“Fractures is very relevant now, as the production shows how our cultural values and identity are under threat…Fractures couldn’t have come at a better time”, says Ikhane Akhigbe, chief executive officer and executive producer of AbOriginal Productions, as he draws awareness of a morally decadent society, torn apart by the loss of family values, infidelity, as well as issues of identity.
AbOriginal Theatre, the theatre arm of AbOriginal Productions Limited, a Lagos-based entertainment company specialising in music, theatre, television, and film, recently staged a second run of Fractures, an adaptation of A View From The Bridge, Arthur Miller’s classic study of cultural conflict and emotional self-discovery. Premiered in 2010, Fractures is produced by AbOriginal’s chief operating officer, Nike Taylor, and directed by Kenneth Uphopho. It features a robust cast including Gideon Okeke (Jide), Patrick Diabuah (Dayo), Funmi Eko-Ezeh (Nike), Ropo Ewenla (Idris), Beverly Naya (Toju), Timi Fadipe (Mickey), Tunji Sotimirin (Mr Johnson), and Bolanle Haastrup-Atitebi (Mrs Akpan).
Leading actor, Ropo Ewenla, echoes Akhigbe on the play’s social benefit, what qualifies as a good script and the increased visibility for theatre in Nigeria.
You have been in the business of theatre art for some time now, how has this performance been of benefit to the Nigeria audience?
It has helped in terms of a moral message. Some of the things I emphasised on are what people don’t want to talk about when they happen. However, when one scratches beyond the surface, one discovers that everyone is fractured in some way. The play connected with people when they saw that others understand or have experienced what they are going through, no matter how difficult it is. It is not easy for a daughter to reveal that her father has once kissed her or a wife to say her husband had sexual intercourse with her sister. These are the kinds of things you don’t hear people discussing. Recently, a lady came to me saying that there was part of the play that touched her greatly. I didn’t bother to find out what, as I noticed she didn’t want to talk about it. Those are the basic human events that happen every day. One of the fears Nigerians have arises from seeing a man dressed like a woman; we believe he is gay. The situation induces fear based on a cultural stereotype, that he cannot be a ‘real’ man. At the end of the show, the unknown and unspoken truth was revealed, and people went home with a sigh of relief, knowing it is possible that others can understand what they are going through.
How did you feel when you first saw the script?
I considered the fact that it was adapted from an Arthur Miller play. The few basic things that attract me to a script are what it’s like and who the people I would be working with are, especially the director and the quality of interpretation he can bring. However, Arthur Miller for me being the original person who deals with human society, in such a way to create the sense of tragedy that the masters from Sophocles to Aristotle and Shakespeare have defined for us – in a way that when you encounter characters in tragic situations, who are not necessarily your kings or nobles but people on the streets, your co-factory worker or those you have daily interactions with, you begin to imagine that it is possible for the fall of a taxi driver to affect you in such a way that you will feel as emotional as I do when I watch King Leah fall down from his great height. So, you see the trail – the factory worker struggling within the Peckham society falls and loses everything. For me, that prospect connects with people more. When I see a script that identifies with the common ethos, there is a way it speaks to me. So, I will not talk only about the use of the traditional elements of tragedy, which I can see in this adaptation to the Nigerian environment, with many who have immigration experience in the UK, connecting to this more.
In the next few years, how appreciated will theatre be in Nigeria?
We are doing a lot – that’s the antidote and things are putting up. I run Ibadan Playhouse and once a month, I come all the way from Ibadan to stage a play in Lagos. So while I am on stage here, my show is being performed in Ibadan. I saw many people come to this venue. It is a bit tedious for us and is sometimes unrewarding because this is a large cast. I manage a small cast play, which I can easily handle but gradually, because we are persistent and are strategising, we believe we will get good results. Our contacts were taken, it means that we can get a thank you message, feel a sense of connection and benefit from referrals. Everyone who came here today left his or her contact details in the database. In these days of modern technology, with one click, over 200 people are informed about a show, and then one tells a friend, who tells another, and when one brings a co-worker, the theatre fills up, and once it does, entrepreneurs make their money. Other business will then be attracted and invest as well. Once we are able to grow, the audience will bring back the money. It is not easy; it is easier talked about than done.
Beverly Naya also offers her view on the impact of the play on not only the audience but also on the larger society. She shows enthusiasm for the growing appreciation for theatre among Nigerian youth.
It’s your first time performing theatre in Nigeria. How do you feel about this?
I have lived in Nigeria for about 5 years now. I do many shows but this is my first theatre play. It was amazing, everything I expected and hoped it would be. It was great working with such phenomenal actors and an amazing director. It was also great bringing my character to life. The story is set in England. If you are coming in to watch the show, you should have a clear understanding of what is going on. I think the audience understood what went on because you could hear the sounds, their laughter and gasps. They definitely enjoyed the show.
What about the story line, how useful do you think it is?
It’s very useful because we have many Nigerians constantly trying to migrate to other countries as they feel that Nigeria is a huge struggle as it can be at times but there is a social message from both angles. Not everyone in the UK is having an amazing time. Most people who are working class have to struggle to get what they want; they have to keep on fighting and working hard to be successful in the UK. However, the perception here is that when you go to a foreign country outside Africa, you are bound to be successful by any means necessary. I think there is a social message on both sides; it is a powerful story that many people can relate to.
Do you see yourself performing theatre again?
Oh yes, 100 percent. In London I did theatre and short films, that is what I began with. I only started doing feature length films and series when I moved to Nigeria. I took a 10-year break to go to university before coming to Nigeria and within that period, I stopped doing theatre.
What do you think about the theatre industry in Nigeria?
The growing appreciation of theatre in Nigeria is beautiful to see because when I first moved to Nigeria, I wanted to do theatre but it was not popular, so I didn’t explore it because I felt I would probably be the only one in the hall performing. It’s nice to see more young people intrigued by theatre, more entertained by it. It is also nice to see older ones are encouraging their young to watch theatre as well. It is nice to know that theatre has become another form of entertainment. It is not just about going to the movies anymore or going out for lunch, dinners or drinks, it is now theatre as well. I think that is fantastic for the theatre industry; it shows there is much more to come.
In this interview, Gideon Okeke who is the only returning actor from the premiere of Fractures talks amongst other things about the usefulness of the play in changing stereotypes cast on Nigerians, the deplorable state of the National Theatre, once a sprawling edifice for the promotion of our rich cultural heritage.
We have seen much of you on the silver screen; it’s different seeing you in a production like this. Is this a new direction you are going?
We did this play 7 years ago. That was my debut on the stage. Since then, I’ve been in 7 other productions, five of them have been musicals. This is my second time doing drama.
The play cast Nigerians into a stereotype – going from Lagos to London to make it big. Does this play challenge such perceptions and is that one of its aims?
It’s funny that it was almost a culture at a certain point in our lives as Nigerians and Africans, considering the struggles that people went through to get visas. The process is still difficult with many even going spiritually. I am not saying that God is not everything but to secure visas, people pay money and do all kinds; it is unreal. There are different types of visa; it is easy to go around the world. A place like Oluwole was a market where things were made easy but illegitimate. Oluwole is defunct now, however, so many people are still doing fraud everywhere. My character was taken from Oluwole, he’s a hustler and has his papers but they are illegitimate. Till today, people are still faking papers. It is a reality we’ve tried to compress into an hour and 45 minutes.
So you think this is still a real problem?
Yes, many people are still never faking. We had about 350 people here tonight with problems, so one will never know who cringed in the audience. People don’t come to see the performers, but to see a story; they come to see someone, themselves, their uncles and sisters. They all came to relate to some reality about humanity. If the play hasn’t connected with them, we have not done our job. However, we just hope they got the message.
What do you think can be done to take theatre to a different level in Nigeria?
To make it more stable, let us have more productions. We have the talents, but more people should invest in theatre arts to encourage and empower them. The National Theatre is defunct, that’s where one should find me at any time either sitting, working, drinking beer in a corner or just hanging around. This gives me a sense of belonging. It makes me so uncomfortable that the front of the building is used as the image of Nigeria on coffee table books. If the theatre was open, I won’t be out of work. I will be somewhere waiting for a call to come in. I will be there creating something because the building will tell me what to do.
For you, how different is acting in front of cameras from acting on stage?
Acting on stage is a bigger expression; everything is bigger. On stage, you multiply what the character is trying to say but divide when you go on the screen. It is like a pedal– you know what the machine will give you, and your speed, without even looking at it. Likewise, the actor knows how the show needs to be so that it is truthful all the time