KEMI LALA AKINDOJU: Telling Naked Stories

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One Tuesday afternoon, actress Kemi ‘Lala’ Akindoju hooked up with Dara Shyngle, Brenda and Kenneth Uphopho to discuss the narrative and direction of her show, Naked, which was performed, recently. It was the second time the play would be staged for Lagos audience.

The first show took place in February at Freedom Park Lagos Island, as part of the British Theatre Festival. Lala who played the character in the one-woman show was exceptionally lauded for delivering a spectacular performance.
A famed Nollywood talent, Lala gave life to the poetic lines of Titilope Sonuga, a celebrated spoken word artist, as she held her audience spellbound with the riveting tale of a woman’s journey – navigating through life, love and career until she finds her path. Drawing from her own experience, she narrated the struggles of being a woman; from discrimination, success, failures to low expectations.

At first, she was sceptical about the idea. There was so much about her in the public space. As a Nollywood actor, people remember her for her daring roles in Tunde Kelani’s Dazzling Mirage, Kunle Afolayan’s The CEO, and more recently Biola Alabi’s film, Lara and the Beat. A drama instructor herself, she also runs The Make It Happen Production and has produced some of the most talked about plays in Nigeria including the V Monologues, The Wives and London Life, Lagos Living. In real life, her bold decision to play the best man role at her best friend OC Ukeje’s wedding further proved her valiance

But when it came to revealing her journey to the public, she got cold feet.
“I always wanted to do a one-woman show,” she said. “Brenda has insisted that it was time. I thought we would find a story to tell and perform something. Then the first meeting we had, Brenda and Dara thought it would be better if I tell my personal story. They are quite close to me so they know a lot about me. I was like no way I’m going to tell my story. People don’t really know me that way and I’m okay with that.
“But Brenda insisted that I have to share my story. She suggested that my friend Titilope Sonuga write the poems. I was hoping to get some encouragement from Titi when I spoke to her about it but she shocked me instead. She felt it was the only way for me to really pass the message across. Moreover in the industry now, truth and vulnerability is the only form of storytelling that people are really interested in. People are tired of the facade.”

Despite her fears, Lala couldn’t ignore the persuasive voice urging her to go the extra mile. Before she knew it, she and Brenda were co-producing Naked while Dara assumed the role of associate producer and Kenneth, the director.

Naked served as a metaphor for Lala to bring to the open certain issues that are whispered in the closet.
“The first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word naked is no clothes. And if we look at it, if we all stripped now, there are things our clothes, inner garments are hiding. But when we wear our outfits, we look the way we want the world to see us or the way we are feeling at the time but it is not the way we really are. The core of this show is really about conversations of how we really are, using myself as a point of contact.

It’s worse now because now there are so many things to talk about. There is pressure, social media, false aspirations that people have and nobody is really telling the truth about their journeys, even insecurities. There are many things that many have gone through but they are ashamed to talk about it. There are failure stories, people only want to share their success stories, and nobody knows the number of ‘nos’ you got before you got that one deal. So I thought maybe if we should share this, we can start getting people to be honest and talk about their highs and lows. It is okay to be on the low side but our mustn’t stay there. You must get back to your feet.”

For its second run, however, Lala and her partners flipped the script. Still embedded in feminism, the creative brains opt to tackle other issues that most women grapple with but are barely discussed.
Celebrated author and feminist Chimamanda Adichie’s latest squabble in the media was a starting point for the discourse.

“She didn’t say that a man shouldn’t open the door for a woman,” Lala voiced out strongly to her colleagues. They were in a sparsely furnished living room in a residence on the Mainland. None of the women was preened for this interview. They were all dressed casually with no make-up. The women were so engrossed in their discussion that they didn’t bat an eyelid when this reporter walked in.
“People misinterpreted her,” added Dara.

Sometime in June, Adichie was pilloried on social media for condemning the chivalry act of men opening doors for women during an interview with South African comedian and host of the Daily Show, Trevoh Noah.
“I think gestures like holding the door shouldn’t be gender-based,” Adichie said. “I think it’s a lovely thing to hold the door but we should hold the door for everyone. Like, I hold the door for men and for women. And so I think the idea of someone holding the door for a woman because she’s a woman is what I have trouble with.

“I’m quite happy for people to hold the door for me. But I’m like, hope they’re not doing it because of this sort of idea of chivalry. Because chivalry is really about the idea that women are somehow weak and need protecting. But we know that really, there are many women who are stronger than men,” concluded Adichie.
It is from this standpoint that Lala and her friends chose to approach feminism for the production.
Feminism means different things to these women. It goes beyond shattering of glass ceilings, but rather cast a light on humanity as the basis for gender equality.

“I totally agree with Chimamanda,” remarked Lala. “The thing with most feminists today is that they choose the period they want to be feminists. Sometimes they are feminists, other times they are the weaker sex. The point she made about women being put aside because they are weak during crisis is very critical. It really has to stop. If we really want to base a woman’s weakness on hazardous circumstances, what about the children, people with disabilities, the old and sick ones?

“Even if I’m asking you for help, it’s because I’m a person not because I’m weak. We need to love each other to help. It’s such a shame that in our dear country, there are places where women are still in the back seat.”
“But you also have to understand that Lagos is not Nigeria,” the director, Kenneth pointed out. As the only man in the mix, his job is to ensure that the conversations are seamlessly tied to project a whole idea. He is of the opinion that the underlying factor responsible for female discrimination in the society today is indoctrination, a point others easily agreed to.

“Yes, it is. It is not biblical because on further study of the Bible, I realised that God created man and woman equal. Some of these things are products of how our parents raised us,” said Lala
The quad argued that the male and female child should be treated equally.

“Do not tell your daughter to learn how to cook because she will get married someday. No! Teach her how to cook because she has to – same with the male child. Parents have to stop telling their male child that their role in the society is to work while the female child is to take care of the home. You have to treat them equally. Let them know there is no segregation. If he can play football, she can also play basketball,” Brenda emphasized.
Of all topics Lala had on her list, marriage was the most paramount. A single lady herself, Lala believes that marriage is not an accomplishment.

“Most women often think that because they are married, they are better than single ladies. You will hear a woman talk about another woman’s achievement based on her marital status. You will hear acerbic statements like because a woman is successful, she can’t clinch a husband.”

“But let’s be honest to ourselves. We are all guilty of this,” said Brenda “We all get to that point where we as women are judged for every action we take. People question why we take beer, why do we owe a certain kind of car when we are not married. But no one is questioning the man. He has adjusted his life to suit any situation.”
“I also had a similar experience,” Dara added. She narrated how she mistakenly suggested to a married pregnant friend of hers to move back to the country.

“She completely lost it. She was like why am I not asking the man when he will move back. Why am I asking her now that her body is undergoing some changes to add more changes? She rolled out so many reasons that I felt so guilty.”

On the other hand, the burning issue on Brenda’s mind was success by corruption. She defined it as when a woman climbed the rungs of the success ladder by immoral means. She complained of the rampant practice at workplaces and stressed that it was the reason most men find it hard to respect women.
Other interesting topics discussed include vindictive mentorship – a situation where the mentor is unwilling to see the mentee more successful.

As much as the creative quad wish to project a positive mindset to the younger generation, they also want the older generation who have either made mistakes or ignorant of their place in the society to also join the conversation.
“If they knew what we know now, they wouldn’t be divorced or endure domestic abuse. We hope they can also come out and share their stories.”

Plans are underway to take Naked to other parts of the world to share the gospel of gender equality.