Why We Tell the Story: In Conversation with Helena Morais

As part of the Ovalhouse’s Untold series, Helena Morais wrote, produced and starred in Firecracker, which remains one the best shows I’ve seen all year. In Firecracker, we follow Anaíz Mendes, who seeks revenge after the murder of her godmother, a Bahian councilwoman in modern day Brazil. Anaíz starts to learn Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian Martial Arts form and in doing so discovers the legacy of Queen Nzinga of Angola. On one comfortably warm Sunday, Helena and I meet in Green Park to discuss her experience with creating her debut play and more.

Name: Helena Morais

Role: Actress, Writer and Producer

Favourite Show/Play: Misty by Arinzé Kene which she’s watched five times

Favourite Part About Theatre: The sense of community and being able to discuss shows with others

Helena is a woman of many talents: she is an actress first and foremost; a Capoeira enthusiast; and also founder of the Instagram account Plays 4 POC which signposts to the variety of plays which are created by people of colour. Now she can add playwright onto the list following the successful run of Firecracker at the Ovalhouse in June 2019.

Helena tells me that her venture into writing was prompted by a not so positive experience during University. “I did feel like an outsider at university. Even though I had great friendships, I felt like I didn’t know who I was and I felt like all these people could talk about their favourite writers, but none of those stories even closely represented me or anything that I have gone through in life. And I just wanted to be able to relate to things.”

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Cast of Firecracker: Loli Mello, Dora Cruz, Helena Morais and Luiana Bonfim

Time and time again, students voice similar concerns about being made to study a fixed set of texts as the gatekeepers refuse to introduce any variety into the course. This spurred Helena to begin her own education into writers, particularly writers of colour.

We talk about some of her favourite books and plays, these include ‘Kindred’ by Octavia E Butler, ‘Things fall apart’ by Chinua Achebe and ‘Blues for Mister Charlie’ by James Baldwin which I learn has a striking relevance to right now. “Although Blues for Mister Charlie was written in the 60s, it strongly resonates with today. It was written at a time when black people were getting murdered and has strong parallels with the reports around policy brutality and discrimination against black people.”

But this wasn’t enough. “I realised that even the black stories that I was reading, as great as I think they are, and they are phenomenal, I just felt like the stories that I wanted to tell were not seen. So, I thought let me try it and I enjoyed it. It came more as a need than a want.”

The opportunity to write Firecracker first presented itself when she successfully applied to become one of Ovalhouse’s six new Associate Artists in 2018. She explains how her two main inspirations for Firecracker were Brazilian activist Marielle Franco who was recently murdered, and Queen Nzinga of Angola, who led the resistance to European colonisation in seventeenth century Angola.

Cast of Firecracker: Dora Cruz, Loli Mello, Luiana Bonfim and Helena Morais

“I had read so much about African culture and books about Angola. My Grandmother would mention Queen Nzinga in particular and following my research I realised that there was so much to say about this woman.” [Marielle Franco] was the first black councilwoman in Rio. She was also a lesbian and spoke a lot about police brutality in the favelas where she grew up. I saw that both these women are so similar because they’re so outspoken and they fought for their rights”.

Helena got straight to writing and her experience of attending a vigil for Marielle Franco strongly influenced what the play eventually came to look like. “I went to a vigil in March of this year, just a couple of months before doing the show and there were only women present. And I was like, wow. It’s women who are carrying on [Marielle’s] legacy and carrying on her story. If it wasn’t for these women, we wouldn’t be celebrating her. And then I was like every character needs to be female because we’re telling these female stories and we need to have female energy and uphold it and be proud of that.”

Helena tells me that she knew from the start of the project that she wanted Tristian Fynn-Aiduenu to direct. “I did a workshop at the young Vic like two years ago and Tristian was the leader and I thought this is the best workshop I’ve ever done since leaving school. And then from that moment I said, if I ever want anyone working on anything that I’m writing, I want it to be him. He’s great.”

“When I gave him the first draft, he went away and did his own research and even learnt some Portuguese. “Capoeira is all about embracing dance and he got that straight away”.

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Cast of Firecracker: Dora Cruz, Loli Mello, Luiana Bonfim and Helena Morais

I learn that casting for a show with only Portuguese speaking black women required inventive methods of outreach such as putting call outs on Instagram and Twitter to find the best people for the roles. The audition process itself was very movement based rather than reading off a script. “[Tristian] made us do some really crazy things…but it was one of the best things I’ve ever done”. They managed to assemble a brilliant cast including performers – Luiana Bonfim, Loli Mello and Dora Cruz.

But there was one slight problem. None of actors knew Capoeira and so would have to learn from scratch, in the space of a week. Something that as an audience member, I would have never guessed. Helena confesses, “During the rehearsals, all of us were crying at one point. We had to learn the instruments, Capoeira and lines. It ambitious.

“Being overly involved as the writer, producer and actor there would be moments where I would think this is not what I thought it was going to be, and it’s not going to be good. That’s what I kept saying and it had nothing to do with Tristan’s amazing work. I just couldn’t see the bigger picture, kept thinking is this going to translate? But I’ve learnt from that to just trust the process. You need to have blind faith”.

Thanks for reading! And a huge thank you to Helena for the interview. If you’d like to see more of Helena, here’s her social media links:
Instagram: @hnmorais
Twitter: @hnjmorais

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