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Livia Kojo Alour: Black Sheep

By | Published on Friday 10 June 2022

One of the things that we love about the Edinburgh Fringe is the presence of so many shows that don’t fit neatly into the partitions of the official programme, mixing up different genres and juxtaposing them in innovative and effective ways.

When I heard about ‘Black Sheep’ – a new solo show by Livia Kojo Alour – I was immediately interested because it’s exactly that sort of production, a theatrical blend of different elements brought together by an experienced and renowned sword-swallower and burlesque artist. 

To find out more about the show, and the creative mind behind it, I put some questions to Livia in advance of her full edfringe run. 

CM: Let’s start by talking about the show you will be performing in Edinburgh this summer. It sounds like a difficult show to categorise in terms of a genre. How would you describe the style of it and how different elements of performance are used in it?
LKA: The show is best described as an experimental theatre piece including physical performance, song and spoken word. It’s a lively genre crossover with smooth transitions through music.

CM: What story do you tell through the show?
LKA: I am telling my story. I was the black sheep growing up in an all white neighbourhood being othered. It’s a story about a black woman searching for love, and how great loss can be the thing to push us to search for identity and belonging.

CM: What themes do you explore through the show?
LKA: Institutional racism, stereotypes, colonialism, queer identity, finding love as a black queer woman and overcoming pain.  

CM: When you say you’re telling ‘your story’ – to what extent is the piece autobiographical?
LKA: It’s 100% autobiographical. It’s my own crazy life. In 2017 I got invited to speak on TEDx. The team really wanted to hear about the life threatening sword swallowing accident I had in 2016. Once I set out to write it, I realised that I would not be able to tell the story of how I became a sword swallower – and nearly died learning it – without talking about my past.

After I lost my mother I got very ill with an eating disorder called Bulimia Nervosa. I was ill for almost thirteen years. Overcoming this illness needed a lot of courage and I’ve had to learn to overcome fear. Fear of dying and fear of living. I think this gave me the ability to learn such a dangerous skill as sword swallowing afterwards.

During my career in the circus industry the sword became a metaphor for the pain I had gone through and later, when my practice became more radical and political, for the pain people of colour go through within the structures of institutional racism.

I had so much amazing feedback from my TEDx talk and learned that telling my story inspires people. This made me really happy and fulfilled. So I started writing more – first poetry but eventually my debut solo show!

CM:  So the TEDx talk very much inspired you to tell your story through a show like this?
LKA: Yes, it was mainly that. But I also used to be very outspoken on social media about racism, to the point that everyone came to me with their questions. I got very burned out and looked for other ways to communicate my thoughts without being treated like public property. When I started writing, this show just flew out of my pen onto the paper!

CM: Can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go about creating a show like this?
LKA: I always have visions before I start creating. Obviously with an hour long show I could not imagine the whole thing, but I knew what I wanted to talk about and saw myself in a black box style theatre.

The creation happened in my living room during lockdown, and I performed a sold out online version via Zoom in 2020. It was quite a challenge to animate and polish it up for real life theatre later!

I brought Dr Marisa Carnesky – the British live artist and show-woman – onto the show to help with the physical performance parts. She was amazing . It’s always good to have an outside eye on board! Once we got going the show grew and became visually really beautiful.

CM: What made you want to bring the show to the Edinburgh Fringe?
LKA: I’ve been performing at the Fringe since 2012 in many different shows big and small under my previous name MisSa Blue.

I always loved coming back to Edinburgh. It’s such a magical experience when the whole city turns into one big theatre. Over time I’ve developed some really amazing friendships with people who live here, so I always have many reasons to come back.

My last Fringe year was 2017, when I performed in a very big circus show. It was a great achievement, however I realised that I wanted to bring something more personal to the table.

In big shows you can shine with your skill within a greater cast. This is amazing. However, I wanted to experiment with my voice. I wanted to sing and speak. Have my own say.

Again I wanted to tell my personal story and share more intimate moments with the audience. Laugh, cry, learn… So I always dreamed of coming back with my own show and now it’s finally the time!

CM: What hopes and expectations do you have for your time at the Festival this year?
LKA: I hope to get a good audience in and meet loads of people from different walks of life. A good audience vibe is so important to stay healthy through a month-long run of shows. I really love the connections we can make during Fringe. I hope people will love my work, learn from it and get inspired. I would also like to get invited to perform in Australia and the USA.  

CM: Can we go back a bit now and talk about how you got to this point? How did you end up becoming a performer? Was it what you always wanted to do? What steps did you take to build a career?
LKA: I knew I wanted to be on stage from when I was fourteen years old, but the early death of my mother stopped my whole life in its tracks. It took me almost fifteen years to recover from this setback. As I mentioned earlier, I suffered for a very long time from an eating disorder. Our family pretty much fell apart after my mother’s death and I did not have a great support network. 

I moved from Hamburg, Germany to Berlin when I was seventeen and struggled to survive there, really. A few years later I came back and went into therapy. However I had a hard time finding healing and closure because on top of all that I was really alone in terms of community.

By that I mean I had no contact with anyone else who was black, as Germany wasn’t a very diverse place at that time. The pain of loss really triggered a huge identity crisis that is still going on to some extent today – fuelling my work.

I travelled the world as a yoga teacher for a while. And then settled down in Bangkok in Thailand for five years. But in the early 2000s I felt the need to go into therapy again, so I relocated back to Europe and went into a facility for six months.

There I finally found some peace and healing from my illness. Once this sad chapter of my life was over I felt the need to express myself artistically again. I was already over 30 and thought “now or never!” I sold everything and moved to London to pursue my dream. It was so scary but so worth it!

CM: What drew you to London in particular at that point?
LKA: London has everything I need to feel safe. Diversity, access to training for things like circus, a big queer community of colour. London is so vibrant. I need that. In 2010 there wasn’t much of a cabaret/circus community in Germany: we looked to London and New York. I chose London, but started going regularly to New York for the same reasons. It became my home away from home and now I spend about two months of the year in the USA.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
LKA: This year I performed a short residency in Las Vegas with my sword swallowing act. That was definitely a major achievement.

And besides my solo show, I am also very proud of my upcoming debut poetry collection, also called ‘Black Sheep’, which will be published by Polari Press in September. As the name suggests, the book is very much a counterpart to the live show.

Also, in 2019 my swords were exhibited in the Museum Of Contemporary Art in Bordeaux, and I was voted most influential burlesque performer in Europe in 2018.

CM: What’s coming up next for you? What will you be doing after the Fringe? 
LKA: I am touring my solo show and poetry collection nationally in autumn! Then hopefully back to NYC for Christmas. That’s my other favourite city besides London. I am basically a part time New Yorker! 

‘Black Sheep’ was performed at Assembly Rooms at Edinburgh Festival 2022. You can find out more about Livia’s poetry collection here.

LINKS: ceremonialcabaret.com | twitter.com/livia_k_alour 

Photo by Sarah HIckson