Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Company Is Going Away With Lots Of Experiences, Historical Markers, Says Prof. Ojewuyi

Starting with Pre-emptive and Seven in 2010, NewHaven and Zmirage Multimedia Nigeria Limited have impacted positively on the Nigerian stage act. With their International Cultural Exchange project designed with the aim of bridging cultural divides and fostering understanding across boundaries with cultural diplomacy, the two companies have worked tirelessly to use culture as a strong weapon of bringing people together. This year’s play has also been Home, which is part of the ongoing 2012 Cultural Olympiad, taking place in London. The play toured extensively in Lagos, Ghana, Ibadan, Ajure and Abeokuta before heading to London. ANOTE AJELUOROU caught up with Prof. Segun Ojewuyi and his five-man cast at Ikeja GRA a night before jetting off to London. Here, Ojewuyi, Lauren Conor, Brandi Austin, Basha Evans gave expression to their respective experience of the tour performance, how much ambassadorial goodwill the tour has on the American cast who experienced firsthand Nigerian, nay African culture. Excerpts:

Prof. Segun Ojewuyi

So, indeed, why do you engage in so exerting venture of propagating culture across divides even when there seems so little material reward?
  In your heart, in your being, something keeps reiterating the significance, the importance of propagating culture, no matter how you try to shake it off, it’s something that disturbs you. It’s not easy to articulate; it’s not easy to really define, and to put in very neat words. And I guess it’s because culture is not a commodity – something that you buy on the shelf. It’s more than something physical. That’s why with the challenges that you deal with, the physical separation from family, other people, the different places you go, the different cultures, it’s still exciting a venture.
  So, you wake up even when you’re exhausted like I am now. So, the question, ‘why do you do it’ is one I can’t answer. Maybe that is the craziness there; some call it stupidity. I’d rather be stupid this way than otherwise.

You’ve just said you’re mentally and physically exhausted. Yet you find it in you to continue. Where do you find the energy, the power to do so?
  It’s not like you have a reservoir of energy or power. I think the energy comes from the other people, the other people you see who have also bought into this thing going; they keep going on everyday, like Alhaji Teju Kareem, taking care of all kinds of logistics, and hundreds of people all over doing incredible things to ensure things worked out fine. I think that is where the energy comes from, the idea, the inspiration to continue.

Now, you took the play Home to more places this time than you did in previous outings – Lagos, Ghana, Benin Republic, Ibadan, Akure, Abeokuta. What has been the totality of the experiences?
  Whaoh! These places are different. We paused for a moment in Quidah in Benin Republic, Elmina Castle in Ghana, and I felt ‘what a privilege to have this life’, to be able to have this moment; it was such a privilege to walk into the Elmina Castle, the Quidah Slave Port and at the dungeon, and getting through the history. Although I’ve known it, but each time it’s new. It’s very painful, but it’s also a legacy and a source of pride and energy for the future. So, that’s one of the experiences.
  In Benin Republic, my company members from America were just struck, because it is their own history, too; it became too close for them, to partake in their own story, of their experience and history.
  In Nigeria at the University of Ibadan, it was different from the one at Ondo State, where people were outside drinking and making loud noise while they performed. It was tough for my actors to perform exactly as they are used to, but it was very useful, beautiful experience because it was part of what we set out to achieve, to engage with and to achieve with different people, different cultures, different attitudes – a completely different story with a specific outcome of cultural exploration. The challenge it posed is the same challenge you face in cross-cultural boundaries. Of course, they are intimidating because some people hide behind ideologies so they don’t have to face those artificial boundaries. But the culture takes you there if you have the heart for it.
  The audience had the challenge of understanding what the actors were saying, and the actors had the challenge of doing what they were doing. In the end, it is the human story that comes through; and once you find that human story, you can do anything. At the University of Ibadan, which has a theatre culture, they were alive in a different way. There was a moment where they had this funeral thing, and there was this Yoruba chant, and the audience went quiet.
  You know, these two cultures did the same thing – the American and Yoruba, and then there was the American dirge scene. Those were the two times there was really quiet in the audience; that merger of the cultures; it was great for the audience. So, different places, different challenges… The arena of common humanity is the same, which is the point I keep making in this project.
  Culture comes before politics. Culture was before politics. It’s a word that I use; it’s not my word. Culture is an ideal; it’s a way of life. Culture is the pillar; culture doesn’t make money, it’s not supposed to; it is meant to improve humanity’s status. The company is going away with a lot of experiences and historical markers acquired over the period of touring. We travelled by road, slept in the car at the border. It was life changing.

It has been said elsewhere that culture was before politics. But when you look at your country Nigeria, with the politics having undisguised disdain for culture and how very little the country has progressed as a result, what comes to your mind as a culture, intellectual worker living and working abroad?
  Oh, no; don’t even go there! Nigeria is a wastrel! It has waste as its central mission. When I did my Sabbatical, I chose to stay in a different part of the country, in the North, to continue to know the country better. The infrastructure is as decrepit as Nigeria. The tragedy of our wastage is not in the decrepit nature of our infrastructure – roads, electricity, etc - the tragedy of our country is in the wastage of our human resource. The Nigerian human resource is wasting; our humanity has been tampered with in very tragic ways that have long lasting, devastating effect in our ability to repair or overcome as a country.
  Our values have been messed up. We are running around, rushing around in circles, cheating, lying, killing – these things have taken central stage in our humanity. It’s no longer disturbing for us to see someone being killed, stealing from the people, politicians stealing monumental amounts from the people, pensioners’ money that they had worked for; and they are still going about what business? It’s no longer disturbing for us to steal billions from the people in a phantom subsidy, and then government sets up a committee to look into it with intent to correct that, and that committee becomes…
  So, a people’s humanity so perverted has been wasted, and it’s going to take a long time to reconstruct, to rebuild. So, the idea of ‘home’ is very traumatising for me.

Your past productions have been on themes from abroad, outside the continent. Is there a possibility that you might get a home theme to treat?
  Absolutely! I’ve done Nigerian plays over there, with American actors. This project is a very challenging enterprise; it’s not that a Nigerian thing is not on the table. It’s just that we’re warming up to it. It’s takes a logistic preparation to make it work. Culturally, philosophically, it’s viable, but the logistic is complicated. It’s actually moving towards that. We had two weeks of rehearsals in the U.S. and two weeks here. So, we’re trying to find a way round the logistics. Now, we have tried that, and we know it could go this way. That’s a director’s thing; and I say it’s coming. It’s coming. It’s meaningful and the way to go.

Performance of Home now shifts to London. What is your expectation?
  Well, London is the hotbed of activities now, culturally, with the Olympics going on. So, we’re in competition, and we’re happy about it. We have something small that we can proudly present. We’re just grateful to be part of that, on which we’ll be telling an American story that we all have to share from, a human story.
How would you describe your experience working with the four American actors on this project - three women and one man?
  Oh man; that is something! It’s not because I brought them. They have justified their coming ten times over, beyond my expectations. They have been complete professionals; they are experienced. They are still at first level in their careers, but the way they have comported themselves here, they deserve much higher level. The reason I’m saying this is that the conditions of rehearsals, the travels on our roads, of having to stop by on the road for the girls to go into the bush to ease themselves; and they had taken it just like that. They did not give me any problems at all.
  It speaks so well of the quality of the American educational system that they have, that ethical, and mental eye for professionalism. Those are the values that are already lacking but needful in Nigerian human resource. If I tell you about the Akure performance, you’ll be amazed. Now, with accomplished Nigerian actors like Yinka Davies and Femi Ogunjobi (a known actor residing in London); blending these together created a wonderful environment, which we all enjoyed. It also challenged the American cast to also raise the bar in their own artistry, and they responded very well. Instead of whining, they responded well.
  So, as individuals, and as a group, they have been exceptional. Next year I’m going to come with a different group; that’s part of the strategy, to keep widening the cultural scope. These ones will now be sent out as our ambassadors, and a new group will be brought.

Lauren Conor

You’ve been in Nigeria, Ghana, Benin Republic, and seen and done so much. What will you be telling your folks back home?
  I think it’s something African-Americans should experience because when you’re here, you feel like a complete human being. You don’t feel inferior; you don’t feel inefficient, you don’t feel ugly, you don’t feel not-needed; you’re the cream of the crop. You go down all the streets and you see billboards celebrating black people everywhere; people here are just normal. I’m just grateful that I’ve been here; I’m just grateful for who I am. It’s for me the best story in the world. I just want other African-Americans to know that we matter, that African-Americans are the descendants of the strongest people that came out of here, that made it through all that suffering. It’s very important to come physically and see that experience.
   The performance was great; there were the seven years old children that came, I just saw how happy they were, how glad they were; it really inspired me. One of my favourite moments was about our trip to Elmina Castle in Ghana; going through the Elmina Castle really changed my world. It was amazing, particularly where they held the female slaves, to see everything they went through, to see how the Europeans exploited them, and to see that the black woman can rise to the height they are today, and everything that our ancestors gave us to live there. It means that we should not take what we’ve got for granted, not to be lazy.
  In America, black people are notorious for taking things for granted. They are not taking their careers seriously. Being here and knowing that everyone goes to college is mind-boggling! In America, black people going to college is an option. For them, it’s like, ‘I don’t need to go to college’. But here, it’s like a privilege. You’re really taking all the opportunities that are available to you; the African-American try to find a way round it and hustle and do all sorts of things. Being here has really taught me to take all advantages that are there.
  The black woman is more serious than the black man in America. The women really want to advance themselves so they can compete.
  One other thing I noticed is that black people are the same all over the world. We do the same thing, like yelling out of the window to other people we know. We’re one people who are just separated from one another. It’s one blood still coursing through our veins.

Would you like to come back again sometime in the future?
  Yes; I’d like to come back and do some performances. My family really want to come. My father told me a lot before I came.

Brandi Austin

You’ve been around a part of West Africa performing. Could you tell us your experiences so far, about the people and places you encountered?
  Everyone should come and experience Africa, especially West Africa. I say that because before I came here I had something less than a sense of pride, that I come from something less than a down side. But when I came here, especially going to Benin Republic, to the Point of ‘No Return’ in Quidah and Elmina Slave Castle in Ghana, it changed my perception of the whole slave trade and all that experience.
  Coming here has given me a great sense of pride of where I actually come from. The people that were taken were some of Africa’s greatest people, some of America’s greatest people. It changed my perception of who I am, of my African descent. It makes me feel much prouder, a little bit stronger.
  I look at the experience not as a sense of bleak or dark history of mine, but I’ve changed my perception to being grateful; a sense of gratitude for people who made that Trans-Atlantic journey, grateful that they paid that price for me to be able to experience America and then come back to experience the people here. So, being here has totally changed my perception of being an African-American or being black.
  Then coming and seeing people calling me ‘oyinbo’, I was really caught off guard. When I realised what oyinbo meant, I’m like, ‘I’m not white but a mix race’. It was shocking, especially when I know what it is to be black back home. My ancestry is mixed, and people say ‘you’re not fully African (laughs); that changed my perception as well. At home, I’m black; when I step out, people see that I’m also something different. So, I have to accept that. It’s different in America when you have a fair skin and a black experience.
  They have a different perception here in Nigeria what having a fair skin is. In the U.S., you can be fair-skinned and be marginalised. Being here made me accept that; I just have to embrace it being here, like a true Africa. Over there, I just have to defend it. There’s a huge different, where people can call you oyinbo and not have anything derogatory about it. At home, there’s the perception that because you’re fair-skinned, ‘you think that you’re higher than those with black skin’. But here, I have to embrace it, accept it; it’s partly why it’s so cool to be here.

Would you like to come back to Nigeria, to West Africa after this trip?
  Yes; I have high hopes. I don’t want to be in a hotel. I want to be in normal society; be able to experience the culture a little bit more. This trip is a little bit guarded, not being able to live with someone in a real neighbourhood. I’d like to come back and work again. I love Nollywood movies; there’s so much opportunity for black people here. I’d like to come here and maybe have a little of a career if possible.

Basha Evans

How do your experiences in this performance tour impact on you?
  As a person, I’m more appreciative of my life. You don’t know what you have until you don’t have it. And, being here in Nigeria and travelling around (because I have been here before), I’m very grateful for how my life has turned out. There are so many moments when we moan, ‘I want to have this; I don’t have this’; when you come to Nigeria, you recognise the things that you do have and the conveniences that you have, which are not here, the ability to go get things that you need, get to the places you want to get to. In Nigerian it takes more time and it takes more patience.
  You have to have faith; that’s the bottom-line of living. If you don’t have it, living becomes a bit more of frustration. As an artist, my thinking is, it can be so much worse; everything that I have done have come with my costume being ready, the set being made, the light being ready; the process having been completed, and not still in the making, like it is in Nigeria. And I think that is part of growing. Things are not always ready; so you have to wait. It’s not always so in America. But things are not always ready in America either.
   It’s okay if the sound is not up yet; it’s ok if the set is not ready yet. So, I guess I have even greater appreciation for the process I go through when I’m in America; just knowing that I have to be grateful for what I’m. You can always get round what you want and want you need. You have to recognise that it could a whole lot worse. But we had great performances; I have a greater appreciation for life.
  As I always say, Nigeria has abundance of love. No matter the issues you might be having, just look around, there is somebody looking out for you. I have to say, I really appreciate that love, because you don’t get it in America. When you’re having a bad day, nobody cares. But here, somebody will recognise it and come over and say ‘sorry; can I do something for you?’ You don’t get that at home. I don’t get that at home. I don’t know about others. But here, when somebody recognises something is bothering you or you’re not just yourself, they will recognise it and say ‘sorry, please, can I can help you’.
  That’s more than anything I felt; that’s something I’m more grateful for. I appreciate Nigerian love; I really do. Above all, I appreciate the love.

Do you nurse any dream about coming back here?
  Oh yes; I’d love to bring my kids back – three of them. Other people in the world don’t have the privileges that you have in Nigeria. The grass is not green everywhere. If it’s green in your front yard, it may not be green in your backyard. So, what can you do to help service other people? So, I’ll have my kids come here. I’ll like to be here when it’s not raining like now; I’d like to see how it is when it’s not raining; to see it when it’s hot. So, that will be interesting. I’d like to experience it when it’s not raining. I’d love to bring my family here.

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