The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives: raucous, vibrant, brilliant and thoughtful theatre.

davReaders of Lola Shoneyin’s brilliant 2010 novel about gender politics, sexual dynamics and the uneasy traversing of the contemporary – traditional social continuum in modern Nigerian (specifically Yoruba) marriages, might have received the news of a stage adaptation with some apprehension: would a simple story with such complex underlying narratives and colourful characters translate readily to the stage? Having seen the job that has been done under Femi Elufowoju Jr’s masterful direction in Arcola’s main space, all such fears were very quickly abated. This is one vibrantly enjoyable evening of theatre that adds vivid colour to London’s stage scene.

Baba Segi is Yoruba patriarchy personified: larger than life, materially successful, well-respected in his community, – so much so that he is gifted wives in lieu of debts by appreciative parents, – Baba Segi’s life changes inexorably when he decides to acquire a fourth wife, the irrepressible, university-educated Bolanle. When what still seems to be the ultimate “disaster’ strikes and Bolanle is still ‘barren’ after two years, a web of deceit and secrets unravels, catching everyone in its threads.

Patrice Naiambana is at the top of his game as Baba Segi, aptly dominating the Arcola stage in the round with his billowing agbada as much as he does the spaces and bodies of his three other wives, Iya Segi (Jumoke Fashola), Iya Tope (Christina Oshunniyi) and Iya Femi (Layo-Christina Akinlude). The new arrival Bolanle (Marcy Dolapo Oni) who threatens the entente cordiale of the other wives by her mere presence, a beautiful injection of modernity disrupting the accepted traditional equilibrium of the household. All the actors exhibit fantastic comic timing and musicality, riding the percussive rhythms led by drummer Ayan de First and original Yoruba songs in wave after wave of raucous delight. Elufowoju Jr’s dexterous direction of Caine-prize winning Rotimi Babatunde’s stage adaptation ensures that the pace is even and unforced, and the 2-hours without an interval fly by.

Photo by Idil Sukan/Draw HQphoto credit: idil sukan

In this era of #metoo, Lola Shoneyin’s story is a most welcome contribution to the debate about women’s agency in combating patriarchal institutions, reflecting from a modern Nigerian woman’s perspective on heavy issues (rape, masturbation, sexual fulfilment, the hypocrisy of new-wave Pentecostalism, definition of family) in a light manner. Her views of masculinity, especially as depicted by the Naiambana characters, reflect not just the priviledge of the penis, but also how the price of that priviledge can be suffocating for men as well. It is no wonder that Baba Segi literally has gut wrenches under stress, and in Bolanle’s closing monologue when she describes her “fellow inmates”, you strongly sense this is not just referring to the wives.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives will entertain, delight and provoke you – everything fantastic theatre should do.

On at the Arcola Theatre from 7 June – 21 July.

 

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The Black Russian – From Deep South Slavery to Moscow Impresario

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Thanks to the advent of Amazon and other online shopping platforms, browsing for books has become a bit of a dying art. As one of the growing number of people who has turned their backs on the rather limited and macular degenerating delights of Kindle, this is now something that I am happily rediscovering – wandering into musky bookstores and wandering through rows of tomes, seeking that indescribable magical something you find in a book, on a random page opened, or a compelling cover image. Or a bold, brash title. The Black Russian caught my eye not just for its allusion to a particularly pleasant cocktail I once had in a distant sunnier clime, but for the cover image as well – a young Black man, certainly of early 20th century, smoking a pipe and staring into and beyond the gaze of the camera lens, overlaid on a diagram of an old European city – maybe this really was a book about a Black Russian, I thought? Intrigued, I opened the book, read the first page…and 45 minutes later, I found myself deep in Chapter 3 and a very impatient Welsh bookstore owner brusquely asking if I intended to buy the book or sleep here, as she had to get home to her dinner.

Imagine a man born to slaves in the late 19th century Deep South, who managed to find his way halfway across the world, traversing all across Western Europe from UK, to France, Germany, Italy, and went on to become proprietor of Russia’s swankiest restaurants and entertainment venues; then after the revolution moving to repeat the feats, starting with nothing, in first Odessa then Constantinople, thus being in the front seat of some of recent history’s most compelling moments …? The true story of Frederick Bruce Thomas is one of those truth-stranger-than-fiction jobs which has been meticulously and almost obsessively researched by the author, Vladimir Alexandrov, himself a Yale University don. In turn inspiring, shocking and sad, Thomas’ story is always amazing, and in today’s world of contested identities, it is intriguing to see how one man wrote his own rules of how he would adapt to unfamiliar environments and thrive regardless. Highly recommended read. (And if you haven’t joined us in abandoning that accursed machine, you can download it for free on to your Kindle.)

Workshop Negative – Mhlanga’s controversial play remains vitally relevant

workshopneg3When Cont Mhlanga wrote Workshop Negative soon after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, he obviously didn’t expect it to have a life beyond making an immediate impact in his native land. After touring Zimbabwe in 1986, Workshop Negative was banned by the government (for ‘discrediting the office of the president’, no less), Mhlanga was imprisoned and narrowly escaped having his writing fingers amputated as punishment. His travails nevertheless precipitated the development of Zimbabwe’s post-independence township theatre form which has engendered other masterful pieces and fostered the nurturing of a generation of actors and musicians.

There is therefore a measure of appositeness that the London premiere of the play in 2016 is being staged during one of the the most politically turbulent weeks in UK’s living history. And that the play is being presented by Tangle, a small South-West England based company that ‘promotes the work of artists of African, Caribbean and more than 50 other heritages‘, directed by a white woman, the irrepressible Anna Coombs, obviously appealed to Mhlanga’s sense of mischief and propensity to creatively disrupt established thinking modes in an effort to enable his wider message of universal humanity. The story of how Coombs acquired the play is itself worthy of Hollywood  – as the original play had been destroyed (these were the days before computer hard-drives and cloud-based storage, young people!), Coombs embarked on an elaborate effort spanning Africa and Europe to recreate the play, finding a page here and there in the hands of various people, till eventually Mhlanga was tracked down and contacted to fill in the gaps.

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Workshop Negative is set in a tool-making workshop in the immediate aftermath of Zimbabwe’s independence. The workshop has been recently acquired by Mkhezi, a Black businessman who used to be a hero of the resistance movement who still happily addresses rallies calling for the masses to dedicate themselves to socialism while he practises the most pernicious form of capitalism (ignoring workers’ rights, under-paying and under-resourcing staff), while acquiring all the material trappings (two Mercedes, two Jaguars, countless shareholdings and executive chairmanships). He employs two craftsmen to “push his production” – Ray, a white man, and Zulu, a Black man and former comrade in the movement, who recognise each other from when they locked horns in battle during the resistance for independence. And that’s how the fun starts…

Coombs masterfully (and shouldn’t there be a word such as ‘mistressfully’?) draws out the complex embedded themes of race, belonging, legitimacy of identity, political hypocrisy, the difficulties of reconciliation and class warfare. By staying as true to the original subject matter as she possibly could, resisting the urge to update the material to cater for today’s world, Workshop Negative authentically resonates with a palpable sense of urgency and ends up saying more than it otherwise would have about issues which we are still almost hopelessly grappling with.  Cont Mhlanga does not do subtle in this play, giving the impression that he would not hesitate to use a sledgehammer in his hand to crack open a walnut rather than faff about for subtler instrument. This is understandable when one considers that Mhlanga was inspired to write the play while working in a similar workshop and observing the white and black staff’s challenges to forge a new relationship.

workshopnegative2The performances of Jude Akuwudike, Danilo Antonelli and John Pfumojena are inspiring: the form of the play is intensely physically demanding, and the piece relentlessly crackles along to its fraught conclusion. Interspersing the hour-long (no interval and you won’t notice) break-neck narrative is some epic singing – ‘Tshotsholoza’ is particularly spine-tingling. The intimate space of the Gate Theatre is maximised by the clever design of Colin Falconer to convey an almost claustrophobic sense that the protagonists will relentlessly and inevitably rub each other up the wrong way.

I had the pleasure of hosting a very lively post-show discussion on its second night, which demonstrated beyond any doubt just how relevant the play is. The audience made the natural connections of the play’s themes to the contemporary political situation and state of race relations in the UK, as well as contributing some powerful reflections on the enduring role of theatre to provoke passionate response, challenge established hierarchies of thought and reflect ourselves as we are, as we imagine ourselves to be and as we are working towards. Like the play itself, this was not always a comfortable conversation, but it is vitally necessary for us to understand the world we live in and the work we need to do to develop what Mhlanga calls “a new plan that will unite us”.

Kudos to the Gate Theatre for having the nerve to stage this. Given the sensitivities of the subject-matter and Arts Council England’s seeming inability or lack of willingness to actively encourage a greater diversity of offering amongst its theatre-receiving portfolio organisations, it is unlikely that this play will be on tour to anywhere near you soon, so go see it during its ridiculously short run.  Workshop Negative is on at the Gate Theatre till Saturday 9th July 2016. For more information on Tangle, see here.

 

Bricks and Pieces – A beautiful exploration of love and loss

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Cutting straight to the chase: Charlene James’ new play, the result of an inspired collaboration between Tiata Fahodzi and RADA, is a brilliant, sensitive and beautiful piece of theatre. Subtly exploring a pocked landscape of love, loss, denial and identity, Bricks and Pieces takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride to the most heart-rending of crescendoes. The story is of two lovers building a life suddenly tragically pulled apart, leaving the one in a place of stultifying emotional and social paralysis; a cousin with a noble mission and no sense of direction; and a loyal friend who stands in faith to be his brothers’ keeper in a way family cannot.

With the issues of identity, sexuality and ethnicity that the protagonists are variously contending with, in less skilled hands, the writing could have easily reduced to cliché. But under the direction of Tiata Fahodzi’s Natalie Ibu, these are made merely incidental, and she successfully reframes the work to being a simple story very well told of an emotional universality of love, loss and loyalty. That there were hardly any dry eyes in the house by the end was indeed due testament to this. When all is said and done, love is love, and loss is loss.

One could in fact quibble with the de-emphasis of the cultural specificities in the play: British theatre is after all, still sadly nowhere near being prolific enough in telling the stories of the many strands of the kaleidoscope of our society, and there remains a bewildering level of ignorance both within and outside of various ethnic groups about certain social issues. One can however also understand the frustrations that arts organisations with the specific remit of telling the stories of a ‘community’ as complex in its own innate diversity as Tiata Fahodzi’s British-African base, in being pigeon-holed to having that sole responsibility which should rightly be every publically-funded organisation’s. The message that this play, and indeed from Tiata Fahodzi under Ibu’s leadership, is that the emphasis of theatre should first and foremost be on good storytelling and not the source or target community. Work as strong as Bricks and Pieces certainly makes that case very eloquently.

A word to the actors, all of whom are third-year students at RADA and with whom the writer and director workshopped the play before writing it – Abraham Popoola, Evlyne Oyedokun, David Jonsson and Jamael Westman were all fantastic. Oyedokun’s comic timing was precision, Westman was understatedly elegant and Jonsson superbly depicted the quiet, calm authority of a man driven by faith to do what is right. A special mention however has to go to Popoola; as the grieving Tobi, he doesn’t just grab you by the heartstrings, he mines great depth to pierce a hole through the chest in the process.

Charlene James follows up the award-winning success of Cuttin’ It to great effect here, revealing herself to be a writer of immense talent and promise. There were tears of laughter and tears of sadness everywhere I looked in the audience over the well-paced 75 minute piece, and THAT is good theatre.

Bricks and Pieces is on at RADA Malet Street London till June 4, then at Latitude Festival. Charlene James’ Cuttin’ It (2015 winner of Alfred Fagon award for best new play), directed by Genesis Fellow recipient Gbolahan Obisesan, is on at the Young Vic until 11 June and then transfers to Royal Court from 23 June – 13 July.

MORE THEATRE TO LOOK OUT FOR:

  • Soul: Roy Williams’ exploration of the last days of Marvin Gaye is on at Hackney Empire from 15 June – 3 July.
  • Workshop Negative: The UK premiere of Cont Mhlanga’s relevant, controversial and banned Zimbabwean play, at Gate Theatre, 6 to 9 July.
  • Blue/Orange: a modern classic, on at Young Vic till 2 July.
  • Showboat: Exuberant revival of the legendary Kern & Hammerstein musical, at New London Theatre.
  • Wakaa! The Musical: the first Nigerian musical to tour London after a phenomenally successful run back home, focussing on the lives and challenges of a group of young Nigerian graduates; at the Shaw Theatre, London July 21st – 25th . 

 

 

If All Lives Truly Matter…

When there was a terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo last year, the internet quickly filled with the memes of the tricolour in solidarity and support of the victims . this was an uncompromising public statement in defence of the civil liberty and freedom of free speech. ‘I am Charlie’, they all said.

Then more recently, there were the barbaric bombings of Paris, murdering over 120 people and eliciting more outrage, sympathy, defiance and the ever present meme, Facebook profile pictures overlaid with the tricolour : ‘I am Paris’, they all said.  Interestingly, there was more of a backlash to this though – apparently struck by the rhetoric and herd instinct which is the bane of ‘clicktivism’, many started asking the questions of the motives and underlying assumptions of the people who are either led by or leading the media into the quasi- colonial notion of Western lives mattering disproportionately more than the other several hundreds of people lost to terror activities worldwide. Do only Western – white – lives deserve commemoration and celebration on social media?

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And then, the cruel hand of fate pointed towards Europe’s eastern-most neighbour and desperately seeking to become a EU member, Turkey. (The country’s application to join the EU is so contested that many in the UK are saying that they are more likely to vote for a BrexIt if Turkey’s 77 million citizens are welcomed to the Pan European project.)

When suicide bombers unleashed their murderous impulses over the weekend just gone,  over 35 people lay dead. That is more than 3 times the number who died in Charlie Hebdo. One would therefore hope that within 24 hours of the atrocity, the internet would be filled with the supporting memes and I should not be able to log on to my Facebook page this morning without having to heave my way through a phalanx of ‘I am Ankara!’ memes and messages of solidarity. I should not be able to recognise most of my Facebook friends and acquaintances for the superimposition of Turkey’s red flag on their profile pictures? One would think so – but it hasn’t happened, at least not on any appreciable scale. I wonder why? 

This same weekend, there were 16 people killed in Cote D’Ivoire as a terrorist group opened fire on a hotel in a UNESCO heritage site town. No, you didn’t miss the hashtags in solidarity of these either. There were none, at least none widely shared outside the communities of the directly affected. It doesn’t help that even for those who want to, Facebook was not allowing you to change your profile picture to the Turkish flag.

7243678-3x2-700x467As we saw in US with the reaction of many to the #BlackLivesMatter campaign which some spectacularly misjudged and deemed so divisive it elicited the #AllLivesMatter response, it seems that there is a Western media defined kinship recognition comfort level which legitimises the empathy for and inclusion of suffering peoples. If they are ‘like us’ or are affected in one of ‘our places’, then their suffering is worthy of a widely shared hashtag. If they are frankly, killing each other, (Kurds killing Turks? Africans killing Africans? Nothing to see here, it seems)…  maybe we just report it for a day on the news channels and then swiftly move on.

Even when there is coverage,there are marked differences which highlight the different value placed on human lives of the ‘Other’ by western media. Google Ankara Terror attacks and you will get several pictures of the dead. Try Paris terror attacks and you will see picture after picture of the aftermath and impact. The dead are accorded more dignity.

Surely, there should be no hierarchy of suffering, or league table of human value. For all lives to matter, then we all matter or none of us matter. Suffering is suffering from Paris to Miami and yes, from Sambisa to Grand Bassam to Ankara. If the Michael Jackson/Lionel Richie-penned opus for the 1987 Ethiopian famine is to be given a 21st century reboot, we should just all #WeAretheWorld. Anyone got a meme for that?

 

You Never Know Who’s Watching…

100bmol at british library

A few weeks ago,  I received a very intriguing and pleasant surprise of an email from the British Library. I had led the young people of the 100 Black Men of London on an excursion to see the West Africa exhibition there in December, where unknown to us, one of their staff had noticed us (almost 100 Black youths in the British Library at the same time on a Saturday would be noticed!) and popped in to the classroom where we had gone for a debrief after going around the exhibition. She had apparently been so moved by what she had seen of us in a action, that she wrote a blog about us and was now contacting me to seek our permission to be featured in that way.

Of course I said yes – I am usually more familiar with people contacting us for a media comment when there has been another murder of a Black child, so free positive publicity is always welcome for an organisation that has ceaselessly done consistently great work mentoring the youths of London for the past 15 years. More pertinently, it just goes to show – you never know who’s watching you, or what they are seeing.

The blog post is here:  A big thanks to the British Library for a great day out for us. We will be back to reclaim some  more space soon.

 

What Difference Indeed? – the Arts Britain Still Ignores

(Image Credit: Zarah Hussain    Desert Night Sky, 2012)104_104_desertnightsky

40 years ago this year, Naseem Khan OBE, then a journalist covering the arts wrote a seminal report entitled The Arts Britain Ignores, in which she attempted to map ethnic minority led arts in the UK in order to better understand the extent of the richness of Britain’s cultural scene. Suffice to say that this 1976 report highlighted that there was a whole world of kaleidoscopic artistic activity across all genres that were not being recognised, promoted, staged or celebrated beyond the narrow confines of the various minority ethnic communities that they emanated from.

This report was the cue for a plethora of stop-start activities largely funded by the Arts Council and local authorities, each with varying slants on a main theme of ‘celebrating diversity’.  40 years on is a good time to pause and ask the question – what difference has all this made? A project curated by Dr Robert Berkeley MBE and produced by Jenny Williams of Take The Space seeks to explore that very question in a series of multimedia dialogues.

Earlier this week, I attended the most recent event at Autograph APB’s always impressive art gallery space (They have a fantastic exhibition on at the moment of the celebrated Brazilian photographer Mario Crevo Neto). 13 years ago, after a brief but infinitely interesting stint as Diversity Co-ordinator at London Arts, (then the regional arts board of Arts Council of England), I had the pleasure of taking over from Naseem as Head of Cultural Diversity at the national office of Arts Council England.  Tasked with effectively making the Arts Council more diverse in its outlook, through its funding and in its partnerships, that I left soon after is a reflection  not just of my own ability to operate in that environment, but also of the scale of the problem. That the questions still need to be asked 40 years after Naseem’s report indicates that the problem is far larger than any one person or initiative. I attended this event after a period of relative lack of engagement with the Arts establishment, curious as to the progress that had been made and the direction of the new conversations.

Same Game, Same Players?

The very first thing I noticed on arrival was that I knew personally, or knew of, almost everyone in the room. As great as it was to see some old friends and familiar faces, including respected colleagues like Naseem herself, there was a slight unease about this. Where were the new voices, I wondered – and especially, where are the younger voices, the practitioners blazing new trails now and into the next 40 years?

Expertly hosted and moderated by Gaylene Gould, the event kicked off with a series of short, sharp provocations by members of the project team, who are all industry heavyweights: Kully Thiarai,soon to assume post as Artistic Director for National Theatre Wales; David Bryan, long-time consultant on cultural diversity affairs in the arts, and Naseem Khan.

Kully made the pertinent observations from an artistic perspective of how important having a place at the table is for all, and enjoined a more creative approach to the issues of representation by paraphrasing  a quotation -“a person unfamiliar with the constellation of stars will only see chaos”. David approached the issue from political and economic standpoints, recognising that we have only had ‘moments’ over the past 40 years but our “invisibility has not gotten better over time”, and indeed we (i.e. Black artists) have colluded with this invisibility by telling other people’s stories at the expense of our own. Naseem reviewed the situation from an institutional and historical perspective, asking why the change sought 40 years ago is yet to be realised and identifying that there is no big solution, but the situation requires a “continuum of persistence and irritation, and disruption of the idea of normality”. 

Following these introductory remarks, there was an open discussion, which touched on themes such as the agency of Black artists in seeking or challenging the power of the language used to describe the problem (of lack of inclusivity), and how this language is not artistically driven but institutionally imposed. There seemed to be consensus that the language of diversity has so far been more preoccupied with minimising discomfort of the mainstream than actually creating a meaningful dialogue of change. Discomfort was also present in the interval entertainment provided by performance poet Akila Richards, especially in her apposite piece ‘Exhibit B’.

The key shifts that the audience wanted to see that would indicate real progress ranged from better networking amongst BME artists, developing new funding models both within and outside of the Arts Council’s control, challenging and changing the arts education curriculum, nurturing the artists to ensure they are not seen as unviable business risks, collective determination to celebrate and collaborate, amplification of the voices for change and facilitated infiltration of diversity in the decision-making levers of the arts.

Temples for Tomorrow

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Rob Berkeley closed proceedings by invoking the spirit of Langston Hughes’ famous 1926 essay ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’, quoting – “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

He offered this as a manifesto for future change, that Black artists freely do their own thing and not worry too much about the gaze from without.

As It Was In The Beginning…?

In her provocation, Naseem had used an interesting analogy. She grew up in Birmingham and in her childhood her family was part of a small Indian community which regularly met in halls across the city. After their revelry they habitually left these community spaces in as pristine a condition as they had met them, leaving no trace that they had ever been there. This was how she felt about the arts landscape after diversity initiatives of the last 40 years, the ‘moments’ that David Bryan had described – who can tell we have been there?

While this project’s aims are laudable, and admittedly I haven’t been party to all the conversations that have occurred at other events, one was left wondering where all this was leading and how or if, it was really going to tell us anything we haven’t heard a million times before? What would make this moment different? And one also wondered who this programme was actually really for?

But then I remembered that no matter how often we tell stories, there are always people to whom the story will be new; however world-weary and hackneyed we believe oft-repeated words might be, there are always people freshly discovering and finding inspiration in them.

As new voices from all aspects of the arts divides are added to the rostra of conversation, we should expect that new thinking and fresh challenges to the 40 year modus operandi will materialise and hopefully knock down doors long closed.

Change and Relevance

th6wh4ryArts Council England’s most recent approach to diversity has been via the tool of making ‘the creative case for diversity‘, effectively admonishing the sector that failure to embrace diversity diminishes their art, their reputation and their institutions. But it actually does more than that – it renders them increasingly irrelevant in the ever-more multicultural, multilayered globalised world in which we reside, live and love. It means that their notion of the normal is a fool’s paradise in which their long-standing supra-funded status, or their imprimatur as cultural behemoth gatekeeper, will not render them any protection from the surely coming waves of demographic and socio-economic change.

What Difference Does Difference Make can yet make an intriguing game-shifting difference to the diversity effort by totally reframing it in an artist-led, genuinely inclusive, economically intelligent and politically astute manner. We need to turn the ‘moments’ into movements. And we will know we are there when using Naseem’s analogy of looking back and seeing no trace of intermittent visibility, we look not just behind but around and see ourselves fully reflected in the world of the arts, without need for demand or question.

I guess after everything,  I still believe.

 

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