The riveting musical drama set in post-colonial Lagos, Kakadu the Musical makes a full circle moment in theatre with a planned comeback show this holiday just a decade after its first production. Yinka Olatunbosun reports
Theatre itself was a strong cultural phenomenon in the 50s, 60s and 70s in Nigeria. The father of Yoruba contemporary theatre, Herbert Ogunde seemed to set the pace for performing art to serve as national conscience. Fast-forward to the 80s and 90s, there was a decline in theatre culture except for the theatre troupes owned by government parastatals and international cultural organisations. With lack of public funding for the arts, especially theatre, theatre-goers seemed to seek entertainment mostly on Nigerian campuses and outside the Nigerian shores.
Ten years ago, Kakadu the Musical changed the narrative; returning the drama to an elevated level that it became very attractive to corporate organisations, government officials and the general public. Kakadu was first performed in Lagos in 2013 and a year later at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and is the first Nigerian musical to be staged in South Africa in 2017. The country’s largest theatre, Nelson Mandela Theatre in Johannesburg was the venue for this production which was part of the Africa Day Celebrations from June 7th to the 18th that year.
The musical, rich in spectacle, tells the story of dreams and hopes, of peace and war, of friendships and broken promises, of pain and loss, and of love and innocence.
Kakadu, the musical, came at a time when the Nigerian audience seemed to be yearning for something different from sitcoms and home videos. There was also a growing need to grow Nigerian theatre to a world-class standard, just as with music and the visual arts. For the executive producer of Kakadu, Uche Nwokedi SAN, venturing into theatre started with a personal desire to write beyond legal briefs and later burgeon into something bigger—empowering youths through the creative arts.
That was the genesis of Playhouse Initiative, a non-profit organisation set up by Nwokedi and his wife, Winifred, to train and empower young creatives with an interest in music, dance, drama, acting, and more. On his own, Nwokedi worked really hard to deliver a masterpiece on stage. Kakadu, like sweet crude, went through a series of refinements made possible by a formidable team comprising the cast and crew, 50 men strong.
At the helm of the production is Kanayo Omo, the artistic director of Kakadu the musical. The UK-based Nigerian director coordinated the development of the story and characters, paying attention to stage use, lighting, sound, and other elements of the production. Driven by music and set in a popular nightclub in Lagos of the same name, Kakadu is a kaleidoscope of sounds: highlife, calypso, the Latin beat, Afrobeat, Anglo-American soul, pop, as well as Nigerian folk songs.
With a romantic story as the icing on the cake, the playwright weaves a powerful story about national unity and humanity through a collage of music, fashion, and dance. Essentially a multi-generation piece, Kakadu is even more relevant now than it was first produced, considering the fracture in national unity caused by the events surrounding the last elections.
The audience is more likely to draw parallels between the disenchantment that characterised the temperament in the post-civil war period and post-election in present-day Nigeria.
Reflecting on what influenced the choice of music in the drama, Nwokedi revealed that childhood nostalgia was a factor.
“The most interesting part of writing Kakadu was to weave a story around the songs that I grew up listening to, and at the same time using the songs both as dialogue in the play, and as milestones for the passage of time,” he says. “Thus, the music became a character on its own and in a sense my alter ego in the story.”
For those who had seen Kakadu the musical before, there’s a certain degree of expectation that comes with waiting for the show. Preparing the audience for what to expect, Nwokedi revealed some of the new bits of the 10th year production.
“We have a new cast,” he discloses during a telephone conversation. “The staging is going to be different. We will bring a new aspect of the story. Kakadu today is more relevant than it was. It is a story that is never stale. A lot of people have called for it to be done. I think it is a great time to run it.”
With an assortment of fashion tastes of the decade, the costume used in Kakadu had always been a subject of interest in fashion blogs and websites. The ensemble are windows into the popular culture of the 60s and how that represents the spirit of the time.
Still on the Kakadu team is Ben Ogbeiwi, its musical director since inception. He is one of the nation’s finest musicologists, famous for his role in the music reality show, Project Fame.
When asked why Kakadu has always been staged in Lagos, Nwokedi said: “Lagos is the most convenient place for us to have the show. The fact that we are supported by First Bank Plc makes it a more compelling and convenient location for the production. We can consider Abuja subsequently if we can get sponsorship.”
Bringing Kakadu to the stage at a period where inflation is at an all time high is a rare show of resilience. But Nwokedi is not one to be cowed into creating digital content in lieu of the theatre experience.
“Regardless of the popularity of digital content, you cannot run away from the theatre,” he adds. “Many started their careers in the theatre and then moved on to other things. I am very traditional about these things and I would always do theatre.”