By Anote Ajeluorou
When the lights faded on Nana and Rosa at Agip Recital Hall, MUSON Centre, Onikan two weeks ago, with Nana dragging the suitcase of fortune left behind by the thieving and womanising politician Otunba Taiwo, it became unmistakably clear that with three successfully produced Broadway-style Musical Theatres, Nigeria has joined this elite club of world culture producers. Musicals are tasking by nature, particularly so in a clime that puts little premium on cultural production much less offer sponsorship. But thanks to MUSON Music Festival 2014, a new Broadway Musical has been added to the two already existing.
And this is huge bonus for the paltry audience that theatre attracts in the country, and a salute to the indomitable spirit of theatre producers and directors working magic in a sector that demands so much. And so from Saro the Musical to Kakadu and now Jagua Nana, Nigeria’s musical theatre culture has taken a firm root. These three musical theatres (a combination or blend of music performance and drama on stage) are sufficient to put Nigeria on the map of that theatre genre if only sponsorship would be forthcoming as it should, as they provide a new direction of cultural diversity and production in the country.
From Saro the Musical that charts the career path of four young Saro youths set on a musical journey and arrives in Lagos to try their luck to Kakadu’s amazing life – club life, music, relationship - in Lagos in the 1960s up till the civil war years that tore the country apart and now Jagua Nana, the fabled woman that is every man’s dream, an enchantress and goddess of romance vainly trying to find some sort of anchorage to her life; these are the new theatrical offerings beckoning for a wider audience and exposure outside of Lagos and even Nigeria.
Directed by Wole Oguntokun, founder of Renegade Theatre that initiated Theatre@Terra, Jagua Nana an adaptation of Cyprian Ekwensi’s novella of the same name is the story of a street-wise woman, who, not being able to have a child, leaves her marital home for the glittering city of Lagos for the good life she’d heard so much about. Her story is also the story of Nigeria’s early days, the good living, how ambitions easily materialize or collapse depending on which side you look.
First encounter with Nana (Ashionye Michelle Raccah) in her apartment with her friend, Rosa (Dolapo Ogunwale), is a give-away of their type, as women of dalliance, with an eye for men with deep pockets. But when Freddie (Olarotimi Fakunle) walks into Nana’s room asking her to accompany him to a seminar that would increase his career prospects, it’s clear the two are a mismatch, with Nana insisting on going to the club after the seminar as appeasement. This is where and how Freddie finds out who Nana truly is, as a woman far above his means; she just wants to keep him as insurance against her misadventure with men.
Nana loves the life of glamour, which only men with means can provide her. So she flirts from one man to yet another; it becomes a strain on Freddie, whose ambition is to go abroad to study law and settle, but he lacks the means to do so. Then Nana promises to send him to London to study if only he will return to marry her. At first he agrees, but when Nana’s rival, sets her daughter Nancy (Lily ‘Leelee’ Byoma) up for Freddie, he falls for her. On learning about Freddie’s impending London trip, she quickly gets Nancy to travel to study there as well so the two young people can meet and marry over.
Nancy is enraged and confronts the two, who don’t deny it. She tears Freddie’s passport she helped procure, and it seems Freddie has played a wrong hand towards Nana, his benefactor and paramour. But this is Lagos of the 1950s and 1960s, and life is swinging and hot. The nightclubs, the music, the merriment, the alluring women and the men who hanker after women for adventure all make Lagos thick; it’s the stuff of Lagos legend. It’s the playground for men looking for a little adventure with women like Otunba Taiwo, who meets Nana and his is aroused sexually. They both hit it off much to Freddie’s disapproval. Taiwo and Freddie later square up as opponents in the political race for the office that Taiwo has been occupying, and from which he’s been stealing the people blind.
Like Nigerian politics, it soon becomes dangerous, as Freddie is killed and Taiwo does not only loose the election, he is also killed. But before he meets his tragic end, which he foresees anyway, he entrusts a large suitcase with Nana. Nana, too, isn’t safe, after her dealings with Taiwo, as his woman. Sensing the danger they are in, Rosa drags Nana away for a return to their original place in the east but she is reluctant to leave even for dear life having been so addicted to Lagos lifestyle.
JAGUA NANA is the quintessential Lagos and Nigerian story of the 1960s; Lagos has always been the city of dreams as a magnet for many to its bowels either for their fortunes or damnation. Jaguar Nana, like Saro the Musical and Kakadu before it, is a great musical drama worth all the efforts. Directorially, Oguntokun does a superb job; so, too, is Ashionye Raccah, who performs Jagua Nana; it is as if the role is made for her (or she made for the role?). And for all who saw the show, Nana’s character would stick for a long time, as she invests so much of herself into the part she becomes unbelievably fluid in it. Ogunbowale, too, does a good job of her performance, with her soulful sining.
But at Agip Recital Hall last Saturday, there certainly was some queasiness, at the opening scene with Nana and Rosa turning up in their near-whorish outfits in the presence of under-18s. Also the Tropicana Night Club scenes should be rated 18, not good for minors. Another major snag was Nana’s transition from the village or Enugu to Lagos. Although Nana tries to reflectively explain away Juan Martel’s return home after he became the first man to habour newly arrived Nana in Lagos. That part, however, lacks seamless grafting onto the main narrative.
However, Jagua Nana is worth seeing for its music (even though there wasn’t an Igbo music with Nana, Rosa and Freddie all from the east; Yoruba highlife tunes dominate), Raccah’s superb acting, the overall conception and execution of the narrative interspaced with music, dance and acting.
Although theatre-loving public owe a debt of gratitude to MUSON Festival 2014 for giving Oguntokun the handle to direct his creative energy into Musical Theatre, the play should go far beyond it. That is the challenge of sponsorship, which should come to it for a wider audience that should see Jagua Nana for its sheer dramatic impact.