A captivating Children’s Day drama presentation at the National Theatre in Iganmu, Lagos excites Yinka Olatunbosun

“Be careful what you wish for”. This is a saying that earned more meaning on the last Children’s Day, set aside to make the children happy. As wished and longed for, refreshments, outdoor entertainment and storytelling arrived right on schedule at the entrance B, National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos where children from various schools gathered to enjoy the spectacular musical puppetry with the bespectacled Grandma Wura (Bola Edwards) as the narrator. Yes, children love stories and when told beautifully, they are totally enthralled.

Titled Back to My Roots, the drama seamlessly transported the children from the present to the oral story-telling tradition of the indigenous African society before the advent of television and mobile devices. The children wanted excitement and they got served. Those who sat on the front row had to be pacified that it was not a scary show as the characters arrived on stage and the aisle in larger-than-life costumes that shocked the young audience for good.

Grandma Wura, who swept the children off their feet with her dancing steps and her well-paced narration, told the story of a young girl named Nkechi. She is a lazy one who often grumbles whenever her mother assigns her some household chores or on errands. She cries, “Oh! How I wish I was an ant” Little does she know that ants, that she admires every day, are hard workers who engage a lot in “heavy lifting” of cheese, watermelon, food crumbs and the like. Sometimes all Nkechi does is to abandon her broom and prance around the house. According to Grandma Wura, she just “mumbled and rumbled’’.

One day, Nkechi’s wish comes true. She becomes an ant. As soon as she realises that being an ant is not about idle living, she begins to wish for her former self. But that is not to happen automatically. The ant family seems too glad to have additional hand in the daily work. But Nkechi tires out very easily. Still, the maternal instinct in Mother Ant offers support to Nkechi in an unknown territory. Once, a monster attacks the ant population, targeting the vulnerable ones among them.

Nkechi is caught by the monster but quickly rescued by Mother Ant who puts her own life on the line for the young child-turned-ant. The death of Mother Ant intensifies Nkechi’s agony and she keeps wishing to gain her human life back. Meanwhile, the entire villagers take to the streets, combing the woods in frantic search of the missing Nkechi. Her mother grieves her loss amidst throngs of consoling neighbours. Upon her return to human life, Nkechi finds herself back in an empty village which has become deserted since everyone has made a job of bringing her back. Eventually she reunites with her family.

One of the strengths of the play production lies in its direct engagement with the children. There were several scenes, where actors communicated directly with the children. One of such was when the villagers went in search of Nkechi. The air was rented with children’s laughter and screams as the villagers asked some of them for Nkechi’s whereabouts. Also, attention was paid to technical details as props were built specifically for the characters. The cheese, water melon and vegetables looked so real that the children, at the end of the play, wanted to have a taste.

Grandma Wura was not just a bystander in the drama. She danced energetically like most grandmothers wouldn’t. Her diction is superb, almost like the native speaker of the English language. So it wasn’t just fun time for the children, it was also an opportunity to learn proper enunciation. It is less likely that they were consciously learning that right inside the packed hall filled with the aroma of well-seasoned meal.

Embellishments such as drums, lighting and make-up also added credit to the colourful children’s theatre. It is instructive to know that children’s theatre is a dying tradition in many drama and theatre institutions in Nigeria. The late Funsho Alabi was a famed storyteller whose television series in the 80s held children spell-bound. Ace storyteller and folkloric musician, Jimi Solanke’s Storyland had more resonance with the present generation because it ruled the television in the 90s and children always learnt moral lessons from every episode. Although the art of story-telling had taken different forms over the years, children still get captivated when a real life character speaks to them directly and behavioural tendencies are often shaped by what they see and hear.

Now what is quite disturbing is the discovery that the Edwards’ theatre family who are behind this cultural renaissance may not be getting the right support from the art institution. It was gathered from the director of the play, Israel Eboh that the show was delayed for some hours just because the management of the National Theatre Lagos had refused to make the power generator set available despite the fact that the facility along with the equipment had been duly paid for. The excuse? The management does not want to waste diesel. Eboh said the organisers would protest against this poor service which they had never received from other theatre venues such as the MUSON centre, Lagos.

“Every hall is booked today and they decided not to put on the generator,” said Eboh, as he expressed his dissatisfaction over the attitude of the National theatre management.
The director for the 40-cast production recounted how this project was brought to life with painstakingly effort to impart values rather than to explore for material gain.

“We had done some test runs in schools during the assembly time,” he revealed. “We were doing it free. Our plan is to reach more than 30 schools. We have gone to schools for story telling aimed at inculcating values. Last December, we decided to do what we call the story theatre. Again, during Easter we had another performance but we used recorded music. Today, we have a live orchestra.

“The only way for us to get back as a country is to create a new generation. It is not about money. It is a movement. We have not been able to pay the cast professionally but we compensate them for their time and energy, including the child actors.”

Patrick Edwards, one of the producers of Back to My Roots’ story theatre also said that moral deficit in the country has been the source of inspiration for the theatrical piece.
“We were driven by the situation in the country and the need to deconstruct the negative things in the country,” he said. “In 20 years from now, we may not be doing the same thing we are doing. The performance is actually leadership training. It teaches teamwork, integrity and other values lacking in the society. We have been working on this project for ten years. We have met professionals and done research. We have summoned courage to overcome our challenges.”

Children from Arrows of God Orphanage Ajah and Raco Child Orphanage and Homes, Ibeju Lekki were part of the audience at the exciting story theatre production by Proud African Roots.