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Thinking Through Racism: Nigerian Theatre’s Response

Eseovwe Emakunu: Hello, Mr. Israel. It's good to have you here. Can you give us a brief introduction of yourself?

Israel Wekpe: My name is Israel Wekpe. I'm a PhD researcher at the University of Leeds. My areas of interest are intercultural theatre, Ola Rotimi, and new directions in Nigerian theatre. I have been a theatre practitioner for over thirty years; I write, direct, and train actors.

Eseovwe: All right. Mr. Israel, there's been this renewed voice against racism in the world and how we need to encourage inclusivity and people coming together as one. What's your take on the renewed agitation against racism?

Israel: I think the world has become woke. The world is thinking about racism so much. But it's a sad reality and a very disturbing phenomenon; quite distasteful. It's always been there. It is still there. It's about prejudice and discrimination—and that is found across religions, skin colors, and borders. This contestation creates a divide, and there has to be a convergence. This is where we think about anti-racism and antidiscrimination. Whether it's the color of someone’s skin, the sound of their name, or their face alone, it's about discrimination. It's about prejudice.

Eseovwe: We should encourage more conversation and discussions about it so that we can actually nip this in the bud. Let's try and situate it into a Nigerian context. How do we contextualize racism in Nigeria and how has Nigerian theatre responded to it?

Israel: I can't say that... Nigerian theatre has always seen racism in different lights. Remember the apartheid fights in South Africa? Nigeria contributed to that. As a young man in secondary school, I remember contributing money to that fund, alongside South Africans with me in school, to bring some of them to Nigeria back in the 1970s. But we had performances in that regard—improvisational performances and performances to bring awareness about what was happening in South Africa at the time. But it was not mainstream theatre. It was theatre to enlighten people.

It’s important to remember that Nigeria is a not a multiracial country—but that word comes into the picture so I will explain about the word “race.” We have to look at it in a different light, in the Nigerian light, when talking about race in Nigeria. For me, it brings to mind Hubert Ogunde. Hubert Ogunde is referred to as the father of Nigerian modern drama and in the 1960s he wrote the play Yoruba Ronu, which means Yoruba think. And people have to come to ask themselves now about the Yoruba race; the Oduduwa race. They're looking at their lineage and saying, “This is our race.” And of course, the Igbos say they have a race. The Hausas say they have a race. And one begins to see all these contraptions or these entities saying they are racist. So, it's not only about skin now; it's about a people, it's about a language, it's about a location.

And so, where they are, they feel that they are a race because they share a certain identity—they share certain morals and customs, so they tend to look at them as race. When looking at it from that point of view, people can begin to appreciate the work of Ola Rotimi, who I studied, and look at what caused the Nigerian civil war. Rotimi's response to that was, “The gods are not to blame. We are to blame.” This comes from Rotimi’s play The Gods Are Not to Blame, which follows the story of a young man named Adewale who comes to a new community. In that same community, someone says about Adewale: “Oh, the butterfly thinks of himself as a bird.” How metaphorical. Just because they both fly, doesn't mean that they come from the same place.

That's the thing about alienation—it draws people away from inclusivity, equality, and diversity. So Nigerian theatre responds to that and will continue to respond to that. Rotimi looked at it from another context with If: A Tragedy of the Ruled. In the same context, he experimented with what they call putting a lot of languages in place rather than speaking English which, again, is foreign and technically racial. He uses the Ijaw race, the minorities in the drama, to show that element of agitation and emphasize that those discriminated against don’t have access to certain things.

That denial of access draws the marginalized away and excludes them. The embers of dissension begin to come up. This is found again in Rotimi’s Hopes of the Living Dead, which is another brilliant allegory that thinks about race in the Nigerian context. The story is set in a leprosarium with people that speak various languages. The character Nweke, who understands all the languages, interprets the different languages for those who are not able to understand when one person is speaking in their own dialect or language. Nweke becomes the rallying point—the meeting place for everyone. He becomes the symbol of unity and inclusivity, and this is what Rotimi wants us to embrace, driving home the need for acceptance regardless of our differences. We see the policeman as a symbol of aggression as he prevents protesting and enforces relocation.

All these elements coming into play show us, again, that race is power. Race is dissension. Race is anger. But race must commune as togetherness. So, we can see race as racism and anti-racism, but we must now begin to see race as a collection of people to change the narrative. We can't begin to see race as a rat race like in Langbodo, a play by Wale Ogunyemi. In this play, everybody is scrambling to get their personal things and they only care about themselves. That's not the kind of race that I want. I want the race that will encourage progression.

Now when it doesn't, for me, it becomes racism in the Nigerian context. If you look at like Ahmed Yerima’s Kafha Last Game, these are responses to the situation in South Africa, but they're also metaphors for the situation in Nigeria where power is hierarchical. When this kind of tension about power being hierarchal and misused is created, people respond in different ways. So, we must remove ourselves from that.

All these elements coming into play show us, again, that race is power. Race is dissension. Race is anger. But race must commune as togetherness.

Eseovwe: All right, thank you very much. You mentioned Hubert Ogunde's Yoruba Ronu. In this context, especially when we look at the notion of exclusivity and inclusivity, how is it a veiled response to the issue of exclusivity—especially with the realities that we face in Nigeria?

Israel: This is very crucial. Ronu means think; Ogunde tells us to think, and we should think. Process this: Is it good for society? This is the beauty of theatre. Theatre processes. Theatre is a weapon. It can change narratives or dynamics. That's what Augusto Boal says, isn't it? We are seeing that theatre can actually aggregate voices. So Yoruba Ronu is not only about the Yoruba thinking; it's about Nigeria thinking. And our response to that for theatre practitioners is to devise and make plays that continually, consistently, and consciously ask Nigerians to think about where we're going.

The keyword is “thinking” and in thinking, we're creating and engaging in conversation. In thinking, we are asking people to come together. It is not authoritarian or totalitarian or deposited in one man's head. It is a collection—a repository of all other thinkers like in the round table. So, when you have a society that is aloof or that has a leader that is aloof, you are bound to find non-thinkers. So right now, Yoruba Ronu, is a strong response by the theatre practitioner to do and make plays that should realign our trajectory.

Like I've mentioned earlier, some of the plays that I talked about are performed. Rotimi's The Gods Are Not to Blame is performed consistently. In the interpretation of this, we can begin to think along the lines of inclusivity and encouraging diversity. Indeed, this government has been criticized for not actually encouraging Nigeria's diversity. Nigeria has never been divided this much. It will sound very critical, but that is the reality. So Yoruba Ronu is about thinking, and Nigerian theatre practitioners must become aligned with this idea of thinking and not being a puppet in the hands of the government. I know they're not doing that. They are strong voices against that.

Eseovwe: Talking about the Nigerian government, now the government has largely presented itself as a brutal force against dissenting voices. Does this not count as a minus in encouraging inclusivity, especially when we consider the recent report of the Lagos End SARS panel on the Lekki Massacre?

Israel: It's been a theatre of comedies. This is very obvious. Only yesterday, I heard a minister in the government saying, “Oh, the panel is illegal.” A few days before this, another minister said “Oh, it's a hoax. There was never a massacre.” But you see, these are ingredients to create theatre. I know here at the University of Benin where I teach, at the other campus, there was a play done by young people about the Lekki Massacre. That's a reality and a lot of young people know that because social media was one way they learned about it. So, there's numerous performances and skits now. That's the theatre response.

MC Macaroni is an example of a Nigerian advocate who was very strong in it. He became an activist. Theatre is about activism now. Theatre is about agency. Theatre is about a reality that we find, like the Lekki Massacre. The End SARS protest was largely as a result of the government's inaction and irresponsibility towards young people; how the police were brutalizing young people. If a person has dreadlocks, they think that person is a scammer.

We must begin to encourage diverse opinions and stop this unconscious bias. We must restrain ourselves. That's what the theatre does: think. The Nigerian government needs to borrow from that. They must start to think. The End SARS protest was regrettable and horrendous, but it was also a moment for us to rethink our strategy as theatre practitioners. We must begin to think about the digital divide and see the power of the digital space. We must begin to think about digital theatre—internet theatre—which cuts across borders and boundaries. Indeed, at the last National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners convention in Ado-Ekiti, one of the things we talked about was sustaining theatre across boundaries. How did we even think about that? In this regard, I might say COVID was a blessing because it showed us more and more what the internet can do—not the bad but the good.

So, End SARS would eventually resonate other moments of performances. We're seeing them on the internet—young people creating. They don't want that spirit to die. The beauty about the internet is it comes out immediately. These kids on TikTok, on Facebook: Young people are increasing their voices there and we must respond in that light and think about theatre now for young audiences by young people, too. Theatre is evolving.

A black and white picture of several people dancing together in a room.

Mr. Israel Wekpe at a rehearsal session with dances of the cast of Idia, a stage production performed December 25th, 2020.

Eseovwe: So with the digital space, theatre practitioners can actually leverage it, collaboratively, to bring issues to light and tackle racism, inclusivity, and exclusivity?

Israel: Yes. For instance, Segun Adefila—who I know—is doing that across the digital divide. I think he calls it “the virtual” or something like that. It's about where the physical meets with the virtual or where the digital meets with the physical. But the important thing is that the internet has provided this space.

Right now, I'm working with a friend, Deidre Paine, on a project. She's at Northwestern University in Chicago and we're working on WhatsApp right now. Deidre is an African American and I'm a Nigerian. We're working around the acronym FAD. The “A” in FAD is about alien and the “D” is about dig. It's about my experiences here aligning with her experiences as an African American. As you can see, the internet has provided this platform for us to think about alienation, illegal migration, or legal migration. And it's also about race. It’s about diversity and equality. It's about finding voices and making voices heard. This is what we're working on, and we hope that the performance will happen next year between her students and my students.

With collaboration, we get new ideas. We learn and relearn. People who keep their minds from thinking—from exploring other possibilities and encouraging criticism—are the people who create the problems that we have and the challenges of racism because they think they are superior. This is why the world is where it is. We must begin to listen to each other. And like Hubert Ogunde says: think. It's not only Yoruba think, it’s Nigeria think. It’s America, think. United Kingdom, think. Asia, think.

Eseovwe: We need to think. That gives us a platform to engender unity, equality, and inclusivity. As a theatre practitioner with your experience, how would you use theatre to enable inclusivity, diversity, and equality in Nigeria?

In thinking about doing performances, my performances have to encourage diversity, inclusivity, and equality—and these are nonnegotiable.

Israel: Like I said, I have been practicing theatre and directing plays for thirty years. Every play that I direct has to have some form of social intention; some form of social reality. Every play must engage the people around me. Whether it's a devised piece, a published play presented on stage, or an improvised work, I think so much about how this theatre can encourage other people to be part of the narrative and conversation. So, the performances I have done and continue to do are in this light.

A class I'm teaching right now is doing Sunset in the Lagoon by Pedro Agbonifo Obaseki. Sunset in the Lagoon is set in the 1990s and it's about Maroko. One of the things I asked the students at the very beginning is: “Do you know where Maroko is?” A play becomes like a hyperlink about our history. “Do you know where Maroko is?” “Oh, it's...” They don't know. It's present-day Lekki which is a highbrow area in Lagos. It used to be Maroko and the government at that time said Maroko was sinking below sea level. But it was all a lie because now, rich people are staying there. It's now a big rich suburb of billionaires. So, people don't even realize that that's Maroko.

And then, of course, the students are doing another play—it's two, very large classes—called What If, which is a play I have written. It is my own response to how we see and imagine children; how we teach children not to even think at all. I wrote this to say children have wisdom and we must begin to listen and think like children. The character Unoma in the play is a ten-year-old girl who the audience may think of as a servant. She becomes this lone star. But in her, the audience can find tranquility and candor. These are the ingredients that enable people to begin to appreciate thinking.

In thinking about doing performances, my performances have to encourage diversity, inclusivity, and equality—and these are nonnegotiable. Yes, we can negotiate it so that we can understand each other, but there are things that we need in our society in order to grow. If they are not there, society will regress, but if we have equity, diversity, and inclusion, we'll move forward. And we don't begin to think about ethnic considerations. We can accept it and encourage it, but it should not be something that will draw us back because we're all thinking outside of the box. No—break the box.

So, these kinds of performances are for the audience to think and begin to trace our steps. As a theatre practitioner, the kind of performances I do are in this regard, and I will continue to do what I will refer to as committed theatre.

Eseovwe: Thank you very much, sir. Wow. It has been a very wonderful conversation with you. I want to get your final thoughts on racism and Nigerian theatre artists can do.

Israel: I don't think it's a tall order. I teach in a university, and I've schooled across two continents—one that is multiracial and another that is multiethnic. I think the key word is “tolerance.” It’s about accepting others' sensibilities and ideas. To get to acceptance, we have to go through a process—or more like a crucible. We have to come to that point where we ask, negotiate, engage, and converse. That is the kind of theatre that is responsible and committed. It is not utopian. It is a theatre that is alive and works; the kind of theatre that is socially relevant and not elitist. That is the kind of theatre that is not dead; that is not some form of commodification but is immediate. That is the theatre that can make change and changes itself. It is dynamic and evolving—not static but rather encouraging. That is the theatre that moves across boundaries and accepts everyone: the theatre that does not see white or Black, that does not see Igbo or Yoruba.

Racism in the Nigerian context is also about the Yoruba race, the Urhobo race, and all of that. These are voices. They may sound like a Tower of Babel, but we can convert this tower to where someone can shout with a megaphone that we have relevant theatre. For every stumbling block we can build blocks of unity using theatre. That's the kind of theatre that must also resonate in the kind of curriculum that we have in our training institutions. Theatre must respond to the yearnings of young people right now.

The End SARS movement was largely led by young people and the government response was really quite disheartening. But again, it tells us that this is the kind of theatre that we need—the kind that gives immediate response to governments inaction. And you'll find that on the internet. That's the kind of theatre we should now start to think about and the kind of theatre that will provide young people with jobs and an entrepreneurial platform where they can see the theatre as a vocation; as a way to change the narrative and put food on the table. But not education that puts food on the table yet will blind them from seeing reality.

Eseovwe: Thank you very much, Mr. Wekpe. I really enjoyed the conversation with you. I hope that we can do this again another day.

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