Identity, creativity and award-winning theatre

  • 12 February 2024

A collage of a woman in a blue academic gown and an advert for a play called Blackboard

Tia-Renee Mullings (History and Politics 2022) is an award-winning playwright, a year after writing her debut script following her first term at Gonville & Caius College.

Tia-Renee’s play, Little Angela Davis, is a play about activism and identity which impressed judges of the Alfred Fagon Awards for leading Black British playwrights. Tia-Renee was shortlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award, and then won an under-25 prize, the Mustapha Matura Award 2023.

The Mustapha Matura Award comes with a mentoring programme which will see Tia-Renee tutored by one of her inspirations, Ryan Calais Cameron.

“It’s an honour to have had my writing recognised in this way, and I’m incredibly excited to explore not only my craft, but the world of theatre, especially under the guidance of a mentor, an invaluable opportunity that I can’t wait to make use of.  This has truly been a defining moment, and I’m immensely motivated for the future,” Tia-Renee says.

Little Angela Davis is a long spoken word poem was written in six weeks between Michaelmas and Lent last year (2022-23) and is yet to be performed.

“It was the first time I’d committed to writing a full play. I challenged myself to write a scene every week,” Tia-Renee says.

“It’s about activism and navigating the world as a marginalised person. It’s a delayed reaction to 2020 and activism in young people. I was always politically engaged, but took a break coming to Cambridge as a lot came with it.

Little Angela Davis was my with reckoning with all of it. It was really fun to write. When I applied for the awards I hadn’t even written a second draft. Barely anyone has read it, because I didn’t expect anything from it.”

Another of Tia-Renee’s plays, co-written with Katiann Barros Rocha (Robinson; HSPS 2022), is to be performed at Corpus Playroom from Wednesday 21 February to Saturday 24 February. Blackboard (Keep ya' head up) – named after the Tupac Shakur song from 1993 – was half written prior to coming to Cambridge and completed after matriculation.

“The tragi-comedy was born out of the expectations we had and explores the intersection between race, class, gender and academia,” adds Tia-Renee, who knows Katiann from sixth form.

“There are a lot of surreal, exaggerated aspects, but it’s rooted in real experiences.” 

Tia-Renee is from Greenwich and found the contrast between creative opportunities and performances in London and Cambridge to be so stark she started a new University society with another schoolfriend, Aishat Olawumi (Fitzwilliam; History of Art 2022).

After attending an event through the African Caribbean Society at Cambridge Union, Tia-Renee set to work. 

She adds: “In ACS spaces corporate jobs are really pushed. I didn’t realise there were so many people creatively inclined. That was the first big opportunity for them to showcase that. It was so cool to see how talented my friends were.”

The Black Artists Society was formed as a space for people to show up and be their full creative selves. 

Tia-Renee says: “In Cambridge, we weren’t aware of each other because of the environment we’re in. Spaces like the ACS can’t cater for everything. People appreciated a space for Black creatives.

“It is possible to create work that is both like culturally specific and like university relatable. At the same time you feel pressure to create work other people understand but it’s not necessarily for you. Our whole thing is that you can create work and not change it.

“It’s important to show creative pursuits are valid; people like us, people from our backgrounds, that it is a viable path you can take and that there are others like you.”

Attending theatre performances in London in her teenage years proved inspirational, with Cameron’s work particularly powerful.

She adds: “The first play I saw of his was in 2019, called Typical, starring Richard Blackwood, about the death of Christopher Alder, who was unlawfully killed in police custody. That changed my outlook on theatre completely.”

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy is another play of Cameron’s she cites and Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum Dreams is “an amazing play”, Tia-Renee adds.

“I watched the TV show before I read the play and when I read the play it all fell into place,” she adds.

Kwame Owusu won the 2022 Mustapha Matura Award and his debut play, Dreaming and Drowning, shows the path Tia-Renee would like to emulate.

“The opportunities I’ve been exposed to and the people I’ve met, it’s life changing and I want to follow through on that,” she says.

“There’s so much I can do and the doors are just opening. I’d like to explore the wider world now I know this is something I could do.”

For tickets to see Blackboard (Keep ya' head up) from Wednesday 21 February to Saturday 24 February, visit the ADC Theatre/Corpus Playroom website.

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