Since it was published in 2007, The Wives (Kraft Books Limited) a play written by Professor Ahmed Yerima has become a prominent theatre staple, going through several reruns, rejigs and productions. With award winning titles like Little Drops and Hard Ground to his credit, Yerima, a former director of the national theatre, the national troupe and leading light of Nigerian theatre, is easily one of the most accomplished playwrights in contemporary theatre. But there is something about the dysfunctional dramedy of The Wives that has kept it a clear favorite for both actors and audiences alike. The high drama, the relatable characters, the evisceration of common misconception, study of human folly and the dry humor come together to make for compulsive viewing.
The Wives touches on several aspects of Nigerian society and works quite well as cultural commentary. The drama is top notch but so is the comedy and Yerima uses a tidy cast of characters to draw sharp observations on experiences that aren’t just restricted to Nigeria but equally recognizable universally. Joke Silva, Kate Henshaw and Ireti Doyle are just some of the marquee names to have brought life to the colorful characters in Yerima’s The Wives. But if there is one person who can lay claim to being a custodian of The Wives, it is actor, director and all round production specialist, Lala Akindoju.
This writer’s first encounter with a production of The Wives was on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Yaba, Lagos back in 2011. A then 24-year old Akindoju was starring in- alongside Kate Henshaw, Carol King and Katherine Edoho- a Kenneth Uphopho directed iteration of Yerima’s play. Akindoju played the role of Tobi, the youngest and trophiest wife of Chief Olowookere, a much-married philanderer whose sudden death has brought his extended family to a reckoning.
It is a role that Akindoju would return to years later but in 2011, she was far from the most exciting reason to see The Wives. Her Tobi isn’t the smartest person in the room and Akindoju played her with a certain self-consciousness that exposed her limited understanding of what the character was supposed to be about. Lots of prancing around, little subtext.
A 2014 revival had Akindoju exerting more creative control of the material as producer and CEO of her own Make It Happen production company. This Seke Somolu directed production, bigger, splashier and shinier than the last took full advantage of the star-studded cast and crew to present what can be safely considered as the definitive performance of The Wives on stage.
In September, (5-8), Akindoju will attempt to top herself with a return to familiar waters, this time bearing the additional responsibility of directing The Wives for the first time- she made her directing debut this year at the Lagos Theatre Festival with the family comedy, Lavender.
“With the unique unfolding of the plot, and the way it explores the question of whether a man can keep his most cherished secrets forever, ‘The Wives’ remains a wonderful contribution to art.” Akindoju explained her decision in a press release. Joining her to resurrect the enduring ethos of The Wives (2019) are leading lights of stage and screen, Kate Henshaw, Jide Kosoko, Shaffy Bello, Binta Ayo Mogaji and Toyin Oshinnaike, many of whom are not new to Yerima’s dysfunctional world.
Girl on the stage
In the last couple of years, Lala Akindoju has worked heavily on the screen, even scoring a lead role in Tunde Kelani’s 2014 sickle cell drama, Dazzling Mirage. But for the longest time, a great chunk of her performing career, she was (un)known for her quiet but effective work on stage, the less glamorous world of showbiz. So much so that when in 2010 she was named winner of The Future Awards Africa (TFAA) Actor of the Year, it was considered an upset victory.
But only by those who hadn’t been observing.
For three years, prior to her win, as part of Wole Oguntokun’s Renegade Theatre, Akindoju was one of the pioneers of Theatre at Terra, the weekly theatre sessions held at Terra Kulture that staged scores of productions and kickstarted dozens of careers. From sweeping floors and moving around on motorcycles to handling money and managing people, there was almost no part of the production process that Akindoju didn’t take on at this stage. “I decided to do stage for a while because I wanted to learn and be trained and be of a certain quality.” She explained her choices to YNaija.
After playing every role that mattered on stage- and many that didn’t- Akindoju and her newly assembled production company decided to make a buzzy first outing alongside the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND) with The V-Monologues, an explosive local adaptation of Eve Ensler’s award winning juggernaut. This was in 2013 and Akindoju gathered a formidable cast of stage and screen talent, among them, Bimbo Akintola, Dakore Akande and Taiwo Ajai-Lycett for a terrific production that not only resonated loudly, but would serve as the forerunner for Hear Word, the latest reimagining of the monologues.
A consummate team player, Akindoju played well within the production’s ensemble. Her solo act, ‘Woman traffic’ in which she played an abused innocent who finds herself in Europe, but defiant and unwilling to become enslaved to her circumstances was a highlight and has yet to be bettered since. ‘’I knew I wanted a quality production, that people will see and they won’t be like ‘’’let’s excuse her, she is a first time producer.’’ She remarked afterwards, proud of her achievement.
For the 2018 Lagos Theatre Festival, Lala Akindoju decided she was ripe for a one-woman show.
And why not?
One-person shows aren’t the easiest of endeavors to pull off. The challenge of single handedly holding an audience’s attention for a period of time isn’t one that every actor cares to take on, and rightfully so, but Akindoju harbored no such fears.
Whenever she sets her mind to a task, be it putting together a star heavy adaptation of an acclaimed play or scoring a lead role in a film by a veteran director, the famous Lala resolve- familiar to anyone who has been in her inner circles or worked with her on a project kicks in, unfailingly. This resolve can be described as a burning and palpable desire to do whatever it takes as long as it is legal and humanly possible, to achieve set goals.
In an industry that is famously hostile to setting structures in place, this resolve has been a lifeline for the recently wedded Akindoju. It has ensured she get her foot in when no one gave her a chance, helped her remain relevant and motivated, even when there could have been a million reasons to quit. And has kept her steadily focused on moving to the next level.
The Lala resolve abhors stasis and is constantly on the lookout for when to take the plunge into newer territories. One of such instances is Naked, her ultra-revealing one-woman act. Akindoju explained at the time to YNaija, ‘’I feel like as an actor, a one-woman show is like writing an examination to move to the next level and I was ready.’’
To see Naked– written by spoken word poet, Titilope Sonuga- is to take a peep into the mind of an artiste. Instantly relatable, yet sufficiently refreshing, Naked peels back the layers to uncover the issues that a lot of creatives struggle with on the daily. Insecurity, scarcity, feelings of worthlessness, social media scrutiny and sexual harassment.
Directed by regular partner Kenneth Uphopho, Naked opens in a bedroom as Akindoju is making preparations to attend an event she has been penciled to host. She makes several unsuccessful attempts to reach the stylist she’s contracted to ensure she is presentable for the red carpet. The wait opens up an opportunity for Akindoju to detail the challenges of working as an artiste. The rejection not just from auditions, but also from makeup artistes who see starlets merely as a stepping stone to the next gig, the hostile responses from fashion stylists who want to be attached to bigger and buzzier names, the bittersweet feeling of attending an awards event as a nominee and losing out in the category, only to be expected to cheer vigorously for the winner, the vast black hole that is the internet fashion police, and the futility in trying to satisfy them.
Alternating with moments of joy- a childhood recall where she narrates with fondness, her days at Queens College, Lagos- and passages of unflinching honesty, 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.
In the space of under an hour, Akindoju goes from naïve teenager to wizened woman. Her range as an actor is able to take her through the giddiness of falling in love, twice- one of them with a thinly disguised revolutionary- to the high of winning an Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Award Trailblazer award, and then the depths of a traumatic abuse incidence. She said to YNaija, ‘’I wanted to talk about the things we think about but never quite talk about. When the red carpet is rolled up and gone, those intimate things that we don’t say out loud but feel. I feel like as I continue to grow and have a platform I want to tell these stories.’’
Telling these stories naturally involves constantly updating the tools and platforms available to her. Anyone who has carefully followed Akindoju’s career could have predicted that she would eventually segue behind the scenes as director. It was only a matter of time and of finding the right material. This year, the newly wedded Akindoju returned to the Lagos Theatre Festival with Lavender, her directorial debut.
Written by Ademola Soares, Lavender, a contemporary comedy of errors and surprisingly potent vehicle for tackling weighty themes such as infertility, pregnancy, surrogacy and infidelity played as a festival fringe selection.
Light without being silly and serious without tilting towards tedium, Lavender centers a couple played by Kehinde Bankole and Deyemi Okanlawon, two high flying professionals who have everything they want except a baby to call theirs. Medical consultations reveal that they are unable to conceive via natural means. A dependent friend (Oludara Egerton-Shyngle) offers to play the role of surrogate for the couple and the play takes the opportunity of Yemisi’s decision to observe human behavior in unusual situations.
There is a treasure trove of material to be mined from the situation and Lavender, as directed by Akindoju makes an attempt to at least stay abreast of the issues that may arise in a complicated situation. The production rises to the occasion of exploring the challenges of infertility and the surrogacy experience, but also the dynamics between an equally matched couple. The writing falters when it comes to the much more interesting power dynamic between the two leading ladies but the energy manages to carry the story ahead where it could have sunk. The writing is punchy and a little more than basic and the four actors (including Rita Edward as an overbearing mother-in-law) who make up the cast are sufficiently well versed with the material.
Sitting through Lavender, it is obvious to surmise that Akindoju has been around the stage too long to fall into freshman trouble. Her direction is confident, even as she displays a comfortable rapport with the actors. Stage design for the festival production was understandably minimalistic but functional.Safe without being redundant, Lavender entertains supremely without falling into the trap of preaching or forced social commentary even when it does a little of both.
Having proved herself a triple threat, at least as far as the stage is concerned, Akindoju is all set with The Wives to demonstrate that the first time was no fluke and the competencies run deep. She has made it clear, consistently and repeatedly that she is the consummate professional. Why is anyone still surprised when she scales yet another challenge?