started thinking of herself as a writer, including a new play and a couple of TV projects. Her theatre work helped open doors. While she’s fearful the industry’s current crisis will impact small companies that give opportunities to “people like me, who pronounce theatre with an ‘f’ instead of a ‘th’”, she’s also hopeful that meaningful conversations are happening, that “people who are rising up and speaking up” are being listened to. ”Whether it be the young girls in Rocks, people like Rachel Delahay, or Sarah Gavron (Rocks’ director) who step aside and insist on doing things better. And I hold that responsibility to myself — if we’re going to go through doors, let’s hold doors open behind us.”

Rocks is released in cinemas on September 18. UPDATE: Rocks is now available to view on Netflix