New Nigerians: Political satire is alive and kicking

Gbemisola Ikumelo (l) and Patrice Naiambana in a scene from New Nigerians

Gbemisola Ikumelo (l) and Patrice Naiambana in a scene from New Nigerians

Oladipo Agboluaje was catapulted into the public consciousness in 2003 with Early Morning a satire about three immigrant office cleaners working in London who, in time honoured Nigerian fashion, overthrow the government and install a ‘blackocracy’.

Garnering rave reviews, it was Oladipo’s first play, introducing him as a new and distinctive voice in  UK drama, one that is both African and British at the same time and driven by a passion for political change.

Now, with a remarkable 14 plays under his belt and a fair few accolades, Oladipo is back with a new drama, New Nigerians, currently being premiered at the Arcola theatre in Hackney. Commissioned as part of the Arcola’s Revolution season to commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution alongside plays by Gorky and Chekov, it is another biting satire, this time aimed at Nigeria’s conservative political establishment.

“A few of my previous plays have talked about revolution and that is why the Arcola approached me,” he explains. “In fact, New Nigerians had been in my head for some time as an idea and I saw the commission as a great opportunity to develop it.”

Although the play is set in Nigeria and focusses on a flip flop-wearing socialist leader’s dilemma of whether to enter into a useful political alliance with a business tycoon turned politician, Oladipo believes it has a universal message that will resonate with any audience.

“It is about the reality of gaining political power and maintaining one’s political integrity. While Nigerians in the audience get most of the references and find it hilarious, others can relate to its universal application. In terms of characters and issues people can see echoes of Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and the Lib-Deb Tory pact.”

Oladipo’s own background is the clue to his cultural hybridity.  Born in Hackney in 1968, he returned to Nigeria when he was nine and studied theatre at the University of Benin before resuming his education in London in 1995 with an MA in literature. Fired with a love of writing short stories and poetry, he decided to try his hand at drama too and the result was Early Morning. Initially turned down by many theatres, it was finally taken on board by Oval House and went on to be described by the Spectator as “witty, astute and sublimely irresponsible”.

Oladipo Agboulaje at the play's rehearsal

Oladipo Agboulaje during rehearsals

More plays quickly followed, including an ambitious adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children, set in West Africa and starring veteran actress Carmen Monroe, The Christ of Coldharbour Lane, about Omotunde, a  revolutionary preacher from Brixton who urges followers to “abandon the wilful peace” that oppresses them, and his two most successful shows to date, The Estate and the award-winning Iya-Ile (The First Wife), both comedies centred on the same wealthy family living in Lagos.

Oladipo has been strongly influenced by Nigerian playwrights who often use satire as a way of attacking the powers-that-be. “They can be divided into two categories – high brow intellectuals like Wole Soyinka and popular dramatists like Ken Saro Wiwa, who wrote the hugely successful TV sit-com Basi and Company that I used to watch in the 1980s.  I see myself as a merging of the two but put myself in the popular category.”

Although his political leanings are clear, he steers clear of preaching to an audience:  “My politics are leftist but I don’t see any point  in talking down to people. My job is to write a story truthfully and I try to be as balanced as possible. We must have a dialogue.”

Like most of his dramas, New Nigerians is a real crowd pleaser and sell-out audiences thus far indicate there is an appetite for political satire. But while he would love to see the play performed in Nigeria itself he thinks this is unlikely given that it touches on some thorny issues. For now, he is enormously grateful for the opportunity offered by the Arcola.

As for the progress of the rest of black theatre at a time of swingeing cut backs, counter-intuitively he believes their impact to be minimal. “Black theatre has always had to make do with limited funding, so in many respects, this climate of cuts makes little or no difference,” he says.  “The main issue is the lack of black presence at the higher echelons of theatre management where decisions are made. Nevertheless, black practitioners continue to find creative ways of getting their work to their audiences irrespective of the funding situation.”

New Nigerians runs at the Arcola Theatre, London London E8 3DL until March 11

This article first  appeared in West End Extra on February 25, 2017

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