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To Be Born Is To Die

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candle flame burn Consider this train of thought for a second. It is as much a statement as it is a question:

1. There is a theory in biology which is expressed in the slogan: “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”.

2. This means that the stages of development of the individual organism within the womb repeat the stages of development of the human species as a whole.

3. An inference from the statement above is that within the womb an individual organism goes through a complete life cycle.

4. If the above stipulations are true, then it means that birth is actually death. In other words: to be born is to die.

Consider.
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Dear Nollywood … A Love Letter

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Dear Nollywood,

How are you? It’s been a while since we hooked up on here, hasn’t it? Forgive me, I’ve been occupied with a bunch of personal stuff. While I was away I did keep up with all the exciting stuff going on in your life, though! You aren’t ever a boring girl, are you? I remember you celebrated October 1st in style, and everyone loved that (in fact I hear the party is still going on). And I must confess, I got a bit jealous when I heard you asking some other guy what happens When Love Happens? Anyway …

Nollywood, there’s something I really want to talk to you about. It’s a sensitive topic and I hope it doesn’t get you mad, yet strangely I hope it does get you mad. Not mad like never-want-to-talk-to-him-again mad, or mad like hire-Lasgidi-area-boys-to-kick-his-ass mad; certainly not mad like cancel-our-traditional-wedding-and-return-his-bride-price mad. But mad like I-have-to-do-something-about-this mad; mad like I-have-to-be-responsible-for-myself mad, you know?

Here’s the thing babe, these days, it’s getting harder to recognize you for who you are. Your identity is fading away, Nollywood. Perhaps more specifically, the uniqueness of your identity is fading away, vanishing, and frankly that worries me. You’re in an identity crisis, babe, and we have to address that.

Now, I’m going to say something and I don’t think it’s something you’ll like to hear, so I’ll just come out and say it: Nollywood, this identity crisis all began when you started hanging out with that American girl, Hollywood. Yes, yes! I know, I know! She’s very pretty, has a great rack and an ass that won’t quit. And she’s also friend’s with the Kardashians … I know. I’m not saying it’s bad to be friends with her, no. I’m also not saying it’s bad that she influences you, no. What I am saying is, it’s messed up that you’re letting her influence on you distract you from discovering and exploring who you are.

See, Hollywood is doing her thing, being herself, and that’s inspiring. But rather than that inspiring you to do your own thing and be your own self, you’re abandoning your identity and trying to be Hollywood. Nollywood, that’s messed up. You’re not Hollywood and Hollywood isn’t you. Would Hollywood be a cool chick if she was trying to be like that Indian babe that lives across the street, Bollywood? Would Bollywood be so hot if she started acting all European? And what if Euro chicks started pretending to be like those sexy girls from the Orient and the sexy girls from the Orient started behaving like South American mamacitas? See where I’m going?

I’ve been doing some thinking, Nollywood, and I think I get it. I mean, why you’re so hung up on Hollywood, I get it. You spent your life watching Hollywood! Think about it! From childhood to your teenage years you watched out the window as Hollywood teased her cleavage and swung her hips and all the guys just fell under her spell. And now that you’re beginning to grow into a beautiful lady yourself, you think that in order to be sexy and beautiful you have to be like Hollywood.

But it’s a big world out there, Nollywood. A big big world and there are so many ways to be beautiful. What makes you sexy, and what will make all those guys swoon because of you, are the things that are unique about you. (I mean, why should they toast a Hollywood-wannabe, when they can actually toast Hollywood?) I’d really really like to go out on a date with you to the cinema (our favourite spot, right?), get some drinks and popcorn, and watch a movie that doesn’t feel like a pitiful knock-off of J’Lo’s romantic comedies from the early 00s, or a poor photocopy of thrillers from the late 90s, or action movies that look like The Matrix shot on a deficit.

One very cool influence Hollywood has had on you is providing some pretty awesome things with which you can accessorize your persona. I can’t tell you how so damn good you look anytime you step out in that form fitting DSLR dress that accentuates your curves, and those Red Dragon heels that push up your booty, and that flashy F55 handbag, and… whoo! So so so much better than that VHS outfit you used to wear before. But these things are meant to aid you find yourself Nollywood, not lose yourself.

Take the world by the scruff of its neck! Don’t be afraid to explore what it means to be Nollywood. Experiment! Get adventurous! A great discovery of who you are awaits you, but you have to take the leap. The lovers you are trying to attract, whether it is a true love or a sugar daddy, will be way more attracted to a “you” that is like no one else, not a “you” that is a cheap imitation of someone else.

Learn from the errors of your elder sister, Federal Government. For many years have people not been encouraging her to get involved in other ventures apart from that her crude oil business? Did she listen? No! Now the price of oil barrels is dropping like a hot piece of ass in a Snoop Dog video and she’s getting all confused and panicky. Don’t wait until you are at the fringes of a crisis, Nollywood, please don’t.

The myriad of identities are what make life on this third rock such a beautiful and captivating experience. Be part of that adventure Nollywood, a full part, not just an imitation of it.

With relentless love,

Pensage.

Part 2: The 6 Biggest Myths About Nigerian Theatre

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The Nigerian theatre industry sits so close to the edge of non-existence if it snee– Wait! Hold on! I already used that line in part 1, didn’t I? Ok, quick recap! Previously we looked at the: Comic Relief, Applause Is Approval and Go Big Or Go Home myths; examining how these pervading falsities unleash wraths so horrendous upon our dearly beloved industry they’d give Hades a hard-on. So without any ado!

4. THE ‘ALL THEY DO IS BOOGIE’ MYTH

The Myth
The (mis)belief here is that the only thing there is to the art of theatre in Nigeria is dance. The true danger lurks in this myth’s harmful subtext: Nigerian theatre is a narrow practice which offers little value to society – apart from the occasional distraction of watching people twerk in ankara. Trying and failing to be concave lenses to this myopic notion is usually due to: selective blindness of the myth believer (you know that thing about illusion being tastier than the truth?), a need to deliberately deride the arts as a study/practice (a very complex issue, this), inability of the practitioner to demonstrate specialization, or just good ol’ innocent-minded ignorance. The paucity of commercial theatre shows also keeps this myth well fed.

jungle boogie

Thespian boogie! Parara-parara! Thespian boogie! Get down!

The Impact
Apart from sounding like an insult from a 1970s blacksploitation movie (“Hell, them no-good jive turkeys? Only thing them cats know howda do is boogie!) this myth leaves grievous psychological scars in its wake. Its subtextual damage occurs at the delicate level of “image and perception“.

The image of every study/profession is polarized in positive and negative terms. We associate studies/professions with: dignity, power, stability, wealth, sacrifice, sufferhead, mysticism, etc. The more positives, the more attractive the study/profession. Externally this manifests in the value placed on objects which become prideful emblems – the doctor’s angelic coat, phallus-like stethoscope; the lawyer’s/judge’s black superhero-cape and that annoying wig thing that looks like a sheep’s butt.

When negative perceptions about Nigerian theatre seep into our social consciousness the barriers raised in response hurt the industry. The would-be audience member comes to consider himself too good for Nigerian theatre, even if he has the cultural sensibility of a wet mop. The student of theatre develops an inferiority complex, and to disassociate herself from the cause becomes academically nonchalant – losing out on general benefits the academic experience offers. (This is especially stronger if the student was forced to study theatre, as, sadly, is the case with most.) Some students start out resilient but eventually cave to this myth; others spend four years in confusion, oscillating between dedication to the study and derision towards it.

The practitioner must constantly prove the worth of his profession to the larger section of society who neglect or just don’t care about it (… yet). This makes marketing theatre, a process which is already a chore, A CHORE!!! Some will find themselves, having failed to conquer PDP-and-APC-fueled unemployment, returning to the very studies they neglected for sustenance; then years of nonchalance will return with Piranha-sharp teeth for vengeful bites.

The Reality
Do I need to say Nigerian theatre offers immense value to society? Do I really? We are talking of THE art form which gave us a Nobel Prize winner, need I remind yo’ ass! Thankfully, history suggests theatre will remain valued by the highly cultured; the true arts lover; the seeker of aesthetic joys; the traveller of imagination’s endless acres.

HOWEVER! Practitioners must take responsibility for the perpetuation of this myth. In Universities a lot of theatre arts departments place so so much emphasis on dance, inadvertently reinforcing this myth in the student-audience’s psyche – from there it’s an easy extension into the scathing subtext. Students go through four years of higher education without receiving advanced (sometimes even basic) education on other vast practices in theatre. This constricts the value they place on the study thus enabling rogue behaviour.

Practitioners must enlighten whatever segment of society is within their reach and influence. This need not be a tedious or confrontational activity. Demonstrating expertise the non-practitioner doesn’t possess sets society on a road to realization. The recognition that “this vocation requires a level of skill beyond what I (the layman) has and which only the professional can provide” gives our practice much needed respect for growth. Think of how much reverence filmmaking earns from ‘behind the scenes’ and ‘making of…’ documentaries.

5. THE ‘MESSIAH’ MYTH

The Myth
There is a tale they tell around camp fires in green rooms. Not merely a tale … a prophecy. A prophecy in the ancient book of Thespis which speaks of a great theatre show which one day shall come.

So magnificent a performance shall it be, a never-before-seen splendor in its invocation of spectacle, that it shall revive the entire Nigerian theatre industry. There shall be rejoicing as infrastructure and institutions shall appear out of the very earth and stretch far into the sky. There shall be singing of Eminado and dancing to the music of Don Jazzy again as sponsorship worth millions of naira shall flow steadily from the pockets of telecommunication companies and rich politicians like Loya milk (Looooyaaaa!).

And the people will look at it. And they will know that it is good. And no longer will there be hunger in the land. And no longer will they have to eat Fayose-and-Fayemi flavoured rice.

statue angels

And with the coming of the saviors hammering and chopping of money shall be plentiful.

Among practitioners and investors, you will find some who believe that a single show (the one they are, conveniently, currently working on) will be so successful it will revive the moribund Nigerian theatre industry. Of course it is believed that if this revival is not (conveniently) limited to the myth believers, it will be spearheaded by them. You’ll often find shows, usually large scale ones, stating as their objective: “we hope this performance can revive the theatre industry in Nigeria”. It would be all nice and cheery if this just ended as pretty talk, but yawa dey gas when people start believing it.

The Impact
The constant pursuit of instant success, a defining characteristic of the Nigerian huzzle, holds much blame here. Other times it’s just the pressure of pursuing a passion in an economy more twisted than Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (make I use google form effizzy, o jare!). And sometimes it’s just plain naivety. When the expectation of a meteoric rise to fame and fortune is DASHED by reality’s rocky ground, the effect can be destabilizing.

A great loss of confidence invariably follows – “e no suppose be like this, I suppose don blow by now“. The practitioner having spent the entire production process hyping himself up for the coming of the messiah is left feeling dejected. If he mistakes dejection for disillusionment, he is likely to voluntarily become a chairman of the “there is no future in Nigerian theatre” committee.

If he continues to practice, horrendous project planning haunts the rest of his career. Indeed it was this together with unrealistic expectations from having no well set production goals which screwed dude up in the first place. He throws himself into the constant chase of the messiah or half heartedly executes theatre projects when they come along. Any slim chance there was for business/artistic research and experimentation is gone with the wind (Swish!).

The impact on the investor can be summarized thus: as him money don troway, chairman pack him load run! But let’s delve a bit deeper. The defining impact on the investor who falls prey to this myth is a loss of confidence in theatre’s financial viability. Typically he bails out of the business sharp-sharp. Should he chop liver and remain, it will be marked with a discomfort towards new ideas and approaches; or worse, an inability to take calculated risks. However, henceforth, everything will be done on his terms. Of course he is too busy to go through the paces of acquiring proper knowledge on the business of theatre, so he treats it like any other business. When this equally fails, as is practically inevitable, he grows more convinced that Nigerian theatre is a waste of Naira.

The Reality
Don’t get me wrong, instant success isn’t impossible (though closer examination reveals instant isn’t always as instant as we mythologize it to be). Yes, there are those who rose to fame quicker than a plate of ijebu-garri soaked with half sachet of pure-water, but this isn’t something you plan for. If instant success comes it will be in your favour – except you aren’t prepared for it.

Get your head out of the clouds, but keep them in the sky. Translation: DREAM BIG WITH A PLAN. Short term, mid term, long term – HAVE A PLAN. A realistic plan with measurable goals. And ps: realistic does NOT mean inferior. Plans change or don’t always evolve as expected but organizational skill allows you stay flexible. Reading all the ‘how to’, self help and motivational books in the world is pointless if at the time of ACTION you can’t APPLY.

And can we agree to take a collective chill-pill on the messiah-performance neurosis? The future of Nigerian theatre does not rest on the shoulders of one, two or twenty shows. What will lead us to the gates of the promised land is efficient administration. Development and application of innovative and efficient operational frameworks, achievable in Nigeria’s socio-economic conditions, which will turn these shows we love making from short-lived independent entities into finely woven symbiotic organisms of productivity.

6. THE ‘BANKRUPTCY’ MYTH

The Myth
In the entirety of the english language there are no seven words which spear my heart deeper than these: THERE IS NO MONEY IN NIGERIAN THEATRE. Goodness gracious f@#%ing hell what da actual f@#k?!!!!! Ok … Calm down … Breathe … Breathe … This one stands in contention with the ‘Go Big or Go Home’ myth for most damaging misconception. Amongst those who propagate this myth the most pertinent are financiers.

Investing money in Nigerian theatre is considered a fool’s venture that ends in a pit of financial wastage. The ardent spokesperson for this myth is commonly an investor whose previous foray into the business of theatre ended in grave financial loss. Or he/she is considering making an investment but witnessed, or heard the gist of, some other person whose dice failed at the gamble.

The belief that the only good kind of arts business is a corporate scale business (see the ‘Go Big or Go Home’ myth), coupled with having the closest thing to a fully functioning outfit in only one out of 36 states, reinforces the faith that (must thou spear me again, ye words?) there is no money in Nigerian theatre.

atm machine

 

The Impact
Belief in this myth has strangulated the practitioner’s ability to develop a financially sustainable structure for Nigerian theatre. Hence, the industry is almost entirely (if not completely) sponsor-based. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with sponsorship, theatre needs sponsorship (subsidies don’t hurt either, so anytime you’re ready Ministry of Arts and Culture, NICO, NCAC); however no serious business can function sustainably on sponsorship ALONE – and certainly not an ENTIRE industry. But the practitioner’s brain is so hardwired to seek sponsorship he can’t think outside the box. (And believe me, for theatre to blossom we have to think outside the whole freaking box manufacturing factory.)

The sponsor-based business model has more potholes than the road from Ogba junction to retail market (na one road for Lasgidi), and in these crevices lies Nigerian theatre, clawing at sparse patches of available coal-tar. Being not only sponsor-based but corporate sponsor based means we remain snared in the ‘Go Big or Go Home’ myth. The corollary is simple: failing to turn out a large enough number of annual shows to generate broader scale business interest, the industry will struggle to see any appreciable growth, and with this the contorted conviction that “there is no money in Nigerian theatre” will persist – and that’s just a fine ass piece of irony!

More ironic is the counter-approach taken by some investors. Dedicated to the vision of reviving Nigerian theatre, mixed with an appetite for chopping big-time arts money, they come to a strange conclusion. They decide to throw an inordinate amount of money into a commercial theatre set up, doing something like building a theatre house or purchasing a large amount of equipment without any sustainable plan for profitability. The chain of thought (one I cannot wrap my head around!) seems to be: I’m not totally certain how to make money from this business, so I’m going to randomly spend an excessive amount on it and the sheer Voltron force of my money will make it work.

Panic sets in when the cash doesn’t come in as expected. The investor now employs constraints to the point of administrative asphyxiation. Again the courage needed to take calculated risks dissipates. And now he’s pissed! He’s royally pissed! Millions of naira, a fair amount of which could have been well spent on family and/or runs-girls, have gone down the ol’ drain. And what does he blame for this loss? His uninformed business decision? No, he blames it on the Nigerian theatre industry.

The Reality
Keep calm and know there IS money in the Nigerian theatre industry. We are talking of an art which has persisted, thriving sporadically, ever since the 40s – and even further back. It has survived cinema, Nollywood, and television – all of which falsely heralded its doom. Obviously there’s a resilience in there we aren’t harnessing.

Theatre makes money in its own way, this must be understood and accepted (not the same thing, mind you). Though there are similarities commercial theatre for the most part doesn’t function like concerts or galas or launches. It can’t be expected to make money in the same way. It is an art and a business in its own right. It has its constants, variables, gestation periods and birth expectancies. These, alongside much else, must be well grasped if you want to earn back your bucks and then some.

A peculiar reality that must also be confronted is that there is no actual Nigerian theatre industry. We just call it that because … well, wetin else we wan call am? The Nigerian theatre paroles? The Nigerian theatre hustle? Wouldn’t make for intelligent writing in a proposal, would it? The proper infrastructure doesn’t exist. The equipment is far from accessible. The fluidity of capital is turgid. The provided service comes so infrequently market/audience stability is a perpetual struggle. What we have is a semblance of an industry at its thinnest.

Money is almost always invested into theatre shows NOT the theatre industry. Understanding this difference can mean the difference between success and failure. I’ll give one example: money invested into a theatre show can only work for as long as the show is alive i.e its performance run. Since socio-economic factors only allow for brief performance runs, the investment has a specific gestation period (mostly days, often weeks, occasionally a month or two) within which to deliver returns. If you were investing in the theatre industry, the gestation period would be waaaay longer.

Ultimately, be honest with yourself. This is the cornerstone which not only the builder refused but breaking the stronghold of any myth relies on. Understand and accept that the business of theatre isn’t for all-comers. It requires a businessman with a particular set of sensibilities which may not be in your personality. It requires a wealth of passion and courage and not everyone is rich in every way.

There once was no money in Nigerian music and stand up comedy. Artists pursuing careers in those fields were considered fools. Any businessman sowing his money in those fields was an even bigger dodo bird. That was just a little over a decade ago. Today, they are both thriving sectors for artists and investors alike with the music industry possibly reaping more than grandpapa Nollywood. Ask yourself this, what are those industries doing right for themselves that Nigerian theatre isn’t for itself?

And there you have them! The 6 Biggest Myths About Nigerian Theatre! Did you dare brave the treacherous terrains of scrolling and megabyte consumption to read all 6? If so, you’ve just won yourself a loaf of bread to go with the toaster from part 1. Thanks for reading.

READ: The 6 Biggest Myths About Nigerian Theatre (Part 1)

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

African Playwright Africa Ukoh

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 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.

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!

NGF Crisis, the Artist and Nigerian Mythos

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Every society has its mythos; the intricate threads of beliefs and opinions which hem its daily living, stitching opinions and oppositions. Mythos plays nursing mother to society’s collective consciousness; cuddled in the lock of its arms, we feed the same source which we suck dry. All societies are carried by pillars of mythos – the United States, ancient Greece, western Africa, Ajegunle, Maitama etcetera. Very importantly, ALL LEVELS OF SOCIETY – family, academia, vocational life etc – are rife with perspective-shaping mythos. Is it not normal then that when these pillars are budged, society quakes?

The Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) election crisis – more crisis for the Guv’nahs than for the regular folk, really – has for weeks now been the issue of debate and mediocre Machiavellian machinations. Many in the nation have watched with cynicism, criticism and glee-of-the-oppressed as ‘their excellencies them’ have strapped on political bikinis for this mud-fight.

It all started when the gubernatorial royals (note to self: possible title for cheesy British sitcom) got together to vote a new president for their ‘Governors only’ club. However things went kaput! when the 35 adults – ADULTS, I say! – were, to put it in delicate ebonics, unable to get they shit together (togethurr?). The behind-closed-doors event was videoed (weirdest derivative ever, I know), presumably, by the Governor of Osun state, and the videoed video went viral once the public got a hold of it – thanks Sahara Reporters!

As always, expected vituperations followed. We laughed, cried, decried, were angered, and arm wrestled over our woeful estate of governance! Yet at the heart of this dramedy lies a hidden-in-plain-sight statement about the relevance of Nigerian artists to their society and the status quo of Nigerian mythology. Mythology? No, no, I don’t mean Shango and Amadioha digging it out in a two-way deirific battle atop the precipitous heights of Olumo Rock. I speaketh, rather, of modern mythology.

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Politicians play a dominant role in the modern mythology of Nigeria. As both leaders and celebrities, how they and their offices are perceived is crucial to the sustenance of corruption… erm, I mean, to the sustenance of governance. Our mythos, you see, is a complex network of contradictory yet symbiotic socio-sympathetic nerves which connect the everyday Nigerian with the objects/subjects of his ‘real fantasies’ (phew!).

A PROBLEM arises, however, when the persons mythologized are alive and kicking. Being alive in the time of your myth creates the MOTHERSHIP of dilemmas: you have to live up to your mythos, or at least live a semblance of it. Hercules may have actually been a whimp who frequently got his butt kicked by the mulieres of Greece, but he wouldn’t have to had deal with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube exposing this epic chagrin. He probably would only have had to grapple with gossip by word of mouth – which is like 0.0000000000001G in internet speed time. But every time Lionel Messi walks out of the tunnel, he has to prove he is the best footballer in the world. And everytime a Nigerian politician steps into the public eye he has to protect the delicate fabric of mythos which beautifies the ignominy surrounding him.

The ineptitude of individuals in positions of authority in Nigeria could win the Oscar for biggest open secret ever. (It must be noted of course that not all in positions of authority are inept, the shoddy guys are just more fun to play with.) Despite this general awareness we accept these… erm, “special needs” authority figures, regardless – often offering little beyond passive resistance. What we are taught to revere, what our mythology tells us to respect, is the position not the person. (A factor found in other modern societies, not just Nigeria, really.) Therefore, all the person, be he the king of olodos or jester-olodo to the king, needs to do is reach that position of reverence, those seats of power, those thrones of mythos! (Insert thunder and lightning sound effects here!) Think of it like a safe-zone in childrens’ catch me if you can games. The rules are, “you can’t touch us if we’re standing in here“.

What things like the NGF election video do then, is sharpen Sabretooth claws, get pumped up on adrenaline and, with mutant ferocity, tear at threads which fasten our accepted/imposed myths.Tthey peel the veils from our eyes; take Freudian sawed-off shotguns, loaded with 16 inch Jung bullets, and shoot down psychological barriers placed between us and the obvious truth. They force us to see. They compel us to walk into dark alleys which we often pretend not to know of, simply because we are too damn stressed out dealing with the daily-bread-battles of life.

This is where the Nigerian artist – the modern Nigerian artist – comes into query. The question I find myself unable to ignore is: when it comes to the necessary destruction of mythos, isn’t the internet doing what Nigerian artists are supposed to be? Is the artist (Nigerian or other) not meant to be the one who exposes the flaws and negativities in our societies? Is it not the duty of the creatively blessed to serve as watchtowers for mankind? Is this not why artists see, hear, taste, smell and feel differently? Is this not why artists have uniquely warped perceptions, so as to delve into the dimensions of our existence, unreachable by ‘normal’ minds, and extract wonder – pertinent wonder – out from the mundane?

Now, no one can or should impose responsibilities upon artists or art, and in no way do I mean to do so. Let expression be what it will be! However, in examining humanity’s long history in the arts, do we not find a common thread in relevance to one’s society where the best of artists have always existed and golden ages of art prevailed? Has the Nigerian artist then refused or failed to assert his/her relevance beyond being the bossom of Bacchus-esque frivolities? A common argument is that the Nigerian public does not like to confront important issues through art, preferring ONLY jollification and escapism. However doesn’t the repeated virality of videos like the NGF elections tell a different story?

Perhaps I could/should narrow “Nigerian artists” to those in music and film? Writers exempted as the nature of their art prohibits frequent engagements with trivialities. (I dare you to write a novel about nothing but your flossing steez!) But, on the other hand, aren’t the various arts forms one holistic community, thus obligated to look out for each other? There should not arise a misconception that artists are only relevant when they deal with political issues. Nein! Art should NOT be considered ONLY a weapon to use AGAINST government. This erroneous assumption is, in my opinion, partly responsible for the stifled range of topics found in some art forms.

A plethora of issues are available for artists to woo. Society is PREGNANT with mythos from other levels apart from the political: religious, social, cultural, psychological, philosophical, esoteric, etc. And of course art is NOT restricted to the destruction of mythos alone. Neither should it be taken that art must always be dead serious. The issue is range, or lack thereof, and relevance.

Is it not the case, then, that in the absence of creative explorations of matters close to our cultural hearts, and near to our national cake, society has turned to the internet for pertinence and to the Nigerian artist for flippancy? Have we not CEASED to look to upcoming movies and songs with hopes for BOTH enjoyment and poignance? Do we not instead rely on the next REAL LIFE CALAMITY courtesy of YouTube, an accidental film maker and a well charged phone? Yet if this is so, can one really, really blame the Nigerian artist? Really? Because if you think about it, the roundness of a woman’s buttocks and the trauma of being used like a roll-on are not going to sing about themselves, are they?

Ps: it is important to note that there are lots of talented artists out there who stray from the worn out norms to give birth to art pieces as rich as they are diverse. To these, one can only say, thank you so much.

About the writer (This is where I talk about myself in 3rd person)
Africa Ukoh (@Pensage) is a playwright, screenwriter, actor, a stage director and concept consultant. He works with writers, actors, directors and other creative artists, providing key and insightful contributions to the development of their skills and projects. You can check out some of his work here, here, and here. He is a co-founder of African Renaissance Theatre & Ent. (A.R.T). A new arts movement based in Nigeria. You can can find out about A.R.T here and here. He is currently working on the Stratford East/30 Nigeria House project, and you can find out about that here and here.

Tongue

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Your mouth,
an open secret
sculpted for poetry,
I know
for when we kissed
I shared
in rhythms of your tongue,
learning mysteries
of a language
man does not know,
learning music
of a poetry
only woman can sing.

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