Vanessa Obioha’s encounter with the award-winning poet, spoken word artist, and actor, Titilope Sonuga, who recently added a feather to her cap by penning the critically-acclaimed musical, ‘Ada The Country’, reveals a woman with a grand design to capture and titivate the imagination
It’s the last day of ‘Ada the Country’ musical and theatre goers were trickling in. The regular tickets were sold out and only those who could afford the VIP or VVIP had access to the musical which started showing on January 2. The last-minute rush was unexpected. For the three days, the musical showed at Agip Recital Hall of MUSON Centre, the hall was almost full. But on this last day, the hall was spilling with both first-timers and avid fans of theatre.
Somewhere in that packed hall sat Titilope Sonuga, the award-winning poet, spoken word artist, and actor who penned the musical. It was her first attempt at playwrighting. Her previous works were usually spoken word performances, an art she is famous for.
But sitting down there in the midst of the audience, watching the actors on stage bring her words to life in a galvanic performance, listening to the audience’s gamut of emotions was an overwhelming experience.
“It was wild, just to see the response to words and scenarios that once only existed in my head. Usually, I am on stage performing, far away from the audience. This was the first time I was side by side with them, quietly watching along with them. To hear them laugh, to see them cry, or nod in agreement, is truly one of the greatest gifts of my career,” she says.
‘Ada the Country’ is a musical produced by Doyenne Circle and directed by Kemi Lala Akindoju who also co-produced. The musical is centred on a young grieving woman who lost her child in an inferno. Riddled with guilt and grief, she sought the comforting arms of her mother, leaving behind her husband. The journey back home is a reawakening for her as she questions the norms that hinder women from following their passion.
But the beauty of Sonuga’s play is the supporting characters who played friends and relatives to the lead character. They were women and popular thespians who in consoling their friends found an avenue to share their own stories.
The concept for the musical was first conceived by the production company Doyenne Circle. They wanted a play with the title and would cut across generations of women but had no idea how to go about it. Then Akindoju spun a great idea about the casting and the rest was left to Sonuga to bring to life.
“I started picturing these women on my mind and what they would like to say. What was urgent and important to them, and how to bridge different generations of women wanting to tell their own stories and each of these stories being valid and true. We decided to roll out the story and share ideas with each other and that’s how we developed the script,” Sonuga explains as she stood outside the venue after the first showing on the last day.
She was repeatedly stopped by fans during the interview who wanted to laud her efforts. She graciously accepted their compliments and even posed with those who wanted photographs.
In writing the musical, Sonuga was careful not to lean too much in the sorrow of the titular character played by Nollywood actress, Kate Henshaw. She tried to strike a balance with the plot and characters.
“I noticed,” says Sonuga, “a lot of production tends to lean towards women and all the bad things that happened to them. Those things are true and they do exist but I wanted to have balance by having touches of humour and hope. We also wanted to create avenues to communicate the narrative a little bit.
“So you will see characters like Kemi (played by Akindoju) who starts off one way and then transition to another thing in the script. That is, giving the characters dualities. I wanted to show imperfections of women, friendship, motherhood and for all of those things to still be true and relevant.”
Initially advertised as an all-female cast, a singular male character was later introduced to the musical. Sonuga tried not to follow the hypermasculinity casting that are copious in most productions. Rather, she focused on the weakness of her male character, portraying him as one who is soft and confident in his actions.
She adds, “In portraying the male character as a soft man who generally seemed to know what he is doing, gave us room to explore what that means for a man and the discomfort in observing a man who is so soft and leans on his mother. He exists in the world and people will easily recognize him.”
Exploring those characters required Sonuga to reach for emotional depths. She revealed that she threw in everything, from being a daughter to a mother.
“My mother had four girls,” she recounts.
“My experience as a mother who just had her own child, my conversations with other women and friends. There is nothing you saw on that stage that hasn’t happened to me or somebody that I know. Some of those monologues are real-life experiences that are consolidated on the pages. Yes, I have to go to some places, asked some questions and try to be fearless.
The accolades she received for the play is still pouring. When she was called on stage to take a bow, a thundering applause greeted her. She’s been getting a lot of feedback since the show began.
“The response to the play has been truly incredible and extremely encouraging,” Sonuga admits.
“It is always an honour to know that people see themselves in the play and respond so strongly to it. For a lot of people, no matter their age, gender, or background, they were able to find a piece of truth, a character to connect with and find a new way of looking at a particular issue. That is the ultimate compliment, that it mattered to people.”
She considered the musical which had other thespians like Joke Silva, Patience Ozokwor, Bimbo Akintola, Oludara Egerton-Shygnle, Ade Laoye and Chioma ‘Chigul’ Omeruah in lead characters, a success.
“The success of the series, the fact that each show was sold out, the kinds of conversations it sparked is a testament to the fact that people are hungry for good art, and elevated narratives,” Sonuga reveals. “The project showed that the right combination of marketing, productions, acting and story will bring people to theatres time and time again. Some people mentioned that it was their first time coming out to see a play in Nigeria. That’s powerful.”
But with these accolades, Sonuga sometimes feared if she could still write another piece. She said the feeling of apprehension is common among creatives. However, she tries as much as possible to create her next work in isolation so as not to be influenced by the feedback from her previous works. It is not easy for her lifestyle, she confessed.
The hallmarks of Sonuga’s works are the life that springs from the words. They are lines that portray humanity in the purest form, radiating with beauty as each word delves deeper into the meaning of human existence. It is seen in the rhythmic flow of the monologues in the musical. She described each character’s ordeal with intensity and precision, eliciting emotions that run deep.
Trained as a civil engineer, Sonuga had a keen interest in poetry. At first, she struggled with it but with time, it became apparent that it was a providence-preferred path for her. Her first shot to fame was in 2011 when she won the Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer Award.
The following year saw her grabbing headlines with her win in the Maya Angelou Poetry Contest. Having spent most of her life in Canada, coming back home, she became the first Nigerian poet to perform at a presidential inauguration during President Muhammadu Buhari’s first inauguration ceremony in May 2015. At that ceremony, she performed a piece titled, ‘We Are Ready’.
It was only a matter of time before she assumed the titanic fame as one of Nigeria’s prominent poets and spoken word artists, having penned her own one-man stage performances. There was ‘Becoming’ which she performed in 2015. She was also among the spoken word artists who were featured at the Heritage Bank TV commercial in 2017.
Her poem ‘I Am’ was one of the fans favourites. Apart from poetry, she fetched a role in Ndani’s TV hit television series, ‘Gidi Up’.
Marriage came calling in 2016 and the artist recently embraced motherhood.
She says, “Someone said something to me recently about motherhood that I felt was very profound. She said ‘just as you are watching your children grow up, they are also watching you.’ I think about that all the time; that my child is watching a child. That gives me great relief to know that I’m going to mess up, I’m going to be imperfect as my mother was. But the best I can do for him is to try to grow up as fast as possible.”
As part of her plan to spend more time with her child, she deliberately went off social media. But more importantly, staying offline is a creative experiment. She put it this way:
“Social media is a bit noisy but it is also very useful. A lot of people know me and my works through social media. For this year, I gave myself a creative mandate, it is a new way of life that I’m experimenting with,” Sonuga acknowledges.
“Trying to see where I can spend those extra few moments of my daily life. I have a little child which requires devotion and I could spend those moments with him and remove myself from the feedback. This is like an addict suffering because this is the season when there are most buzz online and the temptation to find out what is going on.
“At the same time, I’m also trying to find out what will happen to my work if I allow it to exist and not affected by the feedback online. So I can comfortably create the next thing without the fear of it not being as good as the last one.”