House of Ife, a story of a British-Ethiopian family gathering to mourn the sudden loss of their eldest son. Ife, short for ‘Ashenafi’ (meaning winner) unearths guilty familial secrets. The family drama is constantly thought provoking while exploring themes of grief, trauma, modern masculinity, sexuality, fatherhood, and existing cultural tensions.
Ife’s twin sister Aida (Karla-Simone Spence) is deeply disturbed by the loss of her brother, using alcohol and drugs to block her grief, slowly disintegrating throughout the duration of the play. By contrast, her younger sister Tsion (Yohanna Ephrem) is less expressive and takes on the duty of their absent father channelling her ‘parental’ duties to support her siblings emotionally. Yosi/ Yosias (Michael Workeye), is the youngest sibling and plays a very comical role, his character gives a powerful insight into modern masculinity. Despite losing his older brother, he is still expected to perform culturally as a ‘working class’ black man. Also, with an absent father, and no male figure to turn to, he uses poetic rap and music as a form of expression, yet even still, no one seems to hear him.
Their mother Meron (Sarah Priddy) is filled with grief and despair, but also plenty of dignity. Her relationship with the father of her children, Solomon (Jude Akuwudike), is flawed and there lies many contradictions within their characters. Solomon strongly believes that his son’s fate was merely inevitable. There are deep cultural tensions between himself and his children and he justifies his behaviour as he is doing “God’s work”, despite having abandoned his wife and children to start a new life.
Beru Tessema’s play exhibited at the Bush Theatre and directed by Lynette Linton, gives a sense of authenticity and realism to all the characters. There is great richness to Yosi, Solomon and Aida’s characters. There is particularly a great change of pace with its production, moving from chaotic and frantic sibling arguments to silent moments of deep reflection.
Tessema’s script is beautifully written and delves into the unique intimacy as well as the complexity of sibling relationships. He also ironically illustrates how the siblings switch from British slang to standard English when in the presence of their parents. However, whilst Meron’s language is more dignified, Solomon displays an autocratic style of speech as he is more ‘traditional’ and holds strong religious beliefs, quoting regularly from the Bible.
Above all, Tessema examines the grieving culture within Ethiopian communities and the generational tensions between traditional parents and their modern-day children. The relatable depiction of how Ethiopians deal with loss and grievance made the play feel very intimate and close to home. The British-Ethiopian experience is not something that is typically spoken about, so it is very refreshing to see a play like House of Ife, in theatres. In the past, many plays written by Black-British writers have explored themes of racism and migration, yet Tessema’s House of Ife, marks the beginning of many new age plays telling the stories of black communities within Britain.
The climax of the play reveals all their buried secrets in just a single scene. Revelations surrounding sexuality, betrayal and deteriorating relationships thickens the plot unravel and give room for deeper conversations to be had involving these issues. Although more room could have been given to explore these thoughts more deeply, this is still an incredible, heartfelt piece of writing from Ethiopian-British writer Beru Tessema.
House of Ife is showing at the Bush Theatre until the 11th of June.
Words by Yohanna Delaportas.