By Bimbo Manuel
When she hit town with her SARO THE MUSICAL, only a few knew where she was coming from, the rest were as flummoxed as the audience was thrilled. Questions and opinions were bound to arise and they did, especially from the theater community: ‘Who is she?’ ‘What has she done?’ ‘Is this really theater?’ They were many and I am not aware that she responded to any of them, even the ones that were said to her face.
She responded to all she had soaked in from those scathing queries with the birth of what has now become the BAP Productions phenomenon. She came back with another season of Saro The Musical, in which yours truly had the unequalled pleasure of playing in as the debonair ‘Don Ceeto’. It was the talk of the entertainment circuit for the entire season, some in obvious envy, many in clear discomfort at what they consider the desecration of the shrine of the theater with her brand of theater while many others, especially the brands, always seeking eyeballs and footfalls, were just full of praise. It proved a fitting response.
She caught my attention from first contact and I carefully studied her thinking. She understands the workings of the sector beyond what anyone gave her credit for and rewrote the rules. Not many considered that coming from a corporate background including time at the United Nations had equipped her with organizational skills, a screaming deficiency in theater practice in Nigeria; none knew that she has maintained an interest in the theater which has its origins in the days after she left Law School. And not many were aware that apart from being a lawyer, she had also attended formal theater and film training in Colorado, Los Angeles and New York to prepare herself for the passion she intended to turn into business. She allowed herself the tutelage of the competence of the Kenneth Uphophos, Wole Oguntokuns, Professor Segun Ojewuyis, Makinde Adenirans, the critical Wole ‘Kongi’ Soyinka and several others till she knew she was ready.
And she started to churn out her Box Office winners, Saro The Musical, Waka The Musical, Fela And The Kalakuta Queens, Moremi The Musical (a co-production) and now Fela’s Republic and The Kalakuta Queens, and several others. Each one was a season Box Office breaker here in Lagos, in Abuja, London, Egypt and South Africa.
I had the good fortune of being at the Command Performance of Fela’s Republic and The Kalakuta Queens, Bolanle’s sequel to her earlier Fela and the Kalakuta Queens, on Sunday, December 15th. The impatience for the show to begin made the classy Cocktail seem very long but finally we were called into the hall.
Like all biopics, it was a tricky one, selecting relevant content and finding context but it turned out a spectacle.
The dark hall slowly came alive with the rumble of the drums throbbing out of the darkness. It was a great opening that built up the drama of what was about to happen. Then the lights, the wardrobe of the opening sequence and the dance. If you doubted till then, the opening/prologue was enough to assure you and make you want to wait to see what follows.
The cues and changes were obviously well thought-through and the music was on point.
I was particularly struck by the use of make-up and wardrobe. The wardrobe tried to remain true to the original Fela concept but it was also befittingly flamboyant without being distracting, a blend of colors that gave each scene its own identity, yet allows the lead character stand out not only because of his role and performance but by the ingenious way they were all contrasted and yet could find scenic rhythm.
The make-up reminded us of the deep cultural artist Fela was and his underrated savvy of the use of colors and stage arrangement. It showed in the dominant way he filled his stage and separated himself yet remained a part of the whole. Bolanle caught it and used it to maximum effect. There was an anonymity to all the Queens that suggested the ensemble Fela intended yet a distinct identity to each in the articulation of their individual stories and objectives.
This Fela’s Republic and The Kalakuta Queens tweaked the original Fela and The Kalakuta Queens to include Fela’s social and political messages and prophetic utterances while cunningly situating them in a conviviality that one hoped would not be lost on the generation that came after him and did not have the fortune of experiencing him.
She used the downstage entrances of the stage well with players coming through the audience and actually engaging them, making them a part of the play. Laitan ‘Heavy Winds’ Adedeji, a jazz musician himself, who played Fela was particularly effective in that even if the other actors were a bit over the top sometimes and in some instances uncertain. The set was also a sight in its attempt to recreate Fela’s Shrine. The splash of colors and graffiti told the story of Fela’s life in still images. Lines came from everywhere, the rafters, the back of the hall, the stage, backstage and they had your head turning to the source of each sound which helped to enhance an atmosphere of audience involvement.
A downside for me would be the way the costumes sometimes clashed with the stage colors but that was usually compensated for by the very exciting lighting. It was not lit like a theater production in the strictest sense of it but a clever cross between a musical/variety show and theater. I will excuse that if it was a deliberate trick by Bolanle to cater for the expectations of her primary audience, a strong 25 to 40-year old mass with disposable income and an incurable thirst for ‘show’ and social media presence. They are her converts, disciples, audience and marketers all rolled into one. Any smart business head, even in theater would pander to that, if it is intended as commercial theater and I think she achieved that, if it was her intention.
It is a delicate dramatic balance that had to constantly mind the temptation to paint Fela in the light of a reckless predator who searched out the vulnerable to prey on their adoration. The jury is out on whether she achieved that though the effort is visible. It is delicate because such matters are left to audience perception. Hopefully, she will also not suffer too much criticism from both sides of the gender aisle.
Probably to remain true to its title, the piece is predominantly about the ladies and that reflected in the cast population. Even as a feminist piece, I think it attained that objective as it forced all of us to look away from Fela for a short spell and consider his women. They had voice and we understood what drove them a little better.
Laitan ‘Heavy Winds’ Adedeji made carrying the heavy burden of leading the ensemble seem easy, natural, convincing. While actors like Inna Erizia, an experienced hand made us forget that they were acting and Tosin Adeyemi, Bunmi Olunloyo and Dolapo Phillips proved that they were ready to take the stage, a few other actors made heavy work of their roles. Uru Eke, was brave in her theater debut. She was uncertain and clearly anxious, her lines coming in exaggerated bursts of the unfamiliar American accent but another few performances, she may prove to be one of the leading lights of her new medium. Paolo Sisiano who otherwise is a fine actor also did not seem to be convinced about himself in his role. In all, they were all a pleasure to watch and good commentary on Bolanle’s vision.
If that Command Performance is the constant level of the production, then the audience is in for some ride and Heavy Winds is the natural driver, a stand-out performer. He convinces and reminds us so much of the Abami Eda himself.
I spoke with Bolanle before and after the show and she said, ‘What do you think, egbon?’ I smiled. She understood and said, ‘Just wait, they haven’t seen anything yet, wait for 2020!’
Kudos, Bolanle, indeed we are waiting. The gauntlet you and your team have thrown down is fortunately being picked up by those who understand what you are trying to do which may explain why we had such a busy season of musicals in the Nigerian theater world to end 2019.