From Solange to Willow Smith, carefree black girls are the “it girls” du jour. Cecile Emeke’s webseries “Ackee and Saltfish” brings the liberating aesthetic to the small screen in a witty take on the everyday lives of modern black women. Free of stereotypes and rich in dry humor, the series follows the lives of main characters Rachel and Olivia as they chat about everything under the sun from Lauryn Hill tickets to whether couscous qualifies as rice. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to one of the stars, Vanessa Babirye, about life on and off camera.
How do you make it from East London to the world of acting? I was born in Hommerton, which is in Hackney and I grew up in Bethnal Green in East London which is in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. I’m very much an Eastender. I went to a primary school and secondary school that were both within ten minutes walking distance from my home. From an early age I was in and out of foster care frequently and would spend time away from home with my sisters in the residence of my foster parent or other guardian if not at school. My father and mother separated when I was very young so he was not physically present throughout my childhood or teenage years. Our household, once foster care was no longer required, consisted of myself, my twin sister, my eldest sister, and my mother. Three amazing women. Three amazing people. My mother and father are both from Uganda and that culture was very much a part of my upbringing in regards to the food I ate, music I would subconsciously listen to as it blared through the house on a Saturday morning, and also the values in regards to the complexity that often comes with African culture. My mother was very ill for a lot of my younger life and due to that illness she could not work. We got by with her amazing ability to make something out of nothing and through government schemes, etc. I studied acting at college after falling in love with the art of it whilst doing a show in secondary school. I was lucky enough to know what I wanted to do from a young age and would constantly research ways to get into this industry that I felt compelled to. I was very much on a mission.
When I was sixteen I found myself a background artist agent through research and started learning the technical aspects on the job. I knew I would have to know how to read a map to get to auditions—there was Google maps but I had no phone with internet access at the time so I would print off maps. I would have to learn to keep time, be professional, know how to conduct myself in an audition, you know, things like that. And I wasn’t going to get that experience by just studying it at college. In my first year at college a friend told me of a drama school that we should both apply to because it’s for and about black actors. It’s called Identity Drama School (now called the Identity School of Acting). We went, we auditioned, and we both got a place. Within a week I was signed with their agency, attached to the school, and I have been professionally working as an actor since then.
How did you end up becoming involved with “Ackee & Saltfish?” What drew you to the project?
I received a wonderfully written message from Cecile Emeke (she’s so good) telling me that I’ve been recommended by Abraham Popoola (he’s in an episode of “Strolling” and also the mastermind behind “Kebab” the short film) for my acting ability and that she would love to know if I would be interested in working with her. She sent me over the script and I was astounded. The simplicity of it: the fact that it was two young black women without a mention of men, or baby fathers, or hair politics, or other played out, boring stereotypical bull that mainstream media love to shove down our faces. It was truthful, intelligent, and totally just about the experience of the black diaspora. I was and still feel very privileged to have been trusted with the project. I was excited. Then when I found out my friend Michelle Tiwo was going to be in it as well I moon walked my ass over to my phone, called her, and just screamed. Nice moment.
How would you describe your character on “Ackee and Saltfish,” Rachel? Would you say you’re more like her or Olivia? Rachel has a big heart. She’s very much a person who likes to give. And share. She makes breakfast for them both in Episode 2, she shares her “incomplete” ackee and saltfish in Episode 5, well at least attempts. She’s had a rough time in regards to her upbringing and definitely finds some sort of safety in Olivia and their friendship. She’s intelligent and is very well read. I hold her very close to my heart. I would say I’m more like Olivia in the sense that Olivia is active in her activism; she is upfront and vocal about the institutionalized racism system that we currently live in. I do also feel that Olivia’s comedic gene and my own were separated at birth. She literally kills me. So funny. They both are.
We would meet weekly for a duration of about eight weeks prior to filming the film and workshop ideas, thoughts and experiences. As a team we asked questions, hot seated, and improvised the characters relentlessly that Cecile has beautiful and skillfully written. I didn’t draw on any of my background to find Rachel, but I wrote a diary entry for her each night in order for me to find her and her voice. A lot of work went into creating the characters and I think that aided the chemistry between Rachel and Olivia.
I’m currently based in the US where it seems like conversations about the portrayal of black women in media largely revolve around their absence in television and film, or an overemphasis on stereotypes? Would you say the same is true of the UK or that it is different?
Yes. I would agree with that, 100 percent.
Now that the fifth episode of “Ackee and Saltfish” has been released, what’s next? Is that the end of the series or will it be continuing?
“Ackee and Saltfish” will continue. I don’t think any of us are ready to let Olive and Rach go just yet!
What is like to now be working on “A Beautiful Thing?” How does working on the stage differ from working in front of a camera? It’s a fantastic play. Beautifully written by Jonathan Harvey and directed by Nikolai Foster. I’m a huge fan of both of their work and feel very privileged to have been trusted to work on such an important project. I’m enjoying creating something and have completely fallen in love with Leah as a character. I really connect with her and always wonder what happens to her when we leave the stage and go back to being ourselves. She’s very intelligent and misunderstood and has been failed by the “system” as she so eloquently says in Act 1 Scene 1 when asked why she was kicked out of school. Stage and screen differ for me because stage is chronological, so you have an arc. With screen you can record the end scene of a film on day one so you never get to have a journey. With screen work I am always very much aware that there is a camera a few inches away from me. I’m used to that feeling, but it can break down a sense of “realness” that I feel you need to create real life. It’s something that with time and experience you get used to; you cannot learn that. You have to experience it. It’s very technical. Filming for screen is very technical. It is a skill. There’s a journey on stage, a fully rounded journey. It’s live and it’s exciting. It’s different every night and that is what I love about it.
You can watch the series here and follow Vanessa on