The six-day Lagos Theatre Festival, an initiative of British Council, Nigeria was founded five years ago to activate theatre shows in multiple venues across the city of Lagos. Yinka Olatunbosun reports on the unconventional twists to the last edition, which berthed on the mainland for the first time since inception

“Unconventional” was inscribed on the straw fedora hats that were given to most of the journalists at the opening ceremony of the long-anticipated Lagos Theatre Festival. Very likely, it was meant to prepare heads for the scorching sun and their hearts for the nature of the festival which featured 110 shows from 47 theatre producers drawn from the Island and the Mainland.

Indeed, Lagos Mainland was included for the first time this year. For years, Lagos residents on the mainland have complained about being excluded from major shows, which are mostly held at venues on the Island. But are the Mainlanders really ready for action?

The performances were not limited to drama; other genres like spoken word, cabaret, dance and comedy were included in the 2018 production. The festival, growing ever so popular each year, had over 5,500 attendees in the previous year. This fact may have contributed to the LTF being rated as one of the top 20 festivals in the world. As many would agree, the last edition was filled with lots of experimental pieces, while gearing towards audience development even within the unconventional spaces.

Besides the lead shows at the main venue for the festival, Freedom Park, fringe shows were distributed across the city in very unusual, if not shocking venues. There were performances in Oaks Garden Cultural Centre, Isheri-Idimu, Igando, University of Lagos, Yaba; Maplewood Garden, Agege; and Gig House, Ogba.

It was an unusual encounter in Ogba, designated as Venue 20 in the LTF programme of events. First, the venue is a residential apartment. Secondly, the neighborhood is quite secluded. Without the security personnel at the gate leading into the street, it could have been a lone search for the venue. Pulling over right in front of Gig house, it didn’t look like any activity was taking place in and around it. The building next door looked quite deserted and every instinct would have advised, “Run’’. There was nothing scary about the venue. A visitor might have been assailed by the disconcerting thought that something about the venue evoked a kidnappers’ den.

In 21st century Nigeria, artists seek after similar places as venues for rehearsals and now, performances. Brushing the worry aside, one of the performing artists opened the gate to usher in his guests. A little notice was pasted at the gate to authenticate the venue as one of the destinations for LTF. That was the assurance needed to follow his lead into the hall which already had a handful of audience members. The venue was a boys’ quarter-apartment converted into a tidy performance space. The sound system had been mounted in front of the suspended television screen which displayed some information about the performance and the performers.

The show was a performance poetry with acoustic and vocal accompaniments. Titled, “Beautiful Nigeria,’’ it was one of the five fictional poetic tales weaving narrations with vocal performance. Olajide Akoni, the performance poet delivered his easy yet thought-provoking lines alongside his music associate, Da’ara after being introduced with flourish by the emcee, Omonor. Da’ara’s high pitches were reminiscent of John Legend’s with his echoing “Naija will live’’ hook on the lips of many among the audience.

Through the lines of “Beautiful Nigeria”, Akoni romanticises the character of the Nigerian state as a female. He popped the question as a man would propose to a lady, “Can I spend the rest of my life with you?’’ But this was with a view to examining whether it is still worthwhile to continue to live in Nigeria under inhospitable conditions such as poverty, nepotism, corruption, bad leadership and dilapidated infrastructures, amongst others.
Clad in green-white-green accessories, Akoni had prepared for the fringe show with the seriousness of a lead show. He’s not new to the game, having been in performance for 10 years. When the call for entries for the festival was made, he saw it as an opportunity to showcase some of his long existing works on a platform that is talent-oriented.

Though March 21 has been set aside by UNESCO to mark the World Poetry Day, the literature genre is still missing a big spot on Nigeria’s cultural landscape. Yes, performance poets are gradually earning performance spots but they are often used as supporting artists in major events. Recently, when performance poets infused other theatrical elements such as dance and music, they became listed as headliners.

In an electronic chat, Akoni expressed his view on the play of poetry in Nigerian cultural sphere and performing arts. “I think it is still at a minority position. Sincerely, I believe that ‘seeing through the eyes of a poet’’ is essential to building a foundation of creativity and innovation for all the arts, other industries and the rest of society,’’ he said.

Another unconventional twist to LTF 2018 was Yolanda Mercy’s performance of the monologue, “Quarter Life Crisis’’. Hers was one of the curated shows at the festival. Playing the sole character of Alicia, Yolanda is one of the international artists based in the UK who performed a very worded play with multi-media support. The plot revolves around a young female character, Alicia, a confused Londoner on a search for love. As strongly as Alicia wishes to relish her youthfulness, the cultural interference that imposes certain expectations on a female within her age bracket constantly gets in the way.

The voice-over, emanating from a place of deep emotional concern, was from her grandmother in Lagos. It was quite significant too that the voice over was rendered in Yoruba to properly situate the cultural context within which the drama is played. Although the issues around finding love and marrying at a socially acceptable age is a global one, it is more profound when it is given a traditional treatment. That is the basis for quarter-life crisis.

In terms of technicality, the voice-over played more than one function in the monologue. It allowed Yolanda to catch her breath and rest in this fast-paced imaginative drama. It was also the cue for late arrivals to enter the performance space as frequent entrances and exits would have distracted the sole character in this very challenging monologue. Most of the monologues performed at the LTF included role playing by the audience. It was unusual but very interesting. Some members of audience proved to be great acts themselves while others were incredibly shy when drawn out to play.

Next year, the LTF will transit from being British Council’s pet project into a Nigerian organisation run by a board of trustees to be chaired by a former commissioner Olasupo Shasore . Also on the board are four other members namely Joke Silva, Bolanle Austen-Peters, David Evans and Tosin Oshinowo.