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Once the sleepy backwater of Nigeria’s cultural space, contemporary theatre is staking its claim in the arts scene
Every holiday season, the Lagos entertainment scene goes into overdrive. Concerts, festivals, art exhibitions, end-of-year parties and award ceremonies compete for media coverage and the attention of moneyed patrons. But this was the first time a stage musical caused such a buzz! Ending its debut run in mid-January, Fela and the Kalakuta Queens focuses on the life of the late Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo Kuti and his conflicted but enduring relationship with the band of women who nurtured and inspired his craft, sang back-up for him, fed his ego, shared his bed and became a central part of his artistry. Directed by Bolanle Austen-Peters, with musician Laitan Adeniji as Fela and Nollywood superstars Kunle Afolayan and Osas Ajibade in supporting roles, Fela and the Kalakuta Queens was initially billed to play 18 shows at the new Terra Kulture arena. Due to popular demand the show returns in April.
Fela and the Kalakuta Queens benefits from a resurgence in the contemporary theatre that started a little over a decade ago, when Austen-Peters set up Terra Kulture, an arts hub that easily took over from the national theatre, Lagos, as the foremost exhibition space in the country. More than a hundred productions later, Terra Kulture has expanded to accommodate a 400-seat state-of-the-art theatre. In January, Segun Adefila’s Crown Troupe of Africa staged a one-off production of The Lion and the Jewel , the classic play by Wole Soyinka. Crown Troupe is also part of the regular resident theatre initiative launched in mid-2017 at Freedom Park, a storied memorial and cultural centre reclaimed from a colonial era prison.
It isn’t only the comfy Lagos crowd that is catching theatre fever. Abuja and Calabar are regular ports of call for productions looking to move beyond the centre of excellence. Austen-Peters scored another touchdown in 2016 when her Wakaa! , a musical about reaching for the Nigerian dream, became the first local production to be staged in London’s West End. And Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True , featuring a series of explosive dance and performance monologues by female actors, will be returning to the American Repertory Theater in the US this year for another run. The week-long Lagos Theatre Festival created by the British Council in 2013, with its special focus on site-specific productions, has led the charge on presenting performing arts from Nigeria and the UK in Lagos. The festival attracts veterans and newcomers alike and has served as a breeding ground for numerous performers. Beyond Lagos, Abuja and Calabar are also regular ports of call for local productions.
From the March 2018 print edition