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“54 Silhouettes” in Pictures

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Last year ended on a theatrical high as NovemberDecember saw the premiere and 3 follow up performances of my (warning: shameless plug alert) double award winning play (BBC African Performance, 2011; and Stratford East/30 Nigeria House, 2012) 54 Silhouettes. Great fun and lots of lessons learned.

Being a theatre artist in Nigeria is like jumping out of a helicopter with no parachute over the Grand Canyon. It’s an industry that has no central financial source, hasn’t been able to build a stable audience base for decades and suffers from a paucity of creative business approaches – despite the various institutions which exist to support it.

Regardless, so strong is the love for theatre in some that we jump out of that helicopter over the Grand Canyon without parachutes because underneath our skin we feel the relentless itching of wings desiring to explode. I can’t wait to put so much of my thoughts on Nigerian (African?) theatre into writing and share with you guys. Until then, do enjoy pictures from 3 nights of performances of 54 Silhouettes. (Ps: you can listen to the BBC World Service’s abridged audio version of the play here.)
All photos are courtesy of the brilliant Timothy Aideloje (@jtimdal).

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The 6 Biggest Myths About Nigerian Theatre (Part 1)

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The Nigerian theatre industry sits so close to the edge of non-existence if it sneezed it would fall into a pit of blazing lava and burn into extinction forever and ever till the end of all time in the world ever. Ok, maybe things are not that dramatic (see what I did there?) but you get the idea. The large scale ignorance about commercial theatre in Nigeria would alarm most people from countries where the art is common practice. As Nigerian theatre struggles to overcome this ignorance and bring itself into the mainstream, there are myths which hinder its progress. Ghouls, spectres, that try to scare it off that edge into calamitous descent (cue Wilhelm scream).

To know your ailment is the first step to finding a cure, so let’s whip out the ol’ pointy finger and start … er … fingering these diseases. Part 1 of this article looks at 3 myths and part 2 (starring Dolph Lundgren) will examine another 3. Ladies and gentlemen (cue drumroll), I give you the 6 BIGGEST (echo: biggest! biggest! biggest!) myths about Nigerian theatre.

1. THE ‘COMIC RELIEF’ MYTH

The Yoruba joker

Oremi, do you know how I got these scars?

The Myth
The mantra to this myth goes, “You know Nigerians, the only thing they are interested in watching is comedy”. The belief is that Nigerians are so stressed and depressed due to the endless woes of being Nigerian that when they come to see a theatre show they are ONLY interested in laughing their sorrows away, hence they only want to watch comedies. What scares me is how often I’ve heard this asserted BY THEATRE PRACTITIONERS.

The Impact
So corrosive is this myth that some practitioners contort or limit their artistry to comedy – or what they mistake to be comedy, thus ironically making a joke of their art. The biggest damage has been the retarded development of non-comic content in Nigerian theatre. Deduct dance and song from the equation and you’ll find performances struggling to genuinely hold the attention of an intelligent teenager.

Among actors you find those who cannot perform a non-comic role without impressing comic stylings upon it. The ‘serious’ performances end up as limp imitations of generic physical and vocal of expressions. (Ever noticed how similar the line delivery of various actors sounds? Think of how practically every actor talks the same when playing the part of an African King.) Most vulnerable are students of theatre who have to create for an audience whose tastes are prone to erroneous constriction.

The Reality
Here’s a question: how come these so so depressed Nigerians are eager to engage with tragedies, romances, thrillers, and horror stories from other countries? Does our own depression discriminate against us? (If so God punish am!) Nigerians aren’t an alien species. Nigerians are human beings. And human beings have a range of emotions. And human beings are interested in art that explores these emotions. The difficult question we must ask is: how good is our handling of non-comic content in theatre?

The sad assumption that comedy is easier to accomplish than other genres is itself a farce of ignorance. Any comic actor worth his/her weight in Lannister gold knows that assumption is a great injustice. What many tend to call ‘comedy’ is plain old buffoonery (*cough*cough* Mister *cough* Ibu *cough*). On the positive side this myth seems to be on the Grim Reaper’s path. As frequency of theatre shows increases, albeit marginally so, diversity of content is inevitable.

2. THE ‘APPLAUSE IS APPROVAL’ MYTH

Standing ovation

“The audience was a great success, but the play was a disaster.”

The Myth
What we have here is a belief that no matter how tamely or mechanically an audience applauds a performance it means they absolutely love it. Now I hear you saying, “but of course”; yet to see why this is a myth you must understand a fundamental of the psychology behind the audience-performer relationship in Nigeria. You see, criticism of Nigerian performance art is TABOO. (“How dare you say that a shit work of art is shit!? Where your own dey!?“) Professional or casual, critics are not welcome – except you are here to heap praise in which case, please, come feast at my house, I shall kill you a calf!

This partly arose out of the good intention to support indigenous art, then veered off track as it became a defense mechanism used by producers and performers against failure and ego bruises. (Could this also be tied to our larger attitude of docility, whereby even if deservedly so we are not supposed to question culture or teachers or leaders or Jose Mourinho?) Over the years audiences have come to accept this lack of open criticism as a norm. As a polite gesture which is their part to play. And so a myth was born. And the people looked at it. And they saw it was good.

The Impact
This is one myth whose growing impact should worry us. For one thing, the quality of our already watered-down dramatic criticism will continue to decline. We’re already stuck with a fair number whose indepth opinion about a performance begins and ends at “it was good oh, they tried”. Again students of theatre are the most at risk here; which puts everyone at risk for when, after graduating, these students begin to f@#k with the industry, they transmit whatever diseases our educational system infected them with into society.

Individuals and groups also lose out on a vital organ of the arts which helps artists develop. Then there is the emotional maturity of the industry which will continue to go Benjamin Button unless we get a grip on it. The biggest impact remains that in the mid-long term we will not develop the kind of audience attendance needed for live theatre to flourish simply because WE ARE NOT LISTENING to our audiences.

The Reality
Look, if a dude dresses up, drives (or treks, all na movement) to a theatre show, spends a couple thousand naira on a ticket, sits down with a drink and a snack to spend an hour plus of his allotted Jack Bauer (i.e 24) watching a stage performance, he is highly likely to force himself to have some damn fun. Reinforce this with his belief that open disapproval is impolite, especially so as not to be labelled the ‘oversabi‘, and you get a submissive audience member who smiles outwardly but inwardly is dissatisfied. Now multiply by 80% of the people at the show.

I always try to get a few people I know to see a play I also intend to see, then ask them how they felt about it 2 or 3 days later. Free from the compulsive environment of the event, I find genuine opinions are more accessible. Ultimately, the truest opinion about the quality of a show rests on (i) the audience’s eagerness to see it again, (ii) their excitement to recommend it to someone, and (iii) the treasured memory of it in their hearts.

3. THE ‘GO BIG OR GO HOME’ MYTH

Greedy worm

Said the worm to the burger, “you gon’ learn today!”

The Myth
This is very much connected to our ostentatious culture and the belief that quantity supersedes quality. So long as its BIGGER, even if it’s crap, it’s BETTER. The misconception therefore is that the only theatre worth making is a theatre of spectacle. The corporate world plays a part in the prevalence of this myth. Being a major source of funding, corporate institutions are solely interested in a theatre of spectacle which reflects their brand power. And they are totally justified! No one spends five or six million naira and expects a ‘nice little’ show (if na your money you go gree?). Where we have a myth is in the belief that mid-small scale theatre shows are not productive; that ONLY mega productions have business value and so are the only ones worthy of sponsorship or investment.

The Impact
This is possibly the most damaging of all 6 myths. Now, don’t get me wrong, big theatre isn’t bad. I’m a young Nigerian theatre practitioner, I spend waking hours conceiving big shows. But making ONLY big theatre is BAD FOR BUSINESS. Every art has certain constants it needs so as to be profitable. Musicians and record companies, for example, need their music to be heard constantly. So, airplay and downloads, despite the latter’s impact on record sales, are crucial for success.

In theatre, the indispensable constant is: shows. Shows! Shows! Shows! Day after day, week after week. But you can’t spend 5 million naira every month of the year on one show that will only run for 3 days, can you? Focusing only on big shows we produce a phenomenally low number performances annually. I’d go so far as to say there are states out of the 36 which have close to 0 commercial theatre performances yearly. (Oy! Performances by all them defunct art councils don’t count, bruv!) The limited number of shows simply means that the theatre industry – from the sponsors to the investors to the theatre companies – is not making nearly as much money as it could be.

Another impact is of course the comatose state of mid-small scale productions. The mentality that they are “poor” has seeped into the minds of audiences who now believe these shows are not worth attending. Theatre directors aren’t spared from the scourge of this myth. Unable to have the frequency and variation of practice needed to hone their art, coupled perhaps with the laziness of some to put in the mandatory extra self-development work, and the pressure that comes with ‘big money’ productions, the director doesn’t develop an individual philosophy and style. He limits himself to archetypal theatrics which quickly become predictable and boring for the audience. (If you are a frequent theatre-goer with a keen eye you may have noticed that ‘spatially‘ a lot of stage peformances are basically the same – but that’s a topic for another day.)

The Reality
Mid-small scale shows are just as – probably even more – important for the business of theatre as the ‘big boss’ productions. They may or may not make gazllions in returns but they certainly facilitate the mid-long term generation of Juicy J profit (Bounce it!). On da flipside! it must be admitted that the infrastructure for frequent commercial theatre performances does not exist. But that, mes amis, is why theatre is the most adaptable of all performance arts; it can thrive regardless of this deficit. We mustn’t wait until infrastructure exists to make the all-important step towards performance constancy. Innovative thinking and key partnerships can solve the problem. But, well, that’s easier said than done in a “na based on who you sabi” society.

Perhaps a too-pessimistic point of view would be to say we lack the volume of creative personnel for performance constancy. Eventually our creative monotony would be exposed. Stripped of the deceptions of fancy lights and costumes, our art, in the nude, would reveal an ugly form. Perhaps it is fairest to say this is both true and false?

Either way, let me end with a story to illustrate this clear and present danger:

In school we were trained on how to produce the popular “big Nigerian theatre production” – flashy lights, hypnotic songs, bulldozer acting, exuberant dances and a village-sized cast. This one time (in band camp … sorry, couldn’t resist) a 3rd year student working on her directing practicals with a cast of about 30 students was having a horrible experience. As always this was mostly due to unruly and nonchalant student-actors.

One day I shared a thought with her. “Why not choose a different play?” I suggested, “Something that has 3 or 4, maybe 5 characters, so that you’ll just work with the serious actors and give the rest other duties?”
“No oh,” she replied in shock, “ha! I don’t know how to direct that kind of play, oh. They did not teach me that one. If I do that one there will be plenty space on the stage, that is when I will now have to do the real directing. It is this crowd-crowd type I know. At least if I put twenty people here,” she gestured to her right, “and twenty people here,” she gestured to her left, “it is just one small space in the middle that will remain. That is the way I know how to do it.” I cannot begin to explain the many levels of screwed in that thinking process.

Hey, thank you for reading! If you read the whole thing you just won yourself a toaster! If you didn’t, scroll back up and read the whole post, come on! Look out for the second part of this article where I’ll write on the other 3 biggest myths about Nigerian theatre.

i. The ‘All They Do Is Boogie’ Myth
ii. The ‘Messiah’ Myth
iii. The ‘Bankruptcy’ Myth

What about you? What myths are there about theatre or other entertainment industries in your country? I’d love to hear about them.

READ: Part 2 – The 6 Biggest Myths About Nigerian Theatre

ABOUT THE WRITER (this is where I talk about myself in the third person)

Africa Ukoh (@Pensage – abeg, follow me for twitter oh!) is a playwright, screenwriter, actor, theatre director, and arts administrator. And protector of the realm. He is a co-founder and artistic director of African Renaissance Theatre & Entertainment, an Abuja-based performance art outfit. He has been the recipient of awards such as the BBC African Performance competition and the Stratford East/30 Nigeria House prize. In 2014 he won the prestigious Oscar award for best actress in a supporting role … Oh, no, wait, that … that was Lupita N’yongo. His works have appeared on platforms such as the BBC World Service, Voice of Nigeria, Sentinel Nigeria Magazine, Sentinel Annual Literature Anthology, and more. If you’d like to get in touch with him you can send N1500 MTN recharge card to 08036207841 and he will call you back, sharp sharp. Or maybe just email him: africaukoh@gmail.com.

Of Public Piety and Private Putrescence: What Does the Anti-gay Law Say About Nigerians?

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There’s a house on the street on which you live, the best of all the houses. In architectural sublimity no bungalow or duplex compares. You admire this house – no, envy it. You promise not to ogle it every time you walk by – you always break this promise. You wish you were the one who swaggered out its gate every morning, graciously ignoring – like any half-decent celebrity – the paparazzi-eye-flashes-of-jealousy from the neighbours.

One day, you walk into this house – maybe on an errand, maybe you’re now friends with the owners, maybe you’re a Jehovah’s Witness on a Sunday-salvation beat – whatever the reason, you walk into this house and as you stand in it, disappointment drowns you. This house, this dream abode which commands awe and respect from without, within is an unkempt ramshackle interior decoration of sullen existence.

***

The President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria recently signed into law a same sex marriage act which, amongst a host of holier than thou edicts: outlaws same sex marriage, prohibits any “public show of same sex amorous relationships”, and promises imprisonment for anyone who even witnesses a same sex marriage – good luck driving with your eyes closed as you pass by your rebellious gay neighbours’ wedding ceremony.

The venomous glee with which, most likely, majority of Nigerians met this gayvelopment has shocked some people. Mass hysteria reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials swept social media and the streets, with suspected homosexuals getting arrested in some states by the superior and sin-less heterus sexualae.

While this law raises pertinent questions about the contemporary relevance of orthodox religious beliefs, homophobia, our treatment of minorities and more, what intrigues me the most is what it says about our social consciousness and approach to life; about our perspective of right, wrong, and the indispensable grey area between; about our definition of greatness; about our value for truth.

Now, Nigerian (indeed African) culture embraces flamboyance, and in its egotistically evolved state, adores ostentation. The ‘big man’ is he who has the biggest yams in his barn (and in his pants), drives the biggest SUV, swaddles himself in the most regal clothes, owns the most cows, sprays the most naira at sister Clara’s wedding, speaks the biggest grammar (shout out to Honourable Patrick Obahiagbon, I see you bruv!) , or owns the most expensive house in Maitama. But the wealthy Nigerian doesn’t merely possess these things. No, he publicly displays the profundity of his possessions with boisterous galore – hyperbole is ever so important in these matters.

The essence is the outward show of achievement, the razzle dazzle. It doesn’t really matter if, just like that house, there is no concrete inner worth. Who cares? Pfft! The illusion, so long as its histrionics are upheld properly, far outweighs the reality. It doesn’t matter if you are dying inside, just make sure on the outside you look like you’re LIVING LARGE.

This culture easily expands to other facets of our lives. When it comes to marriage, you will readily find among the yet-to-be-wedded those very comfortable, expectant even, of a poor marriage so long as their for-better-or-worse half is fine putting up the regular show of ‘a happy couple’. Our contemporary music and movies are notoriously shallow, but worry not, just make sure you hype! hype! hype! We gladly gobbled the art of branding and continue to master the skill of “packaging” not bothering to ensure content is up to standard. And when it comes to religion, we see ourselves as the holiest nation fertilizing God’s green earth (insert angelic-chant sfx here).

It should be no surprise then that a statement such as “homosexuality is not our (Nigerian/African) culture, it is being forced upon us by the oyibo (the West)” would achieve mantra-like status. So much so the friggin’ EU had to respond to that assertion. Of course, homosexuality can’t be an African culture! Not that those who would swear by that statement can tell you much about the confetti of cultures found within their state, let alone their region, let alone the nation, let alone West Africa. No! Yet there seems to be a general expert knowledge of EVERY African culture, thus absolute certainty that “homosexuality is un-African“. Well… umm… you know, so long as you ignore trivial evidence like the Yan Daudu of Northern Nigeria, historical records of transgenders in Eastern Nigeria, documented research into homosexual cultures in the Yoruba and Igbo (West Africa); the Lovedu, Zulu and Sotho (South Africa); the Kikuyu and Nandi (East Africa); the Nuer and the Zande (Sudan).

You see, homosexuality puts our public ostentation of piety at risk. And so everything must be done to cease zis madness, mein führer! Its irrelevant if the whole world has no qualms with the Nigerian brand of homosexuality, because, like all things ostentatious, the show is more important to the performer than it is to the audience. Of course such an attitude is not the special preserve of Nigerians but what I do find peculiar is the hatred unleashed towards the homosexual lifestyle in particular. In the list of cultures (used loosely) which smear our public piety, homosexuality comes a distant third behind the heavyweight champions: CORRUPTION and INTERNET FRAUD. So why do these CLEAR VICES not receive half the vilification spewed at homosexuality? The answer, I believe, has to do with money (Ka-ching!).

To our social consciousness crimes appear to be permissible so long as they lead to acquisition of wealth, “Times are hard, chairman, man must survive!” Any means leading to a fatter bank account balance, though rebuked, is ultimately justified. Gross corruption and internet fraud (famously celebrated by one Olu Maintain), though more damaging to our dignity than two dudes or chicks trying to get freaky with each other, are much less detested because if successful they culminate in the possession and expected parade of affluence.

The future pilfering politician and potential yahoo-yahoo boy (that’s Nigerian slang for an internet fraudster) inside us sits by our left ear, whispering sweet nothings filled with promises of you one day being the BIG BOY. So, yes, fraud is illegal, and corruption is crippling our country, but some day I may be the one to benefit from it – “all na hustle” (note: pronounce as huzzle to win extra street cred points).

Nietzsche said, “morality in the individual is herd instinct”, and the instinct of the Nigerian herd has been programmed to ATTACK! Destroy any and all that threaten our public piety; if you must be putrid, keep it private – though even that is now under threat. I do not find this urge to attack, to kill, strange. Apart from a manifestation of the animal that is man, orthodox religion trains society in the distasteful arts of physical and psychological violence – sugar coated in righteousness, of course. Large scale bloodlust is a natural by-product; with morality as our justification we become blind to our own hypocrisy, double standards and fear of facing the challenges of dealing with TRUTH.

***

There is a house on the street on which you live, and now that you stand inside it, it doesn’t seem like the best of all the houses. Eroding walls, half broken tiles, tattered furniture, brown blobs all over the ceiling marking spots where rain snuck in past the roof, drapes draped in dust, bathtubs neglected to rust… But worst of all, this house is soulless. It is lived in but it has no life. This house is just a house.

You leave this house and return to the wider world, half disgusted at its pretentiousness, yet half amazed at the braggadocio with which it parcels its lie. You want to tell the neighbours taking Facebook-post-photos in front of the oh so elegant gate that it’s all a sham, a facade. But will they understand? No, will they care? And why should you? Why should you care? Isn’t it still a beautiful house? Isn’t it still the jewel of the street, the talk of the town? How the owners chose to live within it is not your business. It’s still a beautiful house and everybody loves it. Why shouldn’t I?

You begin to walk back to your own house, a thought dancing around your mind – you know, maybe I should put some more effort into beautifying the outside of my house.

ABOUT THE WRITER (this is where I talk about myself in the third-person)
Africa Ukoh (@Pensage) is a playwright, screenwriter, actor, stage director and creative concept developer. He has been the recipient of awards like the BBC African Performance competiton (1st runner up, thank you very much) and the Stratford East/30 Nigeria House prize. He co-founded a new age arts initiative called African Renaissance Theatre and Entertainment. Some of his works have been produced on platforms such as the BBC World Service, Voice of Nigeria and Sentinel Nigeria magazine (shey I try, abi?). If you love literature you can check out some of his works here, here and here (also, a play of his was published in the 2012 Sentinel Annual Literary Anthology, in case a copy actually exists). If you love theatre check out a review and photos from last year’s performance of an award winning play of his.
Ps: he is also looking for a job because these bills ain’t gon’ pay themselves!

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