With just a flick of her wrist Lula Mebrahtu can conjure a drum kit out of thin air. A twist of a finger and her voice loops into lush, multi-layered harmonies. An early adopter of MiMu gloves, cutting-edge digital musical instruments which respond to even the smallest of movements, Mebrahtu holds a world of sound in the palms of her hands. Yet her solo Fringe debut is far more than a technological showcase: OommoO turns the story of her family’s immigration to the UK into multi-sensory Afro-futurist theatre, drawing on movement, sound, song, and freshly brewed coffee. “It’s a 4D experience,” Mebrahtu grins, stretching her arms out wide.
The play’s palindromic title – standing for “one of many, many of one” – is a foundational mantra. Although OommoO is partially autobiographical, it takes Mebrahtu’s story as a catalyst for complex conversations about citizenship, displacement, and memory loss. The Lula in the play is sometimes her, sometimes not: “I’ve given myself license to say and do things that I wouldn’t in real life, so that I can tell a much bigger story.”
First and foremost, Mebrahtu set out to write a play about Habesha immigrants in the UK. “It was done by us, for us, because of us,” she smiles. Yet she’s found OommoO’s dissection of memory loss to be strikingly universal: almost everyone can understand how it feels to see family secrets and stories become lost to the passing of time. “Our parents are time-capsules for our heritage, our culture, our ancestors, right?” She pauses in thought. “When they start to pass, you want to try and save those stories. You’re losing memories while your parent is losing theirs.”
“Of course, this is exaggerated by displacement,” she says. But in speaking about her own experiences, she’s found a common language: “When you’re specific about what you want to tell, you can reach the whole world.”
Lula Mebrahtu, photo by Meg Cowan
OommoO has been seven years in the making, and Mebrahtu has waited patiently to find the perfect way to perform it. She describes those magical MiMu gloves as like a “bridge”, one that connected the timelessness of OommoO’s story to a brand-new theatrical form. “They’ve turned me into the queen of improvisation!” she enthuses, explaining how the technology allows her to play with music and movement in real time, along with all the mistakes and happy accidents that live performance can bring. When we speak, some weeks ahead of the Fringe, she’s busy refining a choreography that infuses dance traditions like waacking, finger tutting and eskista into the play’s sound-world.
“For instance, immigrants get called illegal aliens when they come to the UK, so I took that as a stimulus. Like, what does an alien look like?” She lifts her palms in front of her face and flexes each finger robotically. “I have a whole song I can play just like this!”
To make OommoO even more of a sensory experience, Mebrahtu will hold interactive ‘coffee ceremonies’ throughout August. “Have you ever had Ethiopian, Eritrean coffee before?” she asks, lighting up at the thought. “It’s like hanging out at a coffee shop, but every Habesha household does it. My mum will roast the beans in the living room, the snack of choice is popcorn, and everyone sits around communing and conversing.” The ceremonies combine the ritual of coffee with a scene from the play about how Lula got her name and, after a trial run at Soho Theatre, Mebrahtu is convinced of their power to unlock distant memories and new conversations. “We’re all more similar than we realise,” she grins. “These are universal stories, and our differences are our spices.”