For Moji Kareem, her latest directing project is about more than just theatre.
“Shadows in Different Shades is inspired by my life story”, she explains, settling down in a rehearsal space just down the road from the Crucible, where the production will open on Thursday.
In an exploration identity and connection in diaspora, Shadows in Different Shades tells the story of three generations of Nigerian women spread across two continents, taking the audience on an intimate journey through their hopes, dreams and losses.
“What drew me to the idea was my daughter complaining that I don’t communicate enough,” Kareem explains. “For example, we’d see something on the television and I’d mention how it reminded me of boarding school. She’d say, ‘You never told me that you went to boarding school! What was it like?’
“When you grow up in a generation where people don’t communicate, that cycle tends to repeat itself. Things only come out when you’re backed into a corner. I think that’s something that resonates with every culture.”
Theatre has since given Kareem the chance to share her story in her own unique way. Born in the UK following her mother’s studies, she spent her childhood in Nigeria. In her 20s, she returned to the UK, where she founded Utopia Theatre – the company behind Shadows in Different Shades. A socially-conscious enterprise, Utopia Theatre’s team are keen to make a positive impact by widening opportunities in the arts.
“We like to help artists, actors and musicians hone their craft, so we reinterpret the classics in a way that allows them to experience working with the classic texts. We also help to grow new writers – we tend to work with the same people as they grow in the industry.
“It’s the same backstage: so when we have someone like Zoe [Elsmore, the production’s Stage Manager] who’s very experienced, we might bring in someone, perhaps a person of colour, to shadow and learn from her.”
In Kareem’s view, Utopia’s core vision is clear. “What drives us is the idea that all stories deserve to be told, and that there are stories that connect us all. Utopia Theatre was set up to tell the stories of Africans here in the UK.”
With more tales of injustices suffered by the Windrush generation coming to light in the media every day, there has perhaps never been a more pertinent time to explore stories of migration in the arts. For Kareem, theatre can serve as a subtle vehicle for empathy.
“Theatre has a way of dealing with issues that allows people to engage without being bashed over the head with them. Shadows in Different Shades, for instance, is set up so it’s almost as though you’re visiting an art gallery and this performance is happening there.”
The performance itself promises an immersive, multidisciplinary experience, combining movement, music and poetry with traditional drama. Kareem explains how she arrived at this unique creation through unconventional means.
“Nothing is fixed,” she explains. “It’s almost as though we’re experimenting with a recipe. We cut the scripts into tiny sections, improvise with them, and keep what we like. So, the script we had a week ago is not the same as the script we have today, and it could change again by the time we perform.
“It means you need actors who are very flexible. When I’m auditioning them I always say, ‘If you just want to be told where to stand and what to say, then this is not the process for you. This process will challenge you, physically and mentally.’”
Within the Sheffield audience, too, Kareem anticipates varied reactions to the piece.
“The abstract elements – the movement, the set-up – allow people to read it in different ways,” she says. “You could come away thinking, ‘Yes I get all that, about how this mother arrived here and the consequences for her.’ But there’s a whole range of consequences there that will resonate differently for different people.
“The music hits you too, but in a completely different way from either an opera or a musical. It’s got a visual arts feel to it, but it’s not live art. We’re standing in that middle place where it’s neither this nor that, but a whole mix of styles.”
Shadows in Different Shades plays at the Crucible’s Studio Theatre on Thursday 24 and Friday 25 May. For tickets, please visit: https://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/shadows-in-different-shades
Images: Taken by John Rwoth-Omack, edited by Smart Banda