Sunday, 21 October 2007

What's This About?

Now that you can tell without a shadow of doubt, theatre is my second home. Anything live and on stage gets the baby in me kicking. There is something about carrying an idea from its conception stage to the very point where you give birth. The whole process is a beauty, creating characters, giving them a voice, watching them grow and become live characters is unexplainable. You just can't match it.

Writing a stage play to me is the ability to create a world that you believe in, a world you can identify with, a world you have lived in and still live in. Writing is about the writers experiences; it might not be their personal experieince but it is theirs because they lived, witnessed, heard and felt it. It is about using your senses to observe the world around you and bring to life.

I am currently writing a stage play for a proposed dissertation and this blogpage is part of my story to creating a whole new world in the next three months. Starting today, 21 October 2007. What does that mean? Basically, I have the right, power and ability to create a text that you or anyone out there will read and beleive every word of it. At least, I pray and hope so. I also pray you appreciate the slice of life I am able to bring to the table in my own little way. The sum total is for you to agree it is possible.

Along the way, I will learn about Dramatic Action, Climax, Suspense, Characters and Dialogue. It is not a process I take lightly because my audience has entrusted me with the ability to create a work that is truthful to its core. An undiluted version of events from my point of view.

Who is my audience? My audience is anyone that will read this blogpage and my script and is able to interprete it based on their socail and cultural background. This is the point where I tell you that the audience interpretation of any stage work is through the eyes of their own personal experiences. They bring a world and wealth of life to the work and it through that lense, they are able to tell you if you are on point or you wasted your time and their time with your choice of story.

For now, I am going to stop here but I deeply urge you to keep coming back to this page and read as it will be updated regularly. I will tell you about my current work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, bring you previews and reviews of some shows and trust me to tell you more as my stage play develops.

However, I have no intentions of telling you who I am. That doesn't matter. What matters is that this work of creativity creates its own identity.

Torn (July 2007 Arcola Theatre)

Natasha finally meets a man who loves her for who she is after a series of abusive relationships. He helps her to aspire and aim high in life; David brings out the best in her. She is his African Queen but there is just one problem. Natasha is Jamaican and David is Nigerian. A war of cultural tensions between Natasha’s Afro-Caribbean and David’s African heritage ensues and heir love is a taboo to both their cultures.

David’s sister, Kemi (Yetunde Oduwole) is adamant her brother will not be seen with a “Riff Raff or Jamos,” terms used to describe Jamaicans in the play. Natasha’s father, Malcom (Brad Damon) describes Africans as “You people.” The irony of the play is brought head on by Freddie (Chris David Store), the only white character in the play, who tells it like it really is, “They are both black, in 'it?”

Torn brings to the surface, the issues of cultural tensions faced by many, who come from different backgrounds, race and culture, and fall in love with what their race and culture deems to be unacceptable. Yet, they live silently with their pain in order to maintain tradition. It questions our prejudices despite the fact that we are of the same tree, we feel such anger towards each another without any reasoning.

What are those personal issues and perceptions we as individuals ignorantly carry about towards people of the same race and heritage because our culture and country of origin is different to the other? When do we stop living our lives in our past history and start living and loving for today?

A witty writing debut by Femi Oguns, who also gives an outstanding performance as David, the acting is as loud, intense and emotionally charged as the dialogue is hard hitting and humorous.

Torn is a thought-provoking performance which displays our ignorance when it comes to the tool of slavery that was used to separate us and we refuse to let go of our anger towards one another for acts perpetrated against us. A tug of emotions run through you as you sit back and experience the pain the characters feel on stage.

Moreover, Oguns succeeds in ridiculing the lazy liberal view of black Britons as one homogenous community. Impressively, he lets these tensions reveal themselves through everyday detail, notably in a hilarious exchange over the different textures of African and Caribbean hair.

While the play can be accused of hinging on the borderline of melodrama in latter scenes, it dares to raise a subject that the ethnic minority community has gladly ignored for years as it silently ravages through the lives of its children.

The Big White Fog (Almedia Theatre May 2007)

Set in Chicago’s South side in the 1920s, The Big White Fog chronicles the story of the Mason family, headed by Victor Mason (Danny Sapani) as they strive to keep their vision of America dreams alive amid the great depression and the racial divide. Family tensions soon ensue when Victor's commitment to Marcus Garvey’s, Back To Africa Movement begins to cripples their dream as a family. Though the movement proclaims its dedication to the freedom of the black man and envisions a day when all African Americans will be free and go back to Africa, where “The hope and destined fulfilment of the Negro’s dream.”

There are people like Daniel Rogers (Tony Armatrading) who consider it to be a flawed revolution and believes their heritage is right there in America. Victor's insistent on investing his family’s wealth in Marcus Garvey's Black Star Line turns out to be a decision that will cost them more than they would have liked.

Emotionally charged, as tensions run high when each character is forced to face up to the vicissitudes life hands to them. The audience gets a raw deal on the dynamics. Jenny Jules' Ella Mason has no voice in the decision making process of her family as Victor takes charge and wants everyone aboard his ship and his dream of Africa.

Lester Mason (Tunji Kasim) has high hopes of gaining a scholarship to go college but his dreams are dashed when he is refused based on the colour of his skin and is made to sacrifice his future for the family when they run into financial trouble during the depression. The use of subtext within the play gives the characters greater depth. Victor Mason’s relationship with his mother-in-law was deeper than just domestic issues. It was a good portrayal of the strain on relationship within the Black community at the time - where one feels superior to the other due to skin tone, education and financial standing - and this is reflected in the relationship between Victor and Daniel.

The Big White Fog was written in 1937 by Theodore Ward, who died in 1983 and this landmark family drama reveals how these battling factions fare during this raw and vivid period in American history.

Novella Nelson's Martha Brooks is the matriarch of the family and Wanda Mason (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the granddaughter who wants more from life and believes getting an education is a waste because it will get her nowhere in America as long as you are black. “There’s nothing in this country for a Negro girl to look forward to, and you know it as well as I.”

The play is set in the living room of the Masons, giving a homely and cosy feel to the production and the audience is made to feel like they are right in the middle of the action as each scene unfolds. The depiction of the grandmother sewing and Ella shelling real peas was an interesting way of bringing the real world onto the stage. Giving a platform to explore the interaction between the women and men during that time in history and the situations they faced up to.

While the play is a delight to watch as it gives you a glimpse of past life, it also makes you question if Ward’s observation of life in the 1920s has left America today. Is life still a ‘Big White Fog?’

Image: Catherine Ashmore

African Snow (Trafalgal Studios May 2007)

John Newton is famously known as the London-born slave trader who repented of his involvement in selling slaves, and gave the world one of its most popular Christian hymns, ‘Amazing Grace.’

Today, he is back in a starring role as himself in African Snow. A contemporary theatrical production chronicling the life of Olaudah Equiano or as he was by his slave name, given by his slave masters, Gustavus Vassa, based on his book, ‘The Narrative Of The Life Of Olaudah Equiano.’ A book that proved immensely popular during the anti-slavery campaign.

Intensely powerful and moving with Israel Oyelumade in the role of Equiano and Roger Alborough in the role of John Newton, two men whose paths cross; one as a slave and the other a slave trader. Interestingly, the play is set in Newton’s thought and imagination and the supposed imaginary meeting between both men gives Equiano the opportunity to question Newton.

The confrontation between both men makes Newton, the guilt-ridden and shamed slave trader, look inward and examine his life as he seeks forgiveness for his past actions.

These scenes create the emotional backdrop for the whole play. Newton describes himself as “I was ignorantly happy” explaining fulfilment from been a slaver until his conscience begins to nag him. What transpires next was powerful enough to show the audience where both men were at different points in the play and their individual journey.

In between are monologues by Equiano to give the audience a better understanding of his story and the opportunity to experience the ills he suffered; the name calling; the beatings for refusing the name given to him by his slave masters, the pain he carries for being separated from his sister as well as his tenacity to stay and fight until he won his freedom.

However there are also points in the play where these monologues break one’s concentration from the action on stage.

African Snow raises questions about slavery, the treatment of slaves, forgiveness, justice and freedom. When Equiano asks the question, “What is freedom?” He also tells the audience, “The moment I learnt to spell the word freedom; it was like a phoenix on my heart. Freedom cannot wait.” Symbolic of what the play is about, an introspective take on freedom.

The energy on stage is further heightened by the music of Ben Okafor whose score for the play evokes emotions in both characters and audience. There is rather a lot of shouting and screaming on stage but the ship contraption on stage to show the lives of the slaves was rather impressive and gave the play an element of authenticity.

Image: Riding Lights Theatre Company

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (National Theatre March 2007)

A work of collaboration between Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead had its first performance in 1972. Thirty-five years on and directed by Aubrey Sekhabi, it takes you back to the old South Africa and sits you right in the heat of apartheid.

It starts off with an unsual but engaging monologue by John Kani in the role of Styles, a photographer who takes delight in recordinbgt the stories of his people and makes them happy even if it is for a day. Styles decision to open a photographic studio was because of his experience working at a car factory. He searched himself and asked questions about his life. “Is that it, is that what my life is about. Nothing but a white mans’s boy,” reiterating the deep rooted issues of racism and segregation of the apartheird era in the old South Africa.

Kani’s ability to deliver Stlyes candid monologue with humour, sarcasm, brillance and sadness and of course, Kani’s unforgettable laughter commands the attention of the audience. His energy on stage and use of space, running from one end to the other to tell Styles story and interacting with the audience, makes you want more. It goes without saying that Kani’s ability to be animated in his multiple roles within this monologue, first as the boss of the factory (Mr Bass), the interpreter and as one of the workers reminds you that he is a formidable actor. Styles photographic studio in the play is symbolic of a man’s desire to be his own boss and it is a strong room of dreams. The dreams of his people; those who will never be known, it is about preserving their history.

However, the arrival of Robert Zelinzima (Winston Ntshona) at Styles studio soon turns the tide of the story. From here on, the audience is allowed to experience the division and inequality that existed in the old South Africa between whites and blacks. Where a man’s ability to work, care for his family and survive was dependant on a pass book. Robert’s passbook prohibits him to remain in Port Elizabeth where the play is set. His dreams of caring for his family calls into question, everything he belives in, especially his identity. Port Elizabeth is the place where the number of a man’s passbook is more important than his name and the colour of his skin is trouble. It also questions the value of a name when it is of no use to you.

Kani once again shines in the role of Robert’s mentor in the second half; a man who has learnt to survive in difficult circumstances. Robert has to give up his name and identity to take on that of a dead man in order to remain in Port Elizabeth and work. He is no longer Sizwe Banzi as soon as he takes on the identity of a corpse and just like the dead man, Sizwe Banzi is dead.

Winston Ntshona, regarded as one of South Africa’s finest and most distinguished actors alongside Kani revive this classic whose similarities to life today in the new South Africa is not very far off.

Image: National Theatre

Weights (The Blue Elephant Theatre March 2007)

When you cannot leave and do not have much to look forward to, you become a prisoner of the State. Set in the slums of Havana Cuba, Weights, depicts a day in the life of five Cubans; the artist, the prostitute, the wife and her husband; the boxer. A dreamer who sits by the phone all day long, waiting for that one phone call that will change his life and the old man, who smokes more than he has strength to look forward to life and waiting for the inevitable, death.

Written by Jesse Quinones and directed by David Mercatali; together they tell a story of lost dreams and hopes, feelings of entrapment by the citizens of a nation and the ills that face ordinary day to day Cubans. Who are looking for a way of escape, yet it seems so elusive. Vineeta Rushi in the role of Guapa the prostitute offers herself to the foreigners because she has no choice, that’s all she knows to do in order to survive. It is a vicious cycle and Geoff Aymer in the role of Viejo, the elderly man is a reminder to the younger generation of what their life will turn out to be. Their lives are intertwined by a cord of stifled dreams. According toSonador the painter, played by George Couyas, “We are all yet dreamers and I’m the biggest of all.”

Great attempts to show the pain of these characters results in a dense dialogue that lacks humour to ease the audience into the story and there are moments when you feel there is more smoking on stage than acting. Characters slip in and out of their ability to maintain the use of a Cuban ascent. While theatre is not just about evoking pain, you do feel the characters could have been infused with more emotions to show the depth of their anger at the sour taste of life they have to endure.

Image: Blue Elephant Theatre

Nothing But The Truth (Hampstead Theatre Febuary 2007)

Sipho Makhaya’s (John Kani) dream is to one day, become the chief librarian. However, the arrival of Tenbo his exiled brother in a jar filled with ashes begins to unearth family secrets that have long been buried. Set in Port Elizabeth, Nothing But The Truth is an in-depth and subtle examination of family, sibling rivalry, truth, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation and the compassion of the human soul when it has been wronged. It mirrors the struggles of Sipho Makhaya’s to come to terms with the injustice he believes he has suffered at the hands of other’s; the loss of his wife, the death of his son and being passed up for a job against the society he lives in.

In the scene leading up to the secrets and lies of the family, Sipho reiterates the words “The taking never stops”, showing his hurt and bruised heart but for the sake of his daughter he has let sleeping dogs lie until this moment when he decides to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Emotionally charged with the pain Sipho and his daughter, Thando have carried for years but never talked about until the arrival of Mandisa Mackay, Tenbo’s daughter. It is equally laced with witty humour. Nothing But The Truth shows the weaknesses in a man that has been pushed too far and can fight back when he gets the courage from within to change his situation. Sipho Makahaya’s family represent the new South Africa and as they come to terms with their issues as a family it gives the audience the opportunity to see how society deals with the ills and atrocities its own people have committed against each other.

Written by John Kani, he also gives an astounding performance resonant with his other works in Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Island which catapulted him to international acclaim. His co-stars Motshabi Tyele in the role of Sipho’s daughter (Thando Makhaya) is a playwright and an award winning actress in South Africa. Rosie Motene, Sipho’s niece (Mandisa Mackay) whose other works include Hotel Rwanda and The Other Woman both bring an emotional balance to Sipho’s life which he lost years ago. Janice Honeyman directs a flawless piece which reflects both her and Kani’s understanding of The Truth and Reconciliation Committee in the process of rebuilding a country torn apart by the actions of its own citizens.

Nothing But The Truth is truly a thought-provoking performance of humanity, compassion, justice and freedom. At the same time symbolic of the reconciliation between the old and new South Africa. It reminds the audience about the personal loss of individuals during the apartheid era of South Africa.

A tug of emotions run through as you sit back and want to hear more from the characters because you get the feeling that there is more to come. Though the play could have done with a few more characters to tell us about other families; Nothing But The truth is a delight to watch.

Image: Hampstead Theatre

Generations (Young Vic March 2007)

When you walk into the room, you are greeted by an effusive sound from a 14 strong South African choir led by the award winning artist, Pauline Malefane. The choir members gladly show you to your seat and instantly, you become part of the play. The chairs for seating are not your average theatre seats either. Rather, they are plastic crates for mineral drinks put on top each other to ensure the right height for those sitting on them. The audience is fully entertained before the show begins with tempestuous hand clapping, singing and the voices take you to South Africa. The shrilling of voices soon stops and you are taken on a journey to experience the pain deeply rooted in the hearts of its people; the ravaging effects of the Aids virus claiming a whole generations.

Generations, a new play by Debbie Tucker Green focuses on three generations of a South African Family and their sad struggle with the force of death greater than them. What do you when you loose your teenage granddaughters and your daughter to a disease that has ravaged your country? Though there is no mention of the words Aids or HIV in the 30 minutes this play runs. The poetic, evocative and solemn nature of loosing those you love to a force you have no control over makes you think about generations being lost to the disease.

The stage is set to reveal a cooking dynasty, who love to cook and eat together and in their history, cooking has been the way the men got to the women’s hearts. The gas cooker, fridge and washing sink are all in the middle and you can see the flame as it engulfs the air when the pots are opened.

The words are poetical and in a sense lyrical, “The talent to touch a little of sweetness” and “I was the cooker – you was the cookless – I was the cooker who coached the cookless. I coached you to cook – “all add an element of life and sweetness to Generations.

While it succeeds in asking questions and answering none about what is happening to our generations, you do feel the story could have been developed more to show more of the devastating effects of the silent killer known as HIV.

Image: Tristram Kenton

Gone Too Far - Who am I? (Royal Court Theatre Febuary 2007)

When I got the email for this production, I liked the title and theme of the play. Experiencing it on the other hand was fantastic. Written by an aspiring playwright like myself, I have to commend her for being brave to put her pen to paper. Well done Bola Agbaje.

A story of self-identification and respect, the question to the audience was who are you and what do you think of yourself and heritage? Are you ashamed of your roots or the fact that you have a name that can break one's jaw as they try to pronounce it? If you are African, you most likely have had the expereince of people murdering your surname but does that change who you are?

With a few characters, Bola brings life in South London to the stage. She captures two cultures, British and African-Caribbean and the challenge of fitting into both for young British born Africans and Afro-Caribbeans. The story tells you the rites of passage story about a group of teenagers trying to find themselves; Kudiyasi, Yemi, Armani, Blazer and their friends in the hood or should that be estate? I guess the bottomline of the play was in order to find yourself and know who you are; you must first respect yourself and all that you stand for. It sure is a CATCH22.

Though it could have done with a less repetition in certain scenes, it was an excellent production.

Image: Marc Brenner

So We Begin

This is simply my way of ranting on and on about my passion for theatre. I want you to come back everyday and see what's going on right here. This is where its all happening. You will hear about the Royal Shakespeare Company, the London theatre landscape and I'll also tell you about a project I am working on.

There is so much to do, so what are we waiting for? Let's get started, it is going to be one heck of a ride. I promise.

To start off, I will tranfer all previous post from a different page I have been working on. However, the material on that page is more relevant to this page as one dedicated solely to theatre musings.

Watch this space!!!!