Local LA playwright Liz Femi’s “Take Me To The Poor House” Heads to New York
by Liana Arauz
What is there to do if you are an artist born in England, raised in Nigeria, now living in the US. and growing tired of only hearing the same tragic narrative about your country in the media ? Well, you write a play about it and make sure it’s a darn good one. For Liz Femi, whose family is from Nigeria, and who spent most of her childhood there, it was very confusing to see that the stories portrayed on the news about African children didn’t fully resonate with the reality that she observed among her friends. She wasn’t sure if these stories were not being told because there was no interest or simply because not many people knew about them.
Her one-woman play, Take Me To The Poor House which premiered at Hollywood Fringe Festival this past summer and has now been selected to be part of United Solo Festival in New York, grew not out of a desire to cast herself –the hero after all is only eight – but out of a storytelling need to celebrate and validate her experiences and show that growing up is really a universal theme. The play is, in the author’s own words, “an African Wonder Years meets Charlie Brown.” It follows Lizzie, a middle class 3rd grader, who longs to be poor in order to win the heart of her classmate. Although there are some lovely characters like Grandpapa and the mother, as in the Peanuts, the adults are a bit irrelevant and the heart of the story is really the relationships, triumphs and disappointments among these kids. In the play, with no props or costumes, Femi portrays 16 different characters and her physicality with voice and body language is a true feast to the eye. We can suspend our disbelief and see two, three, or four children on stage.
This is Femi’s first play. She is not part of a theater company, so the creative and producing process was a steep one. The writing alone took her close to three years. During the first two, she experimented with a multitude of versions. On the third year she gave herself the task to have a new workshop reading of the play each quarter. She then used the feedback to flesh out the script even more. At the end of her process, she felt she had enough of a polished story to put it on its feet. She chose the Hollywood Fringe Festival, not only for the monetary convenience of producing as part of a festival, but also out her shyness and wanting to be part of local community of storytellers.
Different from other fringe festivals in large cities, the Hollywood Fringe Festival is, according to Femi, more of an intimate affair that really yields a supportive environment of theater makers. The play was a festival box office hit which went on to have two successful extensions, and won two of its four Award nominations, including Best International Play. Femi attributes this success to a combination of things: It was encouraging to see people outside of her family and friends get enthusiastic about the story, and create buzz through social media. She also felt that at the core, it was the community of collaborators, that helped bring this play to a successful fruition, most them her friends who volunteered to serve as director, designers, executive producer –whatever was needed. In our interview, Femi said it was surprising to see how resourceful they could be, “Sometimes one tends to think we need the help of industry [big] shots to get things done but it makes you feel very capable and confident to realize you really have everything you need just among people that love and support you…”
Lastly the biggest lesson was learning to be bold and daring and let go of the need for perfection. Femi said every night during the run she forced herself to try new things. At the eve of her NYC performance she was still working on rewrites, as there were many things about the play that could only be discovered by putting them in front of an audience.
After NYC, the plan is to take the play to Washington, DC next year, but Femi’s ultimate dream is to tour it in England, South Africa, and of course Nigeria. Although Take Me to the Poor House is colored with African accents, the audience learns all about Puff-puff and Bazooka chewing gum – two popular Nigerian sweets – its themes are universal. The crazy measures we take for our first love, the reluctance of having to learn from our mistakes, or the never-ending process that is growing up, are things that audiences around the globe can relate to. In spite of different customs, accents, skin color, the humanity has more commonalities than differences. Like the famous Disney ride song says, it is indeed a small world after all – and at least according to this Nigerian gal, a pretty funny one too.
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TAKE ME TO THE POOR HOUSE – OFF BROADWAY PREMIERE:
Tickets at http://www.takemetothepoorhouse.com/shows
Oct. 18 @ 6pm – The Studio Theater – 410 W. 42nd St. NYC, 10036
Oct. 22 @8pm – The Producers Club – 358 W. 44th St. NYC 10036