The Playwright Q&A: Bola Agbaje

Bola Agbaje colour. Pic by Brian Would

(ARISELIVE.com, March 2013) Words Carinya Sharples  Photo credit Brian Would

In her Olivier-Award winning debut play Gone Too Far, Bola Agbaje brilliantly captured the lives of young black residents on a London council estate. In her new play, The Burial, the playwright draws on her Nigerian heritage in a satire about a daughter, her late father and his two Nigerian wives.

If that sounds like a Nollywood plotline, it’s no wonder. Raised in London (bar a couple of years in Nigeria), Agbaje is fascinated by Nigerian culture and both the country’s firmly established DVD market and its burgeoning cinema scene, and carried out careful research to write the play.

The Burial is set to open at The Albany theatre in Deptford, South East London, on 2 May. But that’s far from the only ink pot Agbaje has her pen in. She has also written a play, Take A Deep Breath And Breathe – inspired by Aristophanes’ famous female-sex-ban play Lysistrata. The production, performed by young actors from Ovalhouse theatre’s Drama Company, runs from 16-20 April.

In a break between rehearsals and castings, ARISE met Agbaje in the café of the Royal Court Theatre, the launchpad for her first play. Perched on a high stool, she told us all about writing the script for the film adaptation of Gone Too Far, exciting future projects, African Buddhists and much more we couldn’t squeeze in here.

Already a fan of ARISE, she was keen to link up. “My aim is to get my work out into Nigeria so for me this is a good thing,” she declared. “It’s such an emerging market and I want to be part of it from the beginning.” Nigeria, are you listening?

ARISE: How are things going with The Burial so far?
Bola Agbaje: It’s cool. We’ve just finished casting and we start rehearsals next week, so at the moment I’m just redrafting it, because I recently had a play on here [at the Royal Court Theatre] called Belong and if you look on it from outside it was about the Black-Nigerian experience and mixed cultures – so with The Burial I wanted people not to make the assumption that it’s the same as Belong. It’s a totally different style, exploring music, dance and dream sequence and fantasy, which I’ve never done before but a lot of traditional African playwrights – like Wole Soyinka – used to do that in their work. Because we didn’t grow up learning African mythology or anything like that it’s a lot harder to incorporate that into your work. So that’s my challenge with this play.

How are you introducing these new forms? Are you bringing in musicians and choreographers?
Well, I’ve sourced the old music myself because I like talking to my parents, asking them about traditional folk songs and stuff like that and incorporating that in it. And then talking to loads of musicians about how to do it, watching loads of different plays and reading old screenplays from African contemporary playwrights. It’s tough. [There’s been] a lot of research for this play. The others you just kind of write from memory but this one… I don’t want to get it wrong!

With more and more African and Nigerian productions coming to London stages – such as The Winter’s Tale in Yoruba, Feast at the Young Vic and the critically acclaimed Mies Julie (still on at Riverside Studios), do you feel there’s more space for Nigerian theatre?
I think so. It’s important to have those voices. Like with any culture, you want an Irish playwright to tell an Irish story, you want a Scottish playwright to tell a Scottish story and I think it’s the same with Nigerians. For too long it feels like we haven’t had a voice in London. There was a time when you had the Wole Soyinkas, the Chinua Achebes, you had all those great authors who came out and had global recognition, but then after a while it just seemed like it kind of died down completely. So it’s nice that now there are more emerging – like [Nigerian playwright] Janice Okoh, she’s got a play on at the moment [Three Birds] at the Bush Theatre. So there are loads more coming out, and there are loads of Nigerian actors – LOADS! So it’s nice to tell those stories and to be given the platform to tell those stories.

Identity has been a theme throughout your work. In The Burial you’re exploring religious identity too. What made you want to approach that?
I’ve always been interested in religious studies and my mum’s a Muslim, but I don’t practise, so it’s kind of weird in my family – where my mum and my sister are practising Muslims but me and my younger sister are not. And I went to a Catholic school when I was younger, so I’ve been exposed to all different types of religions. But I find it quite fascinating how that has an impact on people’s daily lives; how people think, how people react to certain situations – so I wanted to explore that. Tradition more than religion. Like with The Burial, it’s about what traditions do you follow when someone dies? What do you do? How do you bury someone? Because your religion has an impact.

And you brought Buddhism as well into it. That’s more unusual…
Most Africans aren’t Buddhist so I thought it was an interesting twist. I’ve met a few and you know people have raised eyebrows when someone [goes against] what religion you expect. Like [you anticipate] Christian or Muslim or atheist and then they go ‘Buddhist’ – and you’re like, this is a little bit wrong! ‘How did you get involved in that culture?’ So I thought it was interesting to explore that.

And African culture, music and creativity are hot right now in London…
Of course, completely. Whenever I explore my Nigerian culture it is a bit of making up for the lost time when I was younger and wasn’t so proud of it. My sister’s 18 and I find it so fascinating watching her growing up and she can’t believe there was a time when it wasn’t cool to be African. She’s like ‘How is that possible?!’

“We’re at that stage where it’s not about fitting in, it’s about standing out – and [being African] it’s the thing that gives you an edge”

Why do you think things have changed?
I think there are more of us [Africans] in London, in England, and more people are tapping into that. My parents came over in the 80s and, like a lot of parents, their whole idea was to set up a new life and fit in. Whereas now we’re at that stage where it’s not about fitting in, it’s about standing out – and [being African] it’s the thing that gives you an edge.

What would be your ideal project to work on? A TV series? Another film?
At the moment I’m developing a TV series – actually I’m developing a web series that I’m really keen to get off the ground because I’ve seen loads of web series online. Have I heard of Awkward Black Girl? It’s amazing! There’s also a Nigerian one that comes on at the moment called Gidi Up which is only about 8 minutes long but it’s so fascinating so I want to be a part of that movement.

Have you got a concept in mind?
Yeah but I can’t say yet, it’s not out there – someone could steal the idea. But I’m quite excited about that. And I’d love my [theatre] work to be performed in Nigeria and do more TV and more film stuff. I’m working on a collaborative piece for a film idea with Destiny Ekaragha, she’s the director of Gone Too Far. I’ve known her for a while now, we’re worked together closely on this film so I know what I’m in for. We’ve got a similar sense of humour so it won’t be a shock.

Last October [through 2Far Media] I also produced my own play [House Of Corrections at Riverside Studios]; funded it myself and put it on myself. That was quite an experience, a hard experience – I learned to appreciate other aspects of what makes a play come alive. But I want to do more of that – I got a buzz from it.

Nigeria is big on your radar at the moment. Do you want to travel out there sometime?
I do, I do. I might be going out later on this year because one of the lead actors of Gone Too Far, O.C. Ukeje, is one of the rising Nollywood stars so we want to have a premiere out in Nigeria. That will be kind of cool.

Do you know when Gone Too Far will be released?
No. Before its official opening we’re going to do a series of screenings though. So we’ve got one at the end of the month [March], a couple more in May/June and then officially it launches in October – hopefully through London Film Festival. I’m really excited. It’s a good little film.

Would you consider moving to Lagos for a while?
I’d love to. I’ve got loads of family out there so it wouldn’t be a massive leap, and as I writer I can work anywhere. As long as it’s got electricity and internet [laughs]! But I just want to make my mark here, make a bigger stamp on this place first and go over. The aim is to be global, tough task but that’s the aim! And the great thing about writing, making film or having a play is that it can travel around the world. And that’s what’s exciting for me being a writer – your work can reach so many different people, it can live on. Good work lives on for a long time.

Last year I had a version of my play on in Germany, and in Italy they did a translation of my play Gone Too Far, which was really cool. I went to go and see it and it was so weird watching them speak Italian and not understanding a word they were saying but I knew where they were in the story based on where people were laughing. It was amazing to see, and to see that it worked somewhere else.

You’ve named Wole Soyinka as one of your role models. How do you feel about being a role model yourself now?
I grew up in Peckham and I make no shame of growing up on an estate or coming from that environment but if that motivates one person to go off and do something against the norm then I’ll feel like I’ve done my job… Most of the time what you’re inspired by is seeing someone else doing it, it’s those mirrors that people hold up so you go ‘Oh actually if she can do it I can do it too’. It’s like when we were filming Gone Too Far; my nieces and nephews came on set and it was the first time they’ve ever been on a film set and it was fascinating to watch them see the process of filmmaking and then go ‘I want to be a director. I want to be a writer’ – and that’s how it works really. My nephew saw Destiny directing and was like ‘She’s the boss, I want to be the boss!’

The Burial is at The Albany, London, from 2-11 May 2013. For more details and to book tickets visit www.thealbany.org.uk

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