Kakadu’s Cross-cultural Strings

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Contrary to the publicised atmosphere of hostility occasioned by xenophobic attacks, Kakadu the musical team left Johannesburg with a new pair of lens with which to reassess Africa’s most populous city, Nigeria. Yinka Olatunbosun reports

Every visitor who arrives at the Joburg Theatre is entitled to 300 megabyte-data on a daily basis which allows you to explore the social media and write about an ongoing show. Though, the Joburg Wifi places no restriction on the users’ activity but inside the auditorium, the Wifi signal is quite weak. Once you get to the lobby that juts into the theatre restaurant, the world is your oyster.

For South Africans, art is one of the most vibrant sectors of their economy and indeed, their way of life. All year round, there are scheduled shows inside the theatre which ranges from drama to animation movies. Between June 6 and 18, Kakadu the musical was performed at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, the biggest theatre inside Joburg Theatre as part of activities marking Africa Month.

South Africa means a lot to Nigeria. For one, it is the choice destination for most recording artistes who desire to shoot world-class videos with exotic models and vixens. Asides the artistes, Nigerians flood the streets of Joburg engaging in all manners of businesses, from legitimate to the unpleasant. Unfortunately, the latter is what Nigeria has become known for but the 50-man cast and crew of Playhouse Initiative had the determination to change the narrative with the Kakadu production.

Interestingly, the sound engineer for Kakadu, Johnson Oketade, is a Nigerian who has lived in South Africa for nine years. He was programming the sound for the dress and tech night and running off to attend the crew meeting when he was spotted inside the 1,200 capacity theatre. In between that, he offered to talk about his experience as a Nigerian working in South Africa. First, he clarified some misconceptions about Xenophobia. Those attacks often happened on the outskirts of the city and to those Nigerians who offensively flaunt their wealth. He said it is important to respect other people’s culture where you live outside your home country.

“I respect them. I respect their culture and everything about them. I am actually learning to speak their language. I can speak Zulu, They have 11 official languages here but the prominent ones are Zulu, Xhosa and Africaans. When the South Africans hear me speak in Zulu language, they are interested in me,’’ he said.

He demonstrated briefly how he arranged the buttons on the sound mixer based on the scenes.  A copy of the script was his guide and he had an assistant who helps in backstage. When asked if he would be willing to transfer his knowledge to younger ones, he said he has plans to organise a training workshop in future.

“I am willing to teach whoever is willing to learn. You must have a passion for it,’’ he said while acknowledging the presence of Kanayo Omo, the director for the show from inception.

The UK-based director had seen many on-stage and off-stage challenges upon his arrival in Joburg. Some of his cast fell ill due to the harsh winter, and those who were physically strong had to protect their vocal cords by staying warm in a temperature that drops at night. No one dared to wait outside for a taxi.

Omo’s shared history with the Executive Producer, Kakadu, Uche Nwokedi SAN is quite intriguing. Their fathers were classmates and later, judges. However, their fathers never brought them together-Kakadu did. Omo had the task of adapting the script to a stage that is technologically driven, with wagons and flight systems.

“I have only two blackouts and I have over 32 scenes. Every time the scene changes, it is because something is moving,’’ Omo revealed. He had directed two musicals in the United States of America and other theatre productions in the UK. He would later be spotted with a bata drum at Hillbrow Theatre during the workshop for the theatre students there. His dexterity with the drums was quite fascinating.

For the legal adviser, Kakadu the musical, Olisa Nwokedi, the audience reaction was beyond expectations. For a country that has a rich theatre tradition, it was imperative for the Kakadu team to up the ante. Nwokedi revealed how the show had changed the way South Africans see Nigerians. At the hotel, many sought after the actors to teach them how to dance and sing.

“They knew Nigerians for a lot of things- Nollywood, pop artistes and may be some disreputable things that we don’t want to be known for. But this show has changed their perspective,’’ he remarked.

His views were mirrored by the Project Manager, Kakadu the Musical, Lolo Eremie. Fluent in English and French, she has managed various travel projects and had worked with several artistes in Nigeria and abroad. Kakadu was her first theatre project and she was excited to be part of the team that made Nigeria proud.

“We are Nigerian ambassadors here. We have changed the mind set of so many people here. For a play that has a strong message, sometimes people don’t want to be preached to or talked to. Sometimes, there is nothing you can say that will be right. Sometimes, words are just not enough. That is when a musical like this becomes powerful because when you tell a story, what you have tried to explain for years because apparent in a few minutes and in our case, with Kakadu, two and a half hours. Some people see themselves in this play. Some understand the consequences of taking certain decisions. It’s a third party experience. In that moment that you are watching a show, you can experience so many things at the same time,’’ she revealed. She also admitted that she had met a number of South Africans who have asked her to teach them a few of Nigerian greetings.

Kakadu’s opening night at the Nelson Mandela Theatre was a great experience, with the cast walking down the aisle after the show and shaking hands with some members of the audience. Outside the auditorium was turned to “selfie pavilion’’ with the cast and crew as well as the entire Nwokedi family joined in the photo shoot. The Nigerian ambassador to South Africa was absent due to an official assignment outside the city but after the reviews and the numerous media mentions, he made sure he was at Kakadu’s finale. If there is any benefit Kakadu has attracted to Nigeria, it has to some extent punctured the negative impression the average South African has of Nigerians.