By Anote Ajeluorou
These are interesting times for Nigerian theatre. Almost from the blues in a space of a few months, the country can now boast of two Broadway-style big Theatre productions comparable to any around the world. This is something to cheer about. It says a lot about the talent, tenacity and can-do spirit of Nigerians. Although, sadly, regular theatre is struggling to establish itself, a few individuals have kept faith with their passion for stage performances and are doing everything to push the boundary forward. While producers in the regular theatre may be groaning, actors and other technical personnel in that area are beginning to sing hurray with the arrival of the Musical Theatre genre.
Indeed, opportunities now abound for practitioners in this sector, especially for the bold and the daring like the Bolanle Austen-Peters and Uche Nwokedis of this world.
Until recent years, Musical Theatre was a phenomenon usually associated with such world acclaimed cities as New York, London and the likes. Broadway Theatre was alien to Nigeria’s theatrical scene. But then comes Fela! on Broadway to rewrite the rules; it first had its run in the regular Broadway theatres of New York and other U.S. cities. The producers, perhaps eager to show off what they’d done with Nigeria’s music icon, Fela Anikulapo, brought the show to Lagos, with the lavish support of former Lagos State governor, Sen. Ahmed Tinubu. The novelty of the show and its transformation of their ‘own’ Fela into a theatrical colossus long after he passed on both fascinated and excited Lagosians and they thronged the Eko Hotel venue of the show to see for themselves the magic oyinbo had made of their Fela.
It was a great show and it became the talk of town. But the show had sour moments for Nigerian theatre professionals and even laymen alike that saw it. It was some sort of effrontery to theatre professionals’ intelligence as well as a slap on their faces. How on earth did the Fela they all jointly claim ‘ownership’ be imported back to them from America to buy with scarce Naira when they should have been the ones exporting him to Americans to repatriate some dollars back home? Why did nobody think of putting Fela on stage? Why did nobody think of the huge cultural phenomenon that Fela still embodies years after he passed on as to convert him into cultural capital for the theatre? Why was it that even the lead cast wasn’t a Nigerian but a Senegalese? And importantly, was what was offered as Fela the ‘real’ Fela that they knew so well? Did it realistically capture the true essence of the enigmatic music maestro and self-styled Abami Eda, the Strange One of the famed Koolo Labito or Kalakuta Republic or Egypt 80 Band?
Fela! on Broadway show in Lagos presented a moment of sobering soul searching for theatre professionals. There was no hiding place for them after they had been exposed or even shamed by the affront of such infliction from outside. Theatre wasn’t the first to suffer such reversal of fortunes. Locally produced raw materials are routinely taken out of the country and turned into finished goods that are again brought back (imported) for Nigerians to buy at ridiculous prices because the country’s manufacturing sector is in comatose. Even the country’s crude oil is taken outside for refining and then shipped back as finished products before consumption. But those are spheres of industrial sector that have shown Nigerians for their irredeemable penchant for things foreign and a lack of investment in local technological talent that is equally abundant. Surely, the sphere of cultural production should be different given the immense talent it boasts, and its seeming individually applicable production dynamics!
Indeed, the cultural, the artistic or creative sector, although largely ignored by big financial players, which only enjoys grudging patronage, has turned out different. It has long been blazing the trail to silence every doubting Thomas, with the literature forever in the forefront followed by the film. Now, there are two great Broadway-style Musical Theatres that are exportable anywhere to thrill hard-nose types. With Saro the Musical and Kakadu the Musical, Nigeria’s theatre cannot only be said to have come of age (it did a long time ago) but it now has offerings to rival the very best anywhere in the world from New York to London.
And the two musicals rely on what is abundant in Nigeria – the simple act of storytelling infused with the theatrical, which are also in surplus all round! It’s the stuff musicals are made of – that ability to tell a story with a deft interplay of music, dance and choreography, the story of a journey from a certain point to another in such a manner that the ordinary takes on the magical and fantastical. That is musical; that is what Bolanle Austin-Peters’s Saro the Musical and Uche Nwokedi’s Kakadu the Musical are about; that is what they have done and will continue to do to tell a different and extraordinary story about how much ability Nigerians have if given even a slim chance.
SARO… and Kakadu… are two great musical performances and audiences who saw the two productions will continue to relish the wholesome experience they offered. Their settings are basically Lagos, although Kakadu takes viewers to the horrors of the battlefronts in war torn Biafra and back again to Lagos. Saro… tells a fairly uncomplicated story of four ambitious young men on a mission to seek their fortune in Lagos armed, as they were, with their talent in music. Lagos becomes the mecca for them, just as it still is today for a majority of Nigerians, who troupe in daily to find their bit of luck in whatever field. They arrive Lagos and are captivated by the wonder of the famed city, as they experience its ugliness and then goodness in alternate turns in realising their ambition in super stardom in time in the most dramatic manner.
But that is Lagos for the daring and the ambitious. There’s a healthy dose of love, just as the performance takes the audience through Nigeria’s musical journey from the 1950s through to its current, vibrant hiphop scene. The producers keep faith with Nigeria’s indigenous music all through, as something deserving of amplification. Saro… is a work of ingenious storytelling and fantastic dance and choreography that captures in totality the spirit of Lagos, the restless city by the lagoon.
Kakadu… also has about the same starting point, but this is Nigeria’s Lagos in the 1960s and a country’s early life as an independent country from colonial rule. There’s unbounded optimism, as shown by the incomparable social life encapsulated by the most vibrant nightclub in town, Kakadu located in Yaba. It’s the prime place to hangout. Anybody who is anybody goes to Kakadu, as vogue music from around the world gets the magic touch, with the manager and band leader Lugard Da Rocha lending his incomparable expertise. There are women aplenty in all their coquettish glory that attracts the men in droves; Kakadu is the irresistible honeypot for Lagos’ men and women. Even newly arrived folks from the interior cannot but be drawn to its welcoming embrace.
But then the cord of euphoria snaps, and the newly independent country just after five years, goes up in flames. Kakadu… is deeply political as it is an exceptional cultural production. This is what extends its frontiers, as a musical also of dark, sombre political attraction. There’s a marvellous blend of the sunny social and hideous political in a dynamic mix in an unforgettable era, with the poorly managed political overwhelming the social to climax in a tragic denouement of a war that nobody needs, a war fought to a bitter end. It is a war that changes all calculations of an emerging country and cuts short its ability to transit into a full-blooded nation that the entire world once awaited, an incubus still weighing the country down over 50 years on.
While there are perfect performances in acting, dances, choreography and overall plot management, the two musical theatres suffer some technical hitches that producers would do well to correct in subsequent productions. The major technical problem with Saro the Musical is sound. Admittedly, Oriental Hotel, venue for its first production, isn’t a proper stage for play production coupled with the fact that not all the speaking roles had microphones strapped on. The first day was awful, but as the days progressed to the third day it ran, the sound came off fairly well.
Whereas Kakadu the Musical got it right on the sound score, the same cannot be said about its videography. Saro’s videography was apt; from village to the city scenes and the flashback to the slave era, the producers had it all planned out beautifully, with a personnel brought in from the U.K. for effect. But Kakadu’s videography was amateur and needs improvement. It came off as a typical home video experience. The scene with the guns of war booming should have been made more realistic, with appropriate footage either of that war or other wars to complement it.
WELL, then, after Saro the Musical and Kakadu the Musical, what is next for big, Broadway-style Theatre for Nigeria? This is the challenge together with funding. Given the bandwagon effect that has become the craze for Nigerians, it’s certain other musical theatre productions would follow. But in what directions? Here, are some expos that might be of help for those willing and daring to take on the challenge of expanding the frontiers of musical theatre in the country.
For a start, there would seem to be that unfinished business with the cultural icon, Fela Anikulapo. Did Fela! on Broadway do him justice in all his glory as music iconoclast and first class rebel and socio-political campaigner? Hardly! It will not be surprising, therefore, to have a fine title, as Kalakuta the Musical! That would perhaps hopefully capture all that Fela stood for, all he fought for in his unrelenting quest to free the Blackman from the burden he bears. No doubt, Fela’s colourful lifestyle, in all its idiosyncrasies, is enough material for two or three musicals.
But beyond Fela, would-be producers could look beyond Lagos to other cities and bring to fruition some other cultural aspects as fitting subjects for musicals. Such subjects should not be too difficult to find in such cities as Ibadan, Benin City, Warri, Enugu, Calabar, Jos, Aba, Port Harcourt, cities that are known to have had a nightlife, and colourful personages as fitting subject for musical theatre. Even more colourful perhaps would turning a typical indigenous, local music type into a musical before we all forget we had any of value worth the attention of the world!
In any case, what is clear is that once Nigerians have started a thing they never look back until they would have exhausted all there’s to be had. So, too, would the lot of musicals on the scene be if given the support they ought to have, particularly funding.
So, indeed, let this humongous fad run its course, and audiences would be the better for the exhilarating experience.