Long Read: In its fifth year, the Lagos Theatre Festival discovers women

Lagos Theatre Festival

The opening act for the fifth season of the Lagos Theatre Festival which ran from 27, February to 4, March was open about its feminism.

For The Illusions of Truth, Kenyan/Scottish storyteller, Mara Menzies who has traveled the world taking to new audiences, the fast disappearing oral storytelling tradition that used to be so common in this part of the word, unfurled a double dose of stories. One of them, a cautionary tale from Kenya, about a woman defying the rules set down by men, to favor men, is a subtle adaptation of the Adam and Eve story and Menzies’ ownership of her material is almost second to none.

For Menzies, It wasn’t enough to just dictate to her audience, as she allowed for some bit of interaction within her narration. In a land where women aren’t allowed to eat meat, Washu, an inquisitive Kikuyu woman finds herself defying this rule over and over until she is caught and banished from the village. However due to a series of events that no one could have seen coming, Washu’s simple act of disobedience brings a long standing tradition to a welcome end.

She persisted

The story of Washu may be fiction but it isn’t an isolated incident. History is littered with stories of women who stood against the system demanding change, especially when they realized that the system was set up to exclude them. Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks are just a few of these ordinary women who found themselves defiant in circumstances that quickly became extraordinary.

August Meeting

In Nigeria, one of the most inspired acts of bravery recorded in history was executed by a group of illiterate market women who decided that they were not going to pay taxes to the British colonial government. In 1929 Nigeria, after the men had given in without barely a whimper, the colonials decided to carry out a census as a prelude to the introduction of taxes. Nwanyeruwa Ojim, resident of Oloko, a village in present day Abia state was having none of it.

When the government’s representatives came to her homestead to do their master’s bidding, Nwanyeruwa fought back aggressively, unwittingly kick starting a movement known today as the Aba Women’s Revolt. The uprising involved thousands of women from various ethnic groups around the eastern region and for the first time in the entire West African region, the British colonials were very afraid. Changes were made, the planned taxation was dropped and women earned the right to serve in native courts.

Heroic leaders of the revolt like Nwanyeruwa and Ikonnia were not exactly given a deserving welcome in the history books but thanks to August Meeting, one of the fringe shows staged at the Muson Centre for two days, the women are getting their due.

Directed by Kenneth Uphopho who in between directing a fair number of the shows, (Naked, Esther’s Revenge) also serves as director of the festival, August Meeting picked up months after the riots and adapted real life historical figures as characters fighting the patriarchal system that was abused to deny a childless widow of her inheritance. Gloria Anozie Young and Ego Ogbaro headlined the Chioma Onyenwe produced drama and both give strong performances.

The teenage heroine of When Lemons Grow on Orange Trees, is cut from a similar cloth as the women of August Meeting and finds herself having to rise from the ashes of a traumatic experience. Adesewa’s world collapses after she is raped and orphaned in a singular encounter and finds herself all of a sudden, having to play both mother and father to her four younger brothers.

Adapted for the stage by Diekara Oloruntoba-Ojo from her novel of the same title and interpreted by Illuminate Theatre productions with a little more zest for life than the novel’s incredibly grim tone, When Lemons… places its heroine in the bleakest of positions. Illuminate Theatre’s Artistic Director, Taiwo Ojudun describes the play as ‘’ a story about the human capacity to withstand life’s many troubles and reflect on how we react to adversity when our wills are tested.’’

If there is any character at the festival who has had their will tested in the severest of ways, it is Shade (Deola Gimbiya,) the singular heroine of the experimental, imagery heavy piece, Bridezilla written by Brenda Uphopho for Women in the Arts, a gathering of women professionals in all genres of the arts.

An unmissable presence in a wedding gown with mascara streaks running down her tear stained cheeks and wearing a suspended look of distraught, Gimbiya’s Shade quietly walks up to unsuspecting patrons at Freedom Park’s food court. Shade briefly introduces herself before unloading a bridal horror story; one involving betrayal, faithlessness and maybe a genuine case for murder. She has been stood up at the altar and clutches a knife, rage in her voice and revenge on her mind. Shade doesn’t go all the way with her murderous thoughts, but if she were to, chances are, like the anti-heroines, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, from the Oscar winning film, Chicago, with a great lawyer and a simple plea as defense, she could get away with murder. He had it coming.

How to get away with murder

In 1967, soul diva Aretha Franklin scored an undeniable classic when she reclaimed Otis Redding’s minor hit single, Respect, turning it from a romantic plea of desperation, into a thunderous feminist anthem oozing strength and confidence. Six years before that, in the spirit of post-independence, then Governor-General, Nnamdi Azikiwe issued a state pardon to one of the country’s most famous prisoners, Esther Johnson, a young lady convicted for the murder of Mark Hall, her British lover.

Esther Johnson was imprisoned for over six years at the Broad Street Prison, a storied colonial monument that was reclaimed and transformed into Freedom Park, the cultural center that now serves as the venue for the Lagos Theatre Festival. A section of the Park is named, Esther’s Revenge, after the scandalous events.

These events were dramatized in the surreal interactive production, Esther’s Revenge. Esther is played by Christina Oshunniyi and in her telling, respect was the factor that led to her chance meeting with Mark Hall at a club in Lagos. Hall rescued Esther from the wrath of a security guard who had knocked her down, after mistaking her for a lady of the night.

This singular act of chivalry on the Briton’s part, kicked off a turbulent romantic affair that was marked by emotional and physical abuse. Things came to a head when Hall took Esther’s money- about 400 Pounds- and went off to marry his white girlfriend back home. In a fit of rage, she stabbed him with a pair of scissors.

Oshunniyi as Esther, narrates the story of her life in a matter of fact manner, coloring her portrait of a broken down relationship with graphic language and expressive body movements. Before collapsing in a pool of desperation at the end, her Esther initially clings on to some of her dignity, soliciting the audience to take a walk in her shoes instead of merely feeling sympathy for her. This is important as the audience- each showing accommodates a maximum of twelve persons- joins the cast at the Museum, in a space similar to one of the cells in which the real life Esther was held. The audience join the production as members of the jury who will ultimately debate and decide on Esther’s fate.

Her body, a country

In terms of gender relations across the country, a lot has changed, but much still remains the same. The challenges that Esther Johnson faced in sixty five years ago as a single young, fun seeking woman in Lagos are still pervasive. Women are still constantly harassed and sometimes refused service at clubs, bars and hotels, mostly just for arriving unescorted.

Because of its relevance to global discussions on the rights of women to take ownership of their bodies, the dance and poetic recital, I am, I Love presented by the Red Caramel Dance and Fitness fit into this year’s festival programme like a gove.

I am, I Love is an empowering, if unusual piece that considers a young woman’s path to true freedom as she discovers her talent for dance and learns to surrender to the unconventional places it takes her. Acknowledging her gift for burlesque and pole dancing, comes with some resistance at first, but gradually, she learns to put value on herself and the career path it opens up for her.

In the search for theatre in unconventional spaces as suggested by the theme for this year’s event, Kenneth Uphopho who rounds out his three year tenure as festival director this year, says the programming team by chance, stumbled upon the richly feminist tone of this year’s festival. He stressed, ‘’we were very specific about the kind of work we wanted, that they be unconventional, different. By some coincidence, it happened that a lot of the producers were doing work along similar lines. Many of them had keyed into the things going on around women’s rights in the country, and into the International women’s day celebration as well.’’

Sequel to this, a full range of issues dealing with the female form were highlighted head on. Productions like Chief Pleasure Provider staged at the British Council premises, attempted to shine a light on human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of young persons. Overtones took a different route, choosing to delve deep into the female psyche, complicated as it is, via a conversation between two women who appear civil on the outside but are waging complex wars on the inside.

From the United Kingdom, Yolanda Mercy’s part stand up, part spoken word, Quarterlife Crisis grapples with those relatable feelings of insufficiency that afflict persons just arriving, not fully prepared, at the adulthood stage of life.

Sex, lies and Panty Liners

Sexuality was also considered, most frankly with Panty Liners directed by Kelvin Mary Ndukwe, and Jude Idada’s deliberately provocative 3Some. Both productions take different routes before finding some sort of common ground. Panty Liners, in keeping with the site specific style that the festival favors, plants itself in Freedom Park’s Grill Station as the open bar venue owned by Ada, one of the lead characters played by a delightful Kiki Omeili.

On her birthday anniversary, Ada is at the bar, shooting the breeze with two of her best friends and the folks who form a cohort around them act as both extras and audience, listening in on brazen discussions of sexual desire among young Nigerian women. The show is strongest when it allows the actors to dwell into salacious territory but it soon loses its sharp edge when it adopts a socially conscious tone and begins to introduce the heavy stuff.

3Some neatly avoids that trap and presents a dysfunctional family drama that surprises with how far it is willing to go, while considering matters of the sexual kind. Riveting and subversive, 3Some is pretty much effective as blatant provocation and psychological playground but its sexual politics- and overall world view- are filtered through the male lens, thus hindering the play from wearing its feminist credentials loudly.

The women in 3Some, despite how closely related biologically, compete for the affections of the same man, continuing that age old pop culture stereotype that casts women as rivals. The real truth of course, is quite the opposite. Women have always gotten along famously, and Naked, the debut one woman show by stage darling, Lala Akindoju is proof.

Written by spoken word poet, Titilope Sonuga, and produced by Brenda Uphopho,- the three women are fast friends,- Naked is the product of Akindoju’s desire to take her craft in newer, less familiar directions.

Mostly autobiographical, Naked features Sonuga’s signature poetic flourishes co-existing alongside high drama, the kind that Akindoju has spent many years on stage learning to master. Akindoju explains the reasons why working with Sonuga was a no-brainer, ‘’Titi has a way with words, a way of putting deep emotions into words. Even when it is light and fun, the words still resonate. I needed someone to be serious, committed with integrity and she is a woman. I like it when women come together.’’

For Akindoju, and her enraptured audience, Naked was a sanative experience, one that sits in similar territory with Donna Ogunnaike’s Strelitzia– a festival favorite making a return following last year’s debut- as an experiment on art as therapy.

Strelitzia, a tasking but thoroughly engaging poetry, dance and art installation project asks quite a lot emotionally from its participants, or ‘’story bearers’’ as they are termed. After going through a maze housing different installations, each one a stand in for a form of human memory, Strelitzia demands that story bearers, pliant and more willing to share, unburden themselves, leaving behind some of their hurt. Story bearers are encouraged to pen some of these feelings on a wall of thoughts while exiting through a separate door than the one they came in from. That way, they go into the outside world, ready to blossom.

Hopefully.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the Lagos Theatre Festival has evolved into a space that encourages the blossoming of creative talents who happen to be female or want to tell diverse stories that reflect the humanity of their female characters. It has been a long time coming. Producers like Brenda Uphopho, through her work with Paws studio, as well as on other platforms like Women in the Arts, has long been a champion of female driven content for the stage.

On the board that has been put in place to ensure that the festival keeps going strong even after the British Council inevitably adopts a back seat, female representation is dominant and members include Joke Silva and Bolanle Austen-Peters. The core creative team that works with Kenneth Uphopho to execute the programme is also predominantly female.

It took the Lagos Theatre Festival five years to find its feminine core. And now that it has, it feels like the most natural thing ever.

Everyone should be taking notes.

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