Uche Nwokedi is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), who has found abiding and irresistible love in the theatre and has produced the excellent musical theatre Kakadu. However, on Friday, October 16 his group, The Playhouse Initiative, will stage the musical theatre Jesus Christ Superstar, as part of MUSON Music Festival 2015 that will run from October 14 through 25. In this interview with Anote Ajeluorou, Nwokedi engages a range of salient issues in Nigeria’s theatre and cultural milieu
Jesus Christ Super Star is your next project on stage at MUSON Music Festival
Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the most enduring and iconic musicals of all time. It was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and has won many awards since it first opened in Broadway and the West End, London in 1972.
Kindly give insight to the performance?
It is loosely based on the Gospels and tells the story of the last two weeks of the life of Christ from the preparation to entering into Jerusalem until the crucifixion. In actual fact, the sub-themes of the story focus more on various aspects of human emotions and character flaws. So, it addresses the everyday sentiments of doubt, envy, admiration, materialism, loyalty, betrayal, ignorance and greed, in the characters. Judas, Peter, the Apostles, Mary Magdalene, the Pharisees and Pilate are seen for who they really are - ordinary people who did not at the time understand the message. Judas in particular embodies all these and more. His worldliness, greed and ignorance lead him down a path of self-destruction or destiny, which ends with the betrayal of Jesus Christ and his own suicide. Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas, Annas, and to a certain extent Simon Zealotes, all saw Jesus as a leader of the times then, and reacted to him accordingly. Clearly, those around Jesus at the time did not comprehend his divinity. The truth be told, after two thousand years of religious instruction and discourse, we too, do not always appreciate the essence of Jesus Christ.
The Playhouse Initiative reprises this musical for the 2015 MUSON Festival and it’s part of a series of creative workshops for youth development, and the promotion of musical theatre in Nigeria. We have a young and relatively unknown but extremely talented group of young people who have trained under the Director Kanayo Omo and the Musical Director Benneth Ogbeiwi for this production.
What should it mean to theatre-lovers?
It is a different genre of musical theatre, and quite unique. There are not too many rock operas out there and Lloyd Webber’s brilliance is such that the scoring of the musical is unique. The structure of the music (five syncopated beats in a bar) is unusual, and the songs linger in your mind long after you have heard them. Then Tim Rice’s style of writing the libretto is quite witty and a bit “tongue in the cheek”. The music, the drama and the stagecraft, all make for a very interesting musical. It is amazing theatre and every theatre lover will enjoy it.
Your next project Kakadu is scheduled for December. What is the significance of this musical theatre project in the light of Nigeria’s historical evolution 55 years on?
Yes indeed, Kakadu is coming back in December by popular demand. It is a story that addresses the core of our existence as a nation, as well other aspects, such as our music, our love for life, tribalism, inter-ethnic marriages, the influence of western civilization on our national psyche, governance and responsibility. Kakadu itself is a metaphor for Nigeria that asks the question ‘how do we build a nation?’ As long as we have problems with governance in Nigeria, this question will continue to resonate, and each successive administration has to address it in its own way.
Considering the historical import of Kakadu it ought to be taken round the country on tour, but it hasn’t. Any plans for it and what are the impediments?
It would be nice for Kakadu to tour Nigeria and beyond, since in a sense, it speaks to the African experience with the British style of colonization. But then there are the perennial problems of adequate funding, infrastructure, and, of course, security. We do not have enough theatres, even in Lagos. You would have to tour with a technical crew and almost all of your equipment.
How has theatre fared in Nigerian society today? Is it as effective as it should be?
Not very well, I would say. Well think of the fact that Nigeria is a multi-cultural society, with a rich and diverse history and interesting political evolution. Think of our ethnic culture and tradition, all of which are rich regardless of your geo-political zone or tribe. These are all excellent source materials for a vibrant theatre culture. But we don't have one. Why? Maybe for the same reason why our education is not what it used to be, or why our hospitals are not what they should be? I don’t know; it is difficult to say.
How did you come into theatre practice as a legal practitioner, even with a SAN status?
People always ask that question. All this is recreation for me. I enjoy it. A lot of lawyers are closet writers. In other countries, such as the U.K., there is a close relationship between the Bar and the Stage, and the stage is supported by many professionals and business people. The Bar even has drama societies within it.
Do you see the stage as an extension of the court?
In a sense, perhaps, but not as an extension. There are similarities. The court, like life, is a stage and all the lawyers are role players. The main difference is that in court you deal with real life issues and problems that affect the lives, businesses and liberties of real people. On the stage, it is make-believe and at the end of the show you are applauded and everyone goes home happy. The messages are usually nuanced or subliminal. In court your message has to be clear and compelling to the judge. I can assure you that if you lose a case, your clients will not be happy with you and they will certainly not clap for you.
I came to theatre more by accident than by design, I can assure you. I never really planned to do theatre. It started as part of my youth programme in the Catholic Church, as a way of giving back to the younger generation in terms of my time and experience, and it just grew from there.
Some have proposed that a theatre be built in every local government area in the country. Do you agree?
Maybe not every local government. There must be a programme and a policy towards the development of theatre. A production has many facets that create a series of short-term employments. There are the actors and singers that you see on stage. There are the directors, stage managers and choreographers. There are the set designers and carpenters that work with them; there are the light designers and electricians and riggers that work with them. There are sound engineers. There is equipment hire. There is costume design and tailors. All these different aspects provide employment for people. If we develop theatre fully and productions are regular, that industry will grow and employment within it will become more regular. Case in point is Nollywood. It’s a clear example of private endeavour at its best. Theatre, on the other hand, requires more nurturing and social support. If you build theatres indiscriminately without having a framework in place for funding theatre, it may not have the desired effect.
Between government and corporations’ apathy to support culture, which has done more harm to culture production in the country?
I would not blame anyone. It is just where we are right now in the country. However, these things have to be private sector driven. Government policy is good to give direction and limited regulation but ultimately it is the private sector that has to be the catalyst for growth in this area.
How can the National Theatre be made to regain its glory days as home for the arts?
National Theatre needs a complete revamp, to start with. It is a crying shame to have such a magnificent structure in the country in such a poor state. The concept of a National Theatre has to be appreciated, not just as a job but as a centre of creativity and excellence in the arts.