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Of MOPICON and Moping Cons: Nigerian Film, Theatre and the Ignorance of Fundamentals

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I came to know about MOPICON and its bill a couple days ago when I stumbled across this article on True Nollywood Story. I read the bill itself and my first reaction was a chuckle. Having grown bored, many years back, with the inanity of some of Nigeria’s so-called associations and their vehement dedication to purposelessness, my automated response was to chuckle and move on.

However, as controversy surrounding the bill continued to build on social media, I found myself, like many others, offended by the brazenness of some individuals to just poof and seek to become law over private enterprise – especially one the government hasn’t made any vital contribution to since Lord Lugard used Top Bond to glue us together.

I wasn’t going to blog about the MOPICON fiasco until I came across this Facebook post by verteran Nollywood producer and director Greg Odutayo in which he implies that young Nigerian filmmakers are “afraid of regulation”. Afraid! That word did my head in.

Okay then! Let’s examine this fear. Let’s actually assess this issue at its core. I will offer a retort to Mr Odutayo’s implied slight but first let’s deal with the fundamentals of this issue. For, indeed, that is what this is all about – fundamentals and the surprising ignorance about them.

For long I had intended to write an article about creative entrepreneurship in Nigerian theatre and luckily for me that topic aligns perfectly with the current controversy rippling through Nollywood; so luckily for you, you get two for the price of one.

So, Capua, shall we begin? First of all …

What the Hell is a MOPICON?

The Motion Picture Council of Nigeria, now more popularly known by its petrol-station-mimicking acronym MOPICON, is an association which seeks to position itself as a regulatory body, BACKED BY LAW, that will preside over Nigeria’s film industry – oh and television too – with the badass virtuosity of Judge Dredd. A bill which was drafted by the association about ten years ago has been puked forth for “review” and redrafting.

Essentially MOPICON claims its mission is to set standards which will drive practitioners in Nigeria’s film industry towards the achievement of excellence. What is quite different from global practice is that MOPICON seeks to do this by leeching on to the Ministry of Information/Culture and make itself the all-powerful law.

However this post isn’t about the problems with the MOPICON bill, no. For that you can read the in depth analyses done by Feyi Fawehinmi and Rotimi Fawole. What I am focused on here is a more foundational problem, one that stretches beyond MOPICON into the entire set up and operation of Nigerian film and theatre.

Potential is Overrated

As a kid I often heard about Nigeria’s film and theatre as industries having the potential to be great. Growing up I heard, over and over, how Nigeria’s film and theatre industries have potential to be great.  I went to University, ate a lot of kosh and dosh, graduated, spent one year in the shackles that are NYSC, started working in Nigerian film and theatre and here I am still hearing about Nigeria’s film and theatre industries having the potential to be great.

At some point common sense demands we stop and ask ourselves: of what use is the potential to be great? Usain Bolt isn’t great because he has the potential to run a hundred metres in 9.58 seconds; he is great because he runs a hundred metres in 9.58 seconds.

Potential (energy) is pointless if it never converts to actual (energy). The question before us is obvious: what is hindering Nigerian film and theatre from converting the potential to be great industries into actual greatness? The answer, which also posits problems of utmost pertinence, is equally obvious: there are no film and theatre INDUSTRIES in Nigeria.

Film and theatre in Nigeria aren’t actually industries. We just refer to them as industries because … well, how the hell else are we going to refer to them.

Industry, Fundamentals and Non-existence

Here’s the thing, just because a group of people produce and sell a product does not mean an industry exists. That may seem tricky and contradictory but think about it. Maybe the non-existence of industry is harder to grasp in the creative industries since they aren’t purely manufacture-based, but to practitioners in film and theatre – to professionals! – it should be obvious.

But why? Why despite well over a thousand films produced annually and various theatrical performances put up yearly and numerous people and companies engaged in the commercial enterprise of show business should anyone say that Nigeria has no film and theatre industries? This is where fundamentals come in.

All industries are built on four fundamental pillars:

  1. Infrastructure
  2. Equipment
  3. Labour
  4. Industrial framework

Fundamental pillars. Should one of these be absent or ruined industry collapses. What use is infrastructure without equipment or labour? What is the point of equipment without infrastructure to contain or labour capable of utilising them? What’s the point of labour when infrastructure and equipment are not available? And if infrastructure, equipment and labour exist, but they are not structured by a cohesive industrial framework, can the resulting ramshackle of businesses REALLY be called an INDUSTRY?

Fundamentals. When we come to film and theatre, we must play substitution to understand what these four fundamentals are in the performing arts industries:

INDUSTRIAL FUNDAMENTAL FILM THEATRE
Infrastructure Production studios, sound recording studios etc. Theatre houses, artist hostels etc.
Equipment Cameras, lights, cranes etc. Lights, set design tools, make up tools etc.
Labour Actors, directors, producers, camera operators etc. Playwrights, directors, actors, choreographers etc.
Industrial framework Operational model (i.e structure) for distribution and sales based on platform created by above 3. Operational model (i.e structure) for distribution and sales based on platform created by above 3.

Studios and theatre houses, warehouses and hostels are the “factories” of film and theatre. These are the infrastructures which bring labour and equipment together; without these, equipment and labour cannot operate even near optimum hence industrial framework can never manifest because there is no platform upon which to form a structure. (See Alaba for further reference.)

Let He Who is Without Huzzle Cast the First Stone

In the absence of industry what we have are businesses subsisting on the sheer resilience and/or ingenuity of entrepreneurship, and/or on the exploitation of disorder. In other words, without these fundamentals in Nigerian film and theatre, what we have are HUSTLES not industries. (See Alaba for further reference.)

So ask yourself: how many state of the art production studios are there in Nigeria? How many theatre houses are there (NOT event centres and multipurpose halls!)? How many Dolby-Digital-standard sound studios are there? How many artist hostels/residencies are there, so that producers don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands to millions of Naira on hotel bills?

Ask yourself: how can theatre practitioners successfully make theatre with no theatres? How can filmmakers successfully make films with no film studios? How can doctors be doctors with no hospitals? How can you have a football league with no stadiums? How bankers bank with no banks? How can surgeons perform surgery with no operating rooms?

And even after Nigerian film and theatre practitioners surmount enormous challenges and somehow squeeze milk out of stone (See Alaba for further reference) how can this chaos be ORGANISED into industry without first establishing the platforms necessary for an intricate nationwide system to function?

And then MOPICON

It is in this environment that MOPICON (this really is a great name for a petrol station) rears its head and decides that the best way to rein disorder is by lording itself over the chaos. Never mind trying to understand how to actually solve the fundamental problems as unique to Nigeria’s socio-economic conditions, just make us the kings and queens of calamity and we will set firm rules – and, ehem!, membership fees – that will magically make our industries world class. Sorry? What do you mean that is pointless without infrastructure and framework? Gerrarahia men!

Regulate – Warren G ft. MOPICON

Facetiousness aside, regulation is ridiculous. You can’t focus on interior decoration when there are no walls. This is not to say that everything must come to a halt and the fundamentals required by Nollywood must first be put in lace before anything else can happen, no.

Priorities, however, must be set. We need to identify the essentials and prioritise them. This can be done WHILE Nollywood continues to do its Nollywood thing. We can pick the furniture, plan and conceptualize how to design the house, and work on the floors while the walls and roof (The roof! Can’t have a roof if there are no walls!) are being built. But the walls must be prioritised as primary because without them there is no “room”.

What the pro-MOPICON crowd don’t seem to get is that film practitioners aren’t protesting against the bill. There are two key problems with the MOPICON situation.

First is the fact that an association has the chutzpah to attempt to make itself LAW over PRIVATE ENTERPRISE. That pro-MOPICON people don’t understand why this is troubling, or do and don’t care, in my opinion, tells us all we need to know about them. I’m yet to find a pro-MOPICON person who can put forward a cogent argument as to why the association has to become the law. Even if MOPICON’s intentions were for the benefit of all, this does not justify their intent to become law.

The second problem is the attempt by the pro-MOPICON crowd to synonymise “regulation” with “setting standards”. Apart from being an insult to the basic education of the average Nigerian filmmaker, it is worrying that such a basic difference has to be explained to practitioners, in some cases, long serving practitioners.

Regulation of private enterprise infers that a system has been under exploitation and/or abuse hence government needs to take executive action so as to return it to decorous and optimal function. Hence, for one to say he/she/it/they want to regulate the Nigerian film industry is to infer that disorder has overtaken the industry.

However, this ignores a fundamental fact: there isn’t disorder because practitioners don’t want a system; there is disorder because there is no platform/structure/framework for a system to operate through. Regulation, then, which is a control mechanism has nothing to offer an industry where the necessities for practitioners to impose control upon themselves DO NOT EXIST. You no fit tell khaki make e turn leather, you no fit tell hustle make e move like industry. (See any failed attempts at organising touts for further reference.)

We should be thinking of how to achieve nationwide access to films so that filmmakers and audiences have a platform upon which to interact. Not regulation. We should be thinking of how to establish a chain of cinemas nationwide or provide top quality broadband which would enable mass streaming of content. Not regulation. Without either or both of these a film industry can’t operate like a film industry. Where’s the sense in restraining an already handicapped situation?

Theatrical Carts Before Tragicomic Horses

The same applies to theatre. Nigerian theatre needs a feasible plan which builds from the ground up; an operational model which is founded on the fundamentals required for the industry to function as unique to Nigeria’s social and economic environment.

All the workshops and entrepreneurship training and associations upon associations and paper presentations upon paper presentations will not make this appear from thin air. Neither will one-off shows – theatre performances which run for a couple days then close – lead to the manifestation of industry. The, frankly very strange, belief that one or a string of shows can be so good they will kickstart the theatre industry is a myth I have discussed in the past.

One-offs aren’t bad, I’m certainly not implying they should be stopped – heck, I’m currently working on a one-off theatre show myself. However to expect them to lead to industry is ludicrous.

It’s like constructing a storey building starting from the first floor and believing that the sticks in place as makeshift pillars will hold the floor up, therefore a foundation is unnecessary. And sure, the sticks do hold the first floor up, for some time, but eventually the building collapses. Then once again we raise the stick-pillars and start building from the first floor again. And once again the first floor is held up just long enough for us to throw a pretty cool party before it inevitably comes crashing down again. Some people escape, some get caught in the rubble. Then once again we raise the stick-pillars and … and so the cycle continues.

At some point one just has to ask oneself, why don’t we just build the damn foundation and start from there?

The Curious Case of Nigerian Music and Nigerian Stand-up Comedy

A common excuse as to why we shouldn’t bother with fundamentals is that there is no chance of the creative industries working successfully in Nigeria. No research or study is proffered as proof when this is stated, it’s simply stated and validated by Nigerianisations like “you know say Nigerians no get time for that kain thing”. This is very often averred by people who don’t work in film and theatre or people who – pardon my crassness but the truth is oft a hurtful bizatch! – have no business working in film and theatre.

We don’t need to state how insanely difficult it is to do business in the “giant of Africa”, not to mention show business! But the point isn’t to achieve flawless operation of film or theatre, rather it’s to figure out how to make them work within Nigeria’s unique circumstances.

About thirteen years ago the music industry in Nigeria was a wasteland inhabited only by vagabonds. Choosing a career in music was to crown oneself an outcast. Today? Well, I don’t need to tell you, despite whatever reservations you may have about creativity of content, how the music industry is and has been doing for more than a decade.

Here’s the question: what did they get right that film and theatre haven’t? Contrast that with Nigerian stand up comedy. An art form which rose, greatly due to the resilient entrepreneurship and creative genius of the Night of a Thousand Laughs team, alongside music. Both saw the rise of the telecommunications giants and expansion of corporate Nigeria at the turn of the 21st century. Here’s the question: why is the one doing better as an industry while the other is on a downslide? What did the one get right for itself that the other didn’t?

Disclaimer: I’m not saying the music industry is perfectville, of course it has its problems, but it certainly has left hustle territory and is operating in the land of industry.

Side note: With a potential to be a thriving industry, for the same reasons as music in the early 2000s, it’s quite sad that no one has figured out how to unleash the Kraken that is Nigeria’s entertainment television industry. We saw a demonstration of the power of this beast with the phenomenon that was When You Are Mine aka Paloma. By 8pm every Thursday, for the best part of a year, AIT owned Nigeria. It’s always impossible until someone else does it then it becomes standard and we forget it was once impossible. (See Telemundo for further reference.)

Moping Cons

“Regulating” Nigerian film and theatre “industries” is essentially a scam, a racket. Even if the initiators mean well, so long as their priorities are focused on regulating phantom industries, they will ultimately operate like a racket, wasting a lot of time and resources in the process.

They will receive funding which cannot be utilised to any concrete developmental ends because the platform for development does not exist. To continue the storey building metaphor, they will receive funding to build third, fourth and tenth floors but since the foundation doesn’t exist everything eventually comes crashing down.

And so the funding will only end up being partially used for the conveniently broad purposes of “regulation”, “development” and “setting of standards” – a seminar here, a workshop there, a training program here and there – which meet the vague mandates of the organisation while allowing them “save” most of their funding. And, well, you know, if we’ve met our mandates yet money is still lying around … well, you know …

It used to boggle me how organisations could do little to nothing and have long term plans to keep doing little to nothing, comfortably so, from big offices in nice and pricey parts of town. It used to boggle me. See, that’s the thing, our poverty – of the pocket and mind – has been efficiently financed by a buoyant oil-driven economy.

Noise

Veteran producer and director Greg Odutayo asked: why are the young [Nigerian] filmmakers afraid of regulation? Then he went on to describe said young generation as “social media noise”. Noise.

The implications of such questions and statements suggest why there is such a chasm between young Nigerian practitioners in film and theatre and the older generation, one that only further complicates already contorted state of affairs.

The non-existence of film and theatre as industries really is basic economics of show business, so it is troubling – I find myself reiterating – that this has to be stated in near-rudimentary terms to some who have been working in the industries for many years. It is scary.  These are the people still primarily in the positions of influence and if they don’t get the basic arithmetic at play here then … well …

In his Facebook post Mr. Odutayo speaks of “a conducive environment for creativity” and I find myself wondering how an environment which doesn’t even exist in the first place can be made conducive. Theatre departments across the country, for example, churn out thousands of graduates every year, how can we make the environment conducive for them when there is no directly related industry for them to progress into? This being just one layer of one example.

And no – hell no! – young Nigerian filmmakers are not afraid. To label a generation which has clawed and scratched to create some form of barely barest minimum cohesion in an environment where most of the predecessors left no legacy that can be built upon as “afraid” and “noise” is a disappointing choice of words.

We are not afraid, good sir, we are fed up! We are fed up with the Federal Gerontocratic Republic of Patriarchial Nigeria. We are not noise, good sir, we are voice! We are voice bellowing, in the immortal words of Paddy Chayefsky’s Howard Beale, that we are mad as hell and we are not going to take it anymore.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Africa Ukoh is a creative director, playwright, screenwriter and arts administrator. His works have been the recipients of the BBC African Performance prize and the Stratford East/30 Nigeria House award, as well as being published and performed on various platforms.

He is currently working on a theatrical performance of his award winning play 54 Silhouettes and if you’d love to work with him, he’d love to work with you.

africaukoh@gmail.com

@Pensage

Find Me in Issue 11 of the Critical Stages Journal

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So I’m super excited to have my works as a playwright be feature in an essay in the latest issue of Critical Stages – a journal published by the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC). The essay was written by Professor Emmanuel Dandaura – who, among many awesome things, is the president of the International Theatre Institute, Nigeria (ITI). Working as a research assistant on the paper was a great experience for me, and it is delightful to see the final product be so brilliant.

The essay is titled From Page to Stage: Influences and Challenges Shaping the New Generation of Nigerian Playwrights, and I appear alongside two terrific playwrights – Sefi Atta and Donald Molosi.

It’s a great read and if you are interested in theatre, playwriting and 21st century history in African/Nigerian literature, you’ll definitely be captivated by the essay. Give it a read and share a thought if you wish. Linked to the text below:

Critical Stages journal, issue 11: From Page to Stage: Influences and Challenges Shaping the New Generation of Nigerian Playwrights

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.

How to Play the African King: A Guide for Nigerian Actors Trying to “Hammer”

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Congratulations! You have just been cast to play the most prestigious role in Nigerian acting – the African King! Ah, yes, things are looking good. The hustle in combination with the ministry is moving. (Or maybe Babalawo is working … all na huzzle!) Now, you are probably scratching your soon-to-be-fictionally-crowned head looking for tips on how to do a stand up job. That is good. It means you understand the extreme importance playing an African King has in this Nollywood hustle. Execute this performance with bland generic expertise and you can secure a succession of roles in movies and theatre performances for years to come – in other words, you go don hammer!

King naira poker

The king of hammers. (Photo attribution: Nicholas Gemini)

To play this iconic role you must meet a minimum of two out of three strict criteria:

i. You are tall and/or huge and/or muscular and/or fat – you sha have body sha.
ii. You are old.
iii. You have a bass voice. Or you can talk as if you have a bass voice.

If you do not meet these criteria but have somehow been cast to play an African King, please, please, please, be very careful; another actor more equipped can easily steal your shine (note: if Babalawo is involved talk to him about this). So if you are not buff enough, better start gyming immediately. No money to register at a gymnasium? Join your local cement-block-and-iron-lifitng gym, there’s one in every neighbourhood. If you do not have a bass voice, beg the bass vocalist in your Church’s choir to train you.

Another worry you may have is that your acting skills aren’t good enough. Relax, you don’t need actual talent. All you need is ability to execute the ‘typical moves’ expected by an actor playing an African King. And for that I got you covered, homie! Follow the 6 easy steps broken down below and you will be on the yellow brick road to hammering. So, Capua, shall I begin?

Step 1: Don’t research
I repeat, DON’T research. Do not follow all these oversabi actors prancing about doing so-called ‘proper’ research so that they can give ‘original’ and ‘exciting’ performances that will be enjoyed for years to come. Ridiculous! First of all, you will just confuse your director. Secondly, you will make your executive producer nervous. After investing so much and hustling all that sponsorship (oh yes, even executive producer gaas huzzle) you now want to do something outside the comfort of conformity? Don’t put your hammering at risk, please. It doesn’t matter if audiences forget your performance after a few days because there’s no real substance to it. Just stick with the familiar and the predictable. ‘Mediocre’ and ‘generic’ are your watchwords. Hold them close to you at night. Cuddle them. Kiss them. Caress them. Now slowly undress them and begin to slide … Oh … sorry … I, erm, got a bit carried away there.

Step 2: Bulge your eyes
As wide as possible! Bulge them! Stretch open those big white orbs. Wider, I say, wider! Good. This will make you look FEARSOME, so you don’t have to stress yourself to do any actual acting. You must maintain this look for the entirety of the performance and as you can imagine that is no easy task. I recommend 2-3 hours of daily practice in front of a mirror. I also recommend purchasing a considerable stash of Panadol Extra or Alabukun. Eye problems are likely to occur, register ahead of time with your nearest optometrist.

Step 3: Look like a boss
Now that your eyes are popping more than a bottle of champagne in a Dr Sid song, the next thing you must do is bone! Or as the oversabi-grammar people say, scowl. This is the one facial expression you need for a long and prosperous career. Be careful not to be deceived by a few people who will ask why you always look the same in all your roles. They are enemies of progress. Do not be distracted by trivialities such as emotional range and psychological depth. Abeg! Abeg! Abeg! Abeg! Abeg! Just bone that face! If you are working on a movie, discuss with your director to find a proper bulging-eyes-to-scowling-face ratio. This is important so that when you add ginger to your performance (see step 6) your current level of overacting will not go into hyper-overdrive.

Coin Mansa Musa

Alas, 10 kobo! I spent it well, Horatio. A currency of infinite jest… (Photo attribution: Olutosinscorpio)

Step 4: The King Hath Swag
First, puff out your chest. Then, spread out your arms like a chicken frozen in its attempt to take flight. You know those body-builder guys with muscles so thick their arms can’t lie straight by the side of their body anymore? Great, just like them! Next, fill yourself up with a sense of pride so thick Tracy Obonna’s booty would write you a tribute song. Now, walk in large stomping strides, bouncing on every landing step, like an overweight ballet dancer whose recent surrender to a plate of swallow and egusi soup has pulverized his centre of gravity. This is especially important for you who will be performing in a theatre show. In a movie role you will spend 99% of your time sitting down so you may want to focus more on step 5.

Step 5: The King’s Speech
To TAAALK like an AAACtor plAAYing the AAAfrican KING, what you must DO is RAAAANdomly emphaSIZE SYllables in your DIAlogue without AAAny sense of rhythm, style, or PURPOSE. YOOOUUU must-also-ensure-that-you-master-the-ability-to-speak-very-fast-then-suddenly DRAAAAAAG the final (pause) words (pause) in your speech. This is what some ‘astute practitioners’ call the art of Shakespearean line delivery. “Why? Erm … Because … you know … that’s how they talk in all those Shakespeare films.” Remember, lines must always be rendered in the classic monotonous bass tone (see list of criteria above).

Step 6: Ginger
Ah, ginger! The secret ingredient of ancient Chinese tea and bad Nigerian acting. ‘Tis ginger which gives overacting that extra spicy flavour that makes viewers say: “O’boy that guy sabi act oh, see as him just dey ginger“. Who says an actor needs interpretive skill, analytical ability and aesthetic sensitivity? Abegi! All that one na sufferhead! Just ginger your way through every performance! Be sure to add copious amounts of ginger to your portrayal of the African King and success is yours.

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

“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.

“54 Silhouettes” Written & Directed by Africa Ukoh Hits the Stage

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This November, the premier production of my (self-tooting horn alert) double award winning play “54 Silhouettes” finally hits the stage!

Where? Alliance Française, Jos
When? 16th November
By? 5pm
For? N500

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You can listen to an abridged radio version of the play produced by the BBC World Service here. And check out other stories here, here, here, and here.

It’s time we paint Africa!

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