Discover the incredible story of this local performer’s time as a backing vocalist for Martha Reeves at this new Unity Theatre show
2 months ago
By her own admission she’s had a full and exciting life, and Liverpool playwright and performer Saphena Aziz laughs: “Hopefully there’s a lot more to come.”
But what’s there’s been so far has been poignantly and cleverly packed into an autobiographical play which sees its world premiere at the Unity Theatre this Friday.
Martha, Me and My Family tells the story of Saphena’s amazing journey and experiences – like being asked to sing backing vocals at the age of 17 for Motown legend Martha Reeves – and weaves in stories of her ancestors and the British colonial legacy, as well as drawing on her Guyanese and Indian heritage to inject fascinating snapshots of history.
“It’s really nice to be a woman in her 50s telling a story; we make up a lot of the audience so it’s really lovely to represent them on stage,” she says.
While the production, which was given development funding from the Unity’s Open Call programme, is very much a ‘fictionalised sense of me’, the themes are central to Saphena’s life, and her reasons for doing it now paramount.
Saphena, 56, who grew up in Toxteth, says: “What’s really interesting is my mum died in 2021 during the second lockdown, and it felt like Covid changed a lot of us, we became quite reflective.
“I just felt I wanted to write a play that talked about people who’d contributed to making me who I am, as a gift back to them I suppose.”
It begs the question how Saphena found the time! As a creative consultant she works with other artists, writing funding bids and developing shows; she’s a writer and performer herself producing work for TV, film and the stage and, until recently, was still working as a session singer.
That’s along with her day job as director of inclusion for arts and education for Curious Minds charity.
“I’m driven by the need to create. And, what’s lovely about getting older is you can impart wisdom to people, and the skills and knowledge I have acquired over the years in the arts is still useful to the sector.
“Creativity is boundary-less. All of my life I’ve operated in a world where there are no boundaries. It’s only in my 50s where I’ve got my first ‘proper job’, and that speaks to my heart and soul because it’s about making sure people who are similar to me when I was young find great access to arts and culture, inside and outside school. I was lucky to grow up in a time where, even though it was struggling, there were after-school clubs and places you could go to, like the Charles Wootton Centre on Upper Parliament Street where young musicians would teach.”
Nevertheless, she goes on: “This year I decided to pare my life back and concentrate on my job, and on playwriting.
“Martha, Me and My Family is a fictionalised hyper-real sense of me, and it’s for people who want to think about those who’ve made a positive contribution to their lives, who they’d like to say thank you to, for surviving and getting through tough times.
“It’s very much for the sort of people who’ll watch Who Do You Think You Are? – there’s bits of history – and it’s moving and emotional but it’s funny too.
“Liverpool has had a lot of pain which is why our sense of humour is so honed and toned. We use humour as a way of getting through the tough times, and that’s my default.
“When people have seen even rough drafts of the show they say ‘you talk about difficult things, but then you make us laugh’. That’s important to me, to lighten up some of the darker moments.
“There’s bits of music as well, it’s definitely entertaining.”