Blessing Bee Azubike

Last weekend, “STRELITZIA … A Journey to Self” held in Lagos as part of the just concluded Lagos Theatre Festival by The British Council.

Strelitzia was an experiential poetry and art installation project put together by Poedio Productions Partners, the Poet, Donna and Bianca Odiete. The show was on for four days, from Thursday, March 2 through Sunday, March 5.

If you attended the Lagos Theatre Festival, you would know that it was indeed a hub of activities, from trainings to stage plays, music shows and talks. The festival showcased about 500 performances by over 100 artists, and with so much content to choose from and a lot of the shows running concurrently, all the audience could depend on in trying to select the best shows to watch, was either a really catchy title, a properly written description, a great cast line up or aggressive marketing. For Strelitzia, apart from the fact that Donna is remarkable on stage, the title may also have worked in her favour. Granted it isn’t one of the catchiest titles, but it does make you curious… Strelitzia, what in the world does it mean?!

“Strelitzia” is originally the biological name for a flower of South African origin called “Birds of Paradise”.  It was given that name because of its beautiful colours and the shape of its petals which are spread in a manner reminiscent of the plumage of a beautiful colourful bird.

The organisers of the show chose the name after trying out many others, including keeping “The Black Box Diaries”, the name of the art installation which first inspired the idea.

“It was an entry made by my friend, Sadiq Williams, in an art competition that he was a part of” Donna explains “He had called me to tell me about it and asked if I could recite the history of influencers of black history… and while he spoke, I saw what would become Strelitzia, in my head”

They eventually met up and as Donna listened to what Sadiq had created, she realised that it was different from what she had in mind, and so she told him about her idea and he instantly exclaimed “Sis, you’ve got to do this! It’s powerful! … a different dimension”

That idea grew continuously until it became “Strelitzia… An Experimental Journey to Self”.

As you walk into The Ramp, a wooden structure within Freedom Park which houses the installation that is about to begin, you don’t know what to expect. The venue has been demarcated into a number of small rooms, and as you step into the first space, you realise you are about to be taken on a journey.

This journey begins with a Beckoning Voice (played by Tope Sadiq, Poet and founder of Freedom Hall), who calls the audience (regarded as ‘the story bearer’ in this show) into the diary where you are met with treats from the past; tasting Choco Milo, Sisi Pelebe (groundnut candy), Coconut Candy, or ‘Baba Dudu’.

According to Donna, the journey through the first part of Strelitzia, is a call to the ‘why’ of Nigeria, and you can see past leaders and newspaper clippings (which are copies of the original papers from the 1950’s to 1970’s) also line the wall. Strelizia is no mean feat, and to achieve what was intended, Donna and her partner Bianca worked with a tireless team of researchers, technical crew and consultants: ICEE (Nnamdi Nweke), Jacqueline Aki, Victory Omoruyi and Grace Falaye. She got her friends to send in books, vintage comics and action figures from the U.S and London, and her Mother sent her records and other precious memorabilia. People also sent in their memories and stories, powerful stories which were recited; their own way of letting go.

The show is officially open and The Beckoning Voice hands over to the Light Bearer, played by dancer, Mary Oluwo, but not before taking the audience through the Living Room, a most crucial part of the entire piece. Here, there is a Gramophone from the 60s, a Boom Box from the 80s, a Discman from the 90’s, Records, comics and novels of old, the old sponges (koin koin), old medicine (Alabokun), toys, action figures, shoes, thread, an old Television Set with the roller shutters, a Cast Iron, Mentholatum, the original tinned Robb, Morning Rose Powder and other memorabilia that the Story Bearers are encouraged to touch, smell, flip through all the while being led in chants or songs of old adverts, Ryhmes, movie themes from the 70’s , 80’s and 90’s. These familiar objects from way back immediately trigger some memories

Next, the audience is led to the Emotional Memory of Movement (played by Emmanual Luka-Musa), his character is a semi-nude sleeping man who makes movements and sounds that indicate he is having a torturous dream, and when awoken, he performs an emotional dance piece indicative of the heaviness of sorrow, often borne alone. As he lies back down on the bed, the Light-Bearer yet again guides the audience to the next room where the silhouette of a lady is seen moving sensually to Zayn Malik’s Pillow Talk. Whether she is nude or clad in body-fitting attire is unclear. This phase could aptly be called ‘the peeping room’, as the audience only get to watch from outside the room where the actual dance takes place. The Sensual Memory, played by dancer Lilian Yeri, stops abruptly, rather awkwardly and the journey continues for the audience as they are led to the Life Force, played by singer and dancer, Jennifer O’ who sings while a noiseless reel of old films plays behind her.

A reviewer summarises these first few scenes thus “A woman’s silhouette dancing sinuously… shakes off the haunting feel of the second room and opposite the silhouette, a woman in white sings a medley of songs my inner child remembers”

Describing the show, Donna says “The experimental piece I created is an exploration of human vulnerabilities undertaken through a journey into a re-imagined physical diary… I kept thinking ‘if you could walk into your diary…its physical pages, what would you find there? How would it smell? What would you taste? Touch? See?”

She further explains “In my head, at the end of that kind of journey, one should unburden; surely a page or repository of thought would draw the words out of one and take them for itself, leaving the visitor lighter.”

The journey finally comes to an end within The Page. Imagine if the pages of a dairy could speak, what secrets it would tell. This is exactly what the final stage of Strelitzia is about; a physical space where the ‘Page’ of diaries recites entries of story bearers of all ages. The recitals are conveyed through poetry pieces and narrations, and Donna, who plays the Page, evokes emotions with tales like the Christian Sister who is ‘holier-than-thou’ but gets pregnant to the shock of the neighbourhood, Amina who cheats on her very loyal N.Y. S.C. boyfriend, and most painfully, Brother Lati who rapes a young trusting girl amidst cries of “Brother Lati please don’t do this, I’m a virgin..”. As Donna squeezes her face in pain, holding her clenched hands up in portrayal of brother Lati’s victim, you can tell from facial expressions that everyone is on that journey of pain and heartbreak with her.

At the last recital, Donna calls on the audience to tell their secrets by writing their entry in or lay their burden down. She takes a napkin and bowl of water around for the audience to wash and dry their hands, signifying a laying down of burdens, markers are handed round for everyone to write their entry on the walls of the ramp; by now, the room is heavy with silent but intense emotion – some are in tears, and Donna can be seen locked in an embrace with someone who is sobbing. All through Donna’s recitals, Toni ‘The Emperor’ Akinola, a folklore soul singer leads the audience within the page, strumming his guitar and singing his original compositions in a call and response manner. It is indeed a beautiful cocktail of poetry, music, dance and theatre.

A chat with some of the guests who had just seen the show reveals that they had a great time and were obviously intrigued by what they had just seen, one describing it as “…different from the usual shows you see in Nigeria”. The catch however was that they seemed not to have a full grasp of the entire show and clearly had a ton of questions “Why was the guy struggling in his sleep? What did the sexual dance mean?…why didn’t Donna perform her poems in all the stages alongside the other performers?”. All these questions were asked outside the ramp while the organisers hurriedly tried to prepare for the next show which was already running late. Perhaps, an inclusion of a chat session after the show would have helped clarify a lot of the concepts.

When asked what she hoped to achieve with Strelitzia, Donna says “My desire was to use different art mediums to cause the audience to reflect on the who that they have become and the why of their pain or journey, ultimately laying it down and forging ahead un-burdened; thereby unfolding into something beautiful… Just like the Strelitzia”

Though, the questions asked indicate that some bits of the message may have been lost in translation, what cannot be ignored or denied is the impact of the show; there was laughter from familiar memories in the beginning, tears from actions like washing one’s hand while being told that the unpleasant memories were being washed away, and silence from deep thought as Donna chanted lines like “…they will never see your scar. They will only see your ‘beautiful’… because you are a certain kind of strong.”

-Ms Azubuike is  the curator/chief ARTvocate of Art for a Reason, Lagos.