Yinka Olatunbosun

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Wakaa the musical,” bellowed the male voice blaring through the speakers inside the Congress Hall, Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja. The guests swarmed the hall, many trying to find appropriate seats according to their wrist tags, shared in VIP and VVIP categories. An hour earlier, the cocktail outside the hall set the tone for the command performance of Wakaa the Musical, a Bolanle Austen Peters Production. It was the last of the eight-day long series of performances with a 70-man cast and crew working tirelessly to meet the audience’s expectations.

For the audience at the command performance, the show comes with certain fringe benefits. If one is smart enough, a selfie is guaranteed against the background of special guests drawn from the Presidency. As expected, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed arrived alongside the Special Guest of honour, Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo and his wife, Dolapo. The Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki was also in the front seat that was reserved for the distinguished guests.

“This is my constituency,” declared Bolanle Austen-Peters, the playwright and director of Wakaa as she sighted the media team from Lagos at one of the cocktail stands. She had her entourage on her heels. Wait a minute- Austen-Peters now has an entourage. Years ago, she literarily walked through the doors to art and culture revival and advocacy almost alone with her cultural hub, Terra Kulture, serving as a makeshift performance venue, amongst other functions. After seeing Fela the musical, a Broadway-Hollywood collaboration, berth in Nigeria, she knew she couldn’t walk alone.
Following the commercial success of Saro the musical, a Lagos story with an existentialist thrust, she wrote “Wakaa the musical”, and with assistance from her technical team, she has consciously built a bankable project. Driving up her productions to world-class standards, she ventured into repertoire theatre, touring indigenous and international destinations to showcase the talents drawn from Nigeria. After her sold out shows in London, WAKAA the musical arrived in Abuja for the special independence edition.

In her opening remarks, Austen-Peters described the musical as a satire on the Nigerian society. Laced with romance, Wakaa is essentially an articulation and appropriation of popular contemporary Nigerian music in delivering socio-political commentary. Of more relevance was the reference to the migration issue, a hot global topic. Set in Nigeria and UK, WAKAA relives the everyday episodes of Nigerians who aim for success in the heart of a foreign land. Disappointments, failure and lack of patriotic spirit mark the temperament of many young Nigerians who vested their promising future in fruitless material pursuits outside the Nigerian shores.

The playwright constructs a real, yet scary picture of a crossroad- between seeking greener pastures overseas and contributing positively to public service at the risk of being stained with corrupt practices prevalent in the country.

Tosan is the young Nigerian whose uncle, Otunba Sagay is a corrupt governor. Tosan is also in a love net with Kike, a materialistic lady with an insatiable appetite for shopping. His love rival, Rex is a trained medical practitioner and a serial philanderer who got served. He is conned by an online female love interest who facilitates his journey to the UK. On his arrival, he discovers that his beau is not a white woman, but an African and in final revelation, a Nigerian.
Dele, another Nigerian medical practitioner turned street musician, has his dreams of a better life in London ripped as his Nigerian education has no value in the UK labour market. Through these vignettes of narratives, the playwright preaches patriotism, a relevant theme on independence day celebration.

Back to the performance, the most captivating of the ensemble was the lighting. There was a generous use of floodlights, as expected in a musical, and a few follow-spots that delineated the lead characters from the others in some of the scenes. Next was the costumes, which were predominantly sourced from sequined fabrics to add the glamour to each characterisation. Though sequins are hardly part of an academic gown, their inclusion attested to the fantastical nature of the designs, simply put, larger than life.

Perhaps, the most important element of a musical is the sound production. To start with, the Congress Hall is not built as a standard theatre venue. Without acoustic elements, the music emanating from the speakers started off on a very pitchy note. Then about four scenes into the performance, the volume seemed a little more moderated. That again is a reminder that a state-of-the-art, purpose built theatre facility is needed in the nation’s federal capital territory to accommodate performances of such magnitude.

With songs drawn mostly from a playlist of popular Nigerian artists such as Olamide, Sunny Ade, Sound Sultan and the legendary, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the musical took hard punches in light-hearted comedy that mocks governance and electioneering process in Nigeria. It’s quite daring on the part of the playwright to touch on widely publicised scandals in public service and performing it under the watch of many of some of the key players in the political drama. WAKAA was able to inform, educate and entertain at the same time although the character, Tosan’s patriotic line about dying as a man of integrity deserved an applause than just silence. Maybe, a food for thought it was.

The secretary, MTN Foundation, one of the lead sponsors of WAKAA, Nonny Ugboma, explained why the organisation is supporting the arts with a huge sense of responsibility.
“Nigeria has such a rich culture, diversity and lots of talents. We just got back from London for Sharp. Some of them were there. It was an amazing production with sold out shows. And now in Abuja, it is fitting into Independence Day celebration. I want to encourage the other production houses to toll the line. We are facilitating this so that more people can embrace Nigerian production s. Typically, over the years, people have moved away from anything Nigerian and had become westernised. That’s why we call this movement a renaissance. Theatre is where the soul of entertainment is and we’re happy to be part of it,” she said.

Austen-Peters, in her opening remarks, called on government to review the educational curriculum in Nigeria so as to equip Nigerian youths with requisite skills that match their individual passion. Citing herself as an example, Austen-Peters said her production team is made up of individuals who are not necessarily graduates of arts or theatre but with raw talents in performing arts. She remarked that the right training will help build a knowledge economy that will contribute largely to the development of the creative sector. She expressed gratitude to MTN Foundation, FIRS and other sponsors for the show which woke the city up from its slumber.