Tag Archives: Africa Ukoh

Charles Etubiebi’s one man performance of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes at the United Solo Festival in New York, 20 November 2019

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This Wednesday, November 20, 2019, Charles Etubiebi will perform a one man show adaptation of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes at the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York. (You can buy tickets here).  54 Silhouettes is the first Nigerian play to feature at the the world’s largest solo theatre festival, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.

The satirical 54 Silhouettes explores with both hilarity and gut-punching conviction the double bind of an actor, Victor Chimezie, who hopes to break through to a major role in Hollywood but finds himself cast in yet another poorly written stereotypical film about Africa. The play is a sly critique of Hollywood but also a self-reflexive examination of African performers who enable such representations.

To attend the event, here are the basics:

Date: November 20.
Time: 7:30pm.
Location: 410 West 42nd street, New York, NY 10036.

I reviewed the premiere stage performance of 54 Silhouettes in 2013 for the Daily Trust.

 

Original 54 Silhouettes poster 2013

Courtesy of Africa Ukoh (photographs by Victor Audu)

The play was originally produced for radio on BBC after coming first runner up in the 2011 BBC African Performance competition, and being awarded a Stratford East/30 Nigeria House grant.  I didn’t know anything about the play before I showed up at the Alliance Francaise in Jos where I had seen it advertised in November 2013, but I was blown away by it. I had seen very little Nigerian theatre set in the contemporary moment, and this was fresh and urgent and original. In particular in my review, I highlighted the performance of Charles Etubiebi who played the part of the British-born actor Kayode Adetoba.

Sparks also fly between Chimezie and Kayode Adetoba (brilliantly played by Charles Etubiebi), the Brighton-born British-Nigerian actor whom everyone calls Tobi. He speaks with a South London accent, mispronounces Chimezie’s name just as Larry and Flynn do, and when he plays a warlord speaks with what internet critics call a “generic African accent.”

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Kayode Adetoba (Charles Etubiebi) and Victor Chimezie (Promise Ebichi) during the Jos premiere, 16 November 2013. (c) Carmen McCain

It seems appropriate, therefore, that Charles Etubiebi, whose performance I so admired in the original stage play,  is the actor to play all five parts in the solo adaptation, and who often refers to the importance of accent in interviews about the play, as does the playwright Africa Ukoh, whom I recently interviewed for Brittle Paper. Etubiebi explains to Noah Tsika in this fantastic interview for Africa is a Country how after being invited to the NEAP Fest theatre festival in Brazil, he asked Ukoh to adapt the play into a one man show, which he then performed in Rio de Janeiro and at several different festivals in Lagos. Here are two videos from his performances in Lagos where, Etubiebi talks about  the background to the play.

 

And on BBC pidgin:

 

Having previewed the Lagos show on YouTube, I think it is the tightest and best version of the play that I’ve encountered. It is a really an outstanding performance that speaks to the creative synergy between Charles Etubiebi, as a performer, and Africa Ukoh, as a writer and director.

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LADIES AND GENTLEMEN ITS HERE!!!! On stage this Saturday and Sunday in Lagos, in the one-man adaptation of Africa Ukoh's 54 SILHOUETTES, Charles Etubiebi is: Victor Chimezie! Sonny Chuks! Larry Singer! Howard Flynn! and Kayode Adetoba! What happens when your ambitions clash with your ideals? What path will you take? When a struggling Nigerian actor in Hollywood gets his shot at fame and fortune it seems his life's work is finally paying off, but then he discovers this dream job is exactly what he swore to never do: one of those "war in Africa" films. Come have a great night out at the theatre! Date: 18 and 19 May, 2019. Venue: Freedom Park, Broad Street, Lagos Island. Time: 7pm. Tickets: N3000.

A post shared by Charles Etubiebi (@charlesetubiebi) on

In the interview with Noah Tsika, Etubiebi describes his working relationship with Ukoh:

We got accepted to the Lagos Theatre Festival, which is run by the British Council. We performed [54 Silhouettes] there, and this time Africa came to Lagos and directed it himself. And this is when I most enjoyed the performance, because when you work with someone who actually created the thing … Working with Africa, we have a special dynamic. We ate the play, we talked the play, and when we did it in Lagos, at the festival, I genuinely enjoyed being this character, and telling this story. It was absolutely amazing.

As an actor, I know that I’m supposed to cry on demand, but I don’t do that easily. But the last rehearsal we had [in Lagos] … there’s a scene where the main actor gives this monologue about how we as Africans have to confront stereotypes of Africans—what people see from far off. They say, “Let’s just put them in a box and leave them there.” No, we’re more than that. We’re like every other person. Before you can get to know us—who we really are—you have to really look. Don’t just chalk us up as “black Africans”—first of all, in Nigeria, we have many languages. Let’s just start there, first of all. So we’re a lot more than you see. Africa’s a big continent. Those lines [in 54 Silhouettes], about how we need to educate and reeducate the world about who we really are—at the last rehearsal, I got emotional. And Africa said, “You’re ready.”

Since Etubiebi began to perform the one-man version of the play, the play has also been picked up for other dramatic readings, presented by Etubiebi’s Theatre Emissary partner Taiwo Afolabi at the Puente Theatre for the Spark Festival in Victoria, British Columbia and an African Voices event at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. London-based reviewer Nick Awde writes that 54 Silhouettes offers an “incisive slice of Nigeria while simultaneously channeling David Mamet.”

The United Solo Festival will be the first opportunity for American audiences to see this striking performance put together by two of the most exciting members of a creative cohort of artists that are revolutionizing Nigerian cinema and theatre. Africa Ukoh and Charles Etubiebi both have prestigious film credentials—Ukoh having written two critically acclaimed films making rounds on the recent film festival circuit, Abba Makama’s films Green White Green (available on Netflix) and The Lost Okoroshi, and Etubiebi having acted in films like Steve Gukas’s compelling 93 Days (available on Netflix and on Amazon Prime) and Kemi Adetiba’s King of Boys (also on Netflix). But this feels like an exciting moment for Nigerian theatre as well, where Nigeria’s film industry invigorates and gives new life to Nigeria’s theatre tradition. 54 Silhouettes comments on Hollywood portrayals of Africa, but also reaches back and alludes to the dilemma of Wole Soyinka’s tragic hero Elesin in Death and the King’s Horseman. As I wrote in my review of the stage performance,

In Soyinka’s play, a patronizing colonial district officer Pilkings denounces as savage the tradition of ritual suicide by the oba’s companion after an oba’s death, but in “saving” Elesin he contributes to the death of Elesin’s son Olunde, who takes his father’s place. Chimezie and Larry recite dialogue from the scene where Elesin tells Pilkings, “You have shattered the peace of the world forever. There is no sleep in the world tonight.”

This symbolic tribute to Soyinka’s play resonates throughout 54 Silhouettes: Chimezie, like Elesin, faces great temptation to betray his people for a good life, and the well-meaning Larry, like Pilkings, is so blinded by his prejudices that he undermines (through his writing) the cultures he tries to represent.

Yet, in Chimezie’s turn away from the Hollywood stereotypes of Africa and, perhaps, a turn towards Nigeria’s new wave of theatre and cinema(?), is this the birth of the the unborn left at the end of Soyinka’s play?

If you are in New York, by all means go to the United Solo performance on Wednesday, 20 November, (tickets available here). Charles Etubiebi is already in New York for his performance in a few days.

If you are in Nigeria, hopefully there will be other performances soon, but, in the meantime, you may want to check out the published version of Africa Ukoh’s play, which can be purchased at the following bookshops:

Jos:

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  • Achison Bookshop, Rwang Pam Street
  • Modern Bookshop, Rwang Pam Street
  • Waltricks Bookstore, Adjacent UBA, Rwang Pam Street
  • Coal Bookstore, DSTV Plaza, Shop No. 8, Adjacent Mchez Eatery, Yingi Rayfield

Abuja:

  • Adam’s Pages, Machima Plaza, No. 2 Mambolo Close, Off Sultan Abubakar Way, Wuze Zone 2
  • The Booksellers, Ground Floor, City Plaza, Ahmadu Bello Way, Garki II
  • Salamander Cafe, 5 Buumbura Street, Wuse 2

Lagos:

  • Glendora Booktore in the Ikeja City Mall;
  • Parresia Bookstore, Ibiola Nelson House, Allen Avenue, Ikeja
  • Terra Kulture, 1376 Tiamiyu Savage Street, Victoria Island), Abuja, and Jos

As I’ve also mentioned elsewhere on this blog, Ukoh’s unpublished play Token Dead White Guy was shortlisted for the 2018 BBC International Playwriting Competition. You can read more about it in our conversation on Brittle Paper. Hopefully, this performance of 54 Silhouettes will only be the first of many of his plays to hit theatres in Nigeria and beyond. In the meantime, check out some of the recent films Ukoh has written scripts for: Green White Green (on Netflix), The Three Thieves, and The Lost Okoroshi. I’ve only been able to watch Green White Green so far, but the trailers promise more of what I’ve come to expect from him: smart, funny, and real:

 

 

Abba Makama’s new film The Lost Okoroshi (screenplay by Africa Ukoh) to premiere at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival

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Creative duo director Abba Makama and screenwriter Africa Ukoh strike again. For the second time a film collaboration between the two will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Update 5 September 2019: The film has also been selected to screen at the BFI London Film Festival in October 3 and 5. You can see information about where to see it on the BFI site here. Mike Omonua’s debut film The Man Who Cut Tattoos, which Makama produced, will premiere at BFI this year.)

The Lost Okoroshi, Makama’s second feature film, (though he also has a stable of hilarious short films and a really great documentary on Nollywood, which I teach) imagines a bored security guard whose life takes a turn when his dreams of masquerades invade the world of the living. Courtney Small writing for Cinema Axis calls it a “vibrant and wildly surreal ride.”

IndieWire describes Makama as

 one of the leading voices for Nigerian cinema today. He previously directed “Green White Green,” another TIFF selection that is now streaming on Netflix, as well as “Nollywood,” the Al Jazeera documentary about Nigeria’s film industry. He should be a presence at major festivals for years to come.

More recently, Native Magazine has interviewed him about some of the thinking behind his work.

Watch the trailer here

Green White Green, Makama’s first feature, which he also co-wrote with Africa Ukoh, has been one of my favourites since I first saw it on an Air France flight back in 2017 and have since watched it over and over again on Netflix.  Film critic Noah Tsika calls it “a hopeful, downright energizing love letter to Nigeria’s enterprising youth — to a new generation plainly capable of greatness.” As I’ve written in another blog post,

The film is a youthful takedown of the prejudices that tear Nigeria apart. It mocks Nollywood, with the good-natured ribbing of a son who follows in his father’s footsteps but laughs at his outdated affectations. It is a satire, but it is also  filled with a restless joy and a tenderness that draws me in to watch it over and over again on homesick nights.

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The Lost Okoroshi promises to be stylistically similar (the energetic jump-cuts, actors posed and staring into the camera as if for a family portrait) while pushing the conceit imagined by the young filmmakers in Green White Green a little further. In Green White Green, the young secondary school graduates shoot a metaphoric film about Nigeria, taking great delight in masquerades,  as both protective spirits and (in a fire breathing incarnation) as the “Beast of Corruption,” riffing on Fela’s “beasts of no nation.” In The Lost Okoroshi, the masquerade/s unfold into full-fledged characters, which seems to represent (as much as one can interpret a trailer) a reclamation of the ancestral masquerade not as an “evil beast” as often represented in Nollywood movies but as a way of bringing tradition into the future. And, as with Green White Green, there continues to be a sly Nollywood self-referentiality: “Forget all this Pete Edochie proverbs,” the subtitled Igbo reads, “This is not a Nollywood home video.”  Thus while building on an older tradition (incorporating, for example, the Nollywood comedian Chiwetalu Agu), Makama and Ukoh push their narratives out to the cutting edge of Nigerian cinema. This is not a Nollywood home video, no. But, it draws affectionately on Nollywood to create something exciting and new.

In its imagination of the masquerade in a 21st century city context, the film reminds me of contemporary Nigerian writers Nnedi Okorafor and Chikodili Emelumadu and the inadequacy of the sort of literary labels placed on these texts. Is this Afrofuturism? Nnedi Okorafor resists that label, preferring africanfuturism. Is this magical realism? Or what Ben Okri’s critics have called “spiritual realism“? Abba Makama recently quoted Newton Aduaka (the Nigerian filmmaker who won the FESPACO film festival’s highest prize, the Golden Stallion of Yennenga for his 2007 film Ezra):

Labels are useful but ultimately they reduce the subject. Yet, I like the idea of the hyper-real, a realism that captures not only the surface but the spirit behind it–this idea captures Nigerian life well, and the way filmmakers capture that life.

This is an exciting moment not only for Abba Makama, but also for his collaborator Africa Ukoh, whom I have featured on this blog before and interviewed for Brittle Paper. Today (I published this post a little bit too late!) Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes, which I reviewed back in 2013 and was published in 2018, was featured as a part of the Global Black Voices event at the Roundhouse in London. Ukoh also revised 54 Silhouettes into a remarkable one-man play, which Charles Etubiebi has been performing from Rio de Janeiro to Lagos to (forthcoming) New York. Etubiebi’s next scheduled performance of the play is at the November United Solo theatre festival in New York. You can see an interview with Etubiebi below:

 

If you’re in Toronto or Lagos or London or New York, go see the film, go see the play. And for those in Nigeria who are not in Lagos, I hope that they will both also come to a theatre near you.

P.S. One more note on Nigerian cinema. I just realized yesterday that Steve Gukas’s moving film 93 Days, also at the 2016 TIFF, which tells the story of the courageous doctors and public health officials who contained the ebola virus in Lagos, is out on Amazon Prime. Although ebola is a topic often sensationalized in Western media, Gukas handles the story sensitively, telling it from the perspective of Dr. Ada Igonoh, who survived the disease. It is a great example of Nigerians telling their own stories without making “poverty porn.” And in a direct link to the rest of the content of this post, actor Charles Etubiebi plays a significant role in the film as Bankole Cardoso.

My review of Lesley Nneka Arimah’s collection of short stories What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky in the American Book Review

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Image courtesy of Kenya’s The Standard

As with almost all of my posts these days, this one is a year overdue, but with Lesley Nneka Arimah’s recent Caine Prize win for her fantastic short story “Skinned” first published in McSweeney’s, I was reminded that I had not yet posted about my review for American Book Review of her collection of short stories What It Means When a Man Falls from the SkySince it was published over a year ago in the May-June 2018 issue, it is quite late, but better late than never.

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Screenshot of the beginning of my review. To read the whole thing, access the pdf via this link

I was asked to submit the review as part of a special issue on “Harassment” edited by Amiee Armande Wilson, so my review focused a little more on that topic than I might have otherwise. Although American Book Review is behind a paywall, Amiee Armande Wilson worked to make sure that the “harassment” focus was open access. You can access a pdf of the insert here. It includes

Caitlin Newcomer’s review of Khadijah Queen’s  collection of poems, I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (pp. 4-5);

Gabrielle Bellot’s review of Carmen Maria Machado’s collection of short stories Her Body and Other Parties on pp. 5-6  (a review I found so compelling that I immediately got the audiobook out of the library and finished it in a couple of days);

Carmen McCain’s (yours truly) review of Lesley Nneka Arimah’s collection of short stories What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (pp. 7-8);

Sarah Deer’s review of Allison Hargreaves’ monograph Violence Against Indigenous Women: Literature, Activism, Resistance (pp. 8-9);

Victoria Reynolds Farmer’s review of Laura Kipnis’s feminist critique  Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (pp. 10-11);

Mat Wenzel’s review of Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair (pp. 11-12);

Sarah Whitcomb Laiola’s review of Angela Nagle’s  Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumbler to Trump and the Alt-Right (pp. 13-14)

Christopher Higg’s review of a collection of writing about sexual assault edited by Joanna C. Valente, A Shadow Map: An Anthology of Survivor’s of Sexual Assault (pp. 15).

If you haven’t yet read What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, I highly recommend it. But read “Skinned” first. It draws attention to existing social treatment of single women by pushing things just a little bit further. What if women were only allowed to cover themselves if they were living in their father’s or husband’s houses?

(And for a follow-up on my last post–an interview with playwright, actor, and screenwriter and Africa Ukoh–there are several new performances of his play on the calendar. Charles Etubiebi who has taken a one-man performance of the play to festivals in Rio de Janeiro and Lagos  will also be bringing the one-man performance of 54 Silhouettes to the United Solo theatre festival in New York City on November 20, 2019. An excerpt of the play will also be performed in London as part of the Global Black Voices event at The Roundhouse Theatre on 10 August 2019. For those in London and New York, go see it!)

Interview with playwright and screenwriter Africa Ukoh, whose play is currently on at the Lagos Theatre Festival

It’s been over a year since I’ve posted on this blog (to the extent that wordpress refused to let me log in for a few days), so I have much to catch up on. Most recently an interview I did last July with playwright and screenwriter Africa Ukoh has been published by Brittle Paper. His play 54 Silhouettes is currently being performed as a one-man show at the Lagos Theatre Festival.

(Update 17 July 2019: Charles Etubiebi will also be bringing the one-man performance of 54 Silhouettes to the United Solo theatre festival in New York City on November 20, 2019, and an excerpt of the play will be performed in London as part of the Global Black Voices event at The Roundhouse Theatre on 10 August 2019.)

(Update 9 August 2019: Abba Makama’s film The Lost Okoroshi, for which Africa Ukoh wrote the screenplay, will be premiering at the Toronto Film Festival this September)

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I first came across Africa’s work when I attended the November 2013 premiere of his play 54 Silhouettes in Jos, because the blurb of his play that I saw advertised at the Alliance Francaise looked interesting. The play follows a Nigerian actor who pursues his dream of acting in Hollywood but is troubled by the increasingly more disturbing “African” roles he is asked to play. It is a smart, thoughtful, passionate play. I loved it.

54 Silhouettes performance

Premiere performance of 54 Silhouettes in Jos, November 2013 (c) Carmen McCain

 

In my column in Daily Trust,reviewed 54 Silhouettes, which in its earlier incarnation had won the 30 Nigeria House prize and had been performed as a radio play after it won the the first runner up of the 2011 BBC African performance competition.  Last year, in 2018, Africa finally published the play with Parresia Press’s Origami imprint.

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It can be purchased at bookshops in Lagos, Abuja, and Jos, and online at sites like konga.com. Since its publication, he has adapted it into a one-man performance for actor Charles Etubiebi, who has performed it in Lagos and Brazil. In March, Taiwo Afolabi directed a staged reading of the play at the Puente Theatre in Victoria, Canada, at the Spark Festival. Currently, Charles Etubiebi is performing the play on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, April 12, 13, and 14 as part of the Lagos Film Festival at Esther’s Revenge, Freedom Park, Broad Street, Lagos Island. You can purchase tickets for N3000 online at ariiyatickets.com. (Update 9 August 2019: This Saturday, 10 August, the play will also be featured as part of the African Voices event at the Roundhouse in London.)

Aside from 54 Silhouettes, Africa’s unpublished play Token Dead White Guy was shortlisted for the 2018 BBC International Playwriting Competition.

Africa also works as a screenwriter. He co-wrote, with the director Abba Makama, the film Green White Green that premiered at Toronto Film Festival in 2016 and is currently available on Netflix. Noah Tsika calls it “a hopeful, downright energizing love letter to Nigeria’s enterprising youth — to a new generation plainly capable of greatness.”

The film is a youthful takedown of the prejudices that tear Nigeria apart. It mocks Nollywood, with the good-natured ribbing of a son who follows in his father’s footsteps but laughs at his outdated affectations. It is a satire, but it is also  filled with a restless joy and a tenderness that draws me in to watch it over and over again on homesick nights. I can’t wait to see future collaborations between Makama and Ukoh. (Update 9 August 2019: And one of those collaborations is premiering at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival: The Lost Okoroshi directed by Makama and written by Ukoh. Check it out. The trailer is on fire.)

To hear more of Africa’s thoughts on 54 Silhouettes, Token Dead White Guy, Green White Green, and the current state of theatre in Nigeria, check out our conversation on Brittle Paper,  follow him on Twitter or Instagram, or, even better, go see the play this weekend.  If you can’t get to Lagos for the performance, you can buy a copy of it online and stay tuned for future performances.

More blog posts  to come.

Jos Theatre Comes to Abuja: Jos Repertory Theatre’s Queen Amina of Zazzau opens in Abuja on 13 November, and I archive my review of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes

Jos-based theatre director Patrick-Jude Odeh just sent me an email asking me to pass around information about the Jos Repertory Theatre’s production of

The Jos Repertory Theatre's performance of Wale Ogunyemi's Queen Amina of Zazzau, in Jos, February 2013 (c) Jos Repertory Theatre, used by permission

The Jos Repertory Theatre’s performance of Wale Ogunyemi’s Queen Amina of Zazzau, in Jos, February 2013 (c) Jos Repertory Theatre, used by permission

Wale Ogunyemi’s play Queen Amina of Zazzau in Abuja. There will be two performances a day, at 4pm and 7pm, on the 13th and 14th of November at the Abuja Sheraton. I love the Jos Repertory Theatre’s productions and I have actually seen them perform Queen Amina of Zazzau several years ago, so Abuja people should check it out. The tickets are N5,000 regular and N150,000 for a table for six. For reservations, please call 0703-246-0159 and 0905-365-2544 or call Eniola at 0909-287-3099. Tickets are available at Silverbird Galleria and at the gate. The production is supported by the Center for Arts Management, Nigeria.

But the primary reason for this post was to follow up on Noah Tsika’s recent review of the Netflicks distributed film Beasts of No Nation based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, and a subsequent twitter conversation I had with playwright Africa Ukoh. Tsika’s review of Beasts of No Nation, a film which I have not yet seen [2 February 2016. Just saw it. Still trying to wrap my head around it. A review may follow], argues that the film fits into a “child soldier” movie genre that is often presented to largely Western audiences.

[…] the film evokes the type of Tarzanism by which Western cultural producers perpetually seek to gain artistic legitimacy, proffering a cinematic vision of reflexive violence (couched as inherently, ahistorically “African”) as well as an especially aggrandizing, extratextual portrait of an American male director who made a “risky,” malarial, downright Conradian trek into the darkness of the global South.

Tsika points out that the film, like the novel, is set in an unnamed African country, but is shot in Ghana (and…em…Brazil….) and the characters speak Twi:

That Twi goes unmentioned in the publicity surrounding Beasts is a measure of the filmmakers’ commitment to their gimmick—to the coy presentation of an ill-defined “Africa” as a screen on which spectators might project their assumptions.

Tsika also critiques Netflix, the distributor of the film, for bypassing distribution units most easily accessible in Africa.

Scholar Amatoritsero Ede, in a recent article in Research in African Literatures, has critiqued the original novel for similar reasons, claiming that it demonstrates a “self-anthropologizing impulse”:

Iweala’s work is a sweeping allegory of a war-torn continent with its retinue of child soldiers. Due to the absence of a specific geographical setting, the whole of Africa becomes a war zone and is symbolic of conflict—especially war at its most bestial, considering the ghoulish boy-narrator’s automatic, almost psychopathic killing instincts.

Ede points out that it is not the subject matter that is the problem. As I argued previously, we are faced with very real and brutal stories of war that affect very real people–most recently in Nigeria, the stories that have come out of the Boko Haram conflict. Instead, Ede critiques the language in which the story is told:

Beasts of No Nation replicates that African inarticulacy in Agu, who is given, instead of proper speech, “a violent babble of uncouth sounds” much like Conrad’s black characters in Heart of Darkness (Conrad 84). […] Nigeria alone has over 250 languages, apart from a universal Pidgin English spoken by the uneducated mass across indigenous language barriers. In such a context, Agu’s inarticulacy becomes symbolic of “a return to origins.” This is because it is not explained by plot or yoked to any important narrative insight more than to the fact that this boy-soldier is uneducated and even incapable of the simplest thought in clear pidgin, a language so universal that every child and most uneducated adults take refuge in it. Nor could Agu speak his own native tongue. Instead he descends into a Conradian incoherence, alleviated by a “gerunding”: “It is starting like this . . . I am opening my eyes and there is light all around me coming into the dark through hole in the roof, crossing like net above my body. Then I am feeling my body crunched up like one small mouse in the corner when the light is coming on” (1, emphasis added). All that, even though he says, “I am learning how to read very early in my life from my mother and my father” (24, emphasis added). And this child-soldier who sings, “Soldier Soldier / Kill Kill Kill. / That is how you live. / That is how you die” (31), in order to remind himself of his fate, motivate himself against remorse, does indeed seem to understand the difference between a verb and a gerund after all.

Thinking of Beasts of No Nation, especially after Africa Ukoh tweeted me a review so egregious I initially thought it was satire, reminded me of his play 54 Silhuettes, the premiere of which I saw performed in Jos in November 2013. The play was a critique of the very sort of one-dimensional Hollywood representations of Africa at war that Tsika implies Beasts of No Nation continues. In the play, a struggling Nigerian actor in Hollywood, Chimezie, faces a crisis of conscious over playing an African soldier to Hollywood specifications. I published a review of the premiere performance in my column in Weekly Trust on 23 November 2013. Because Trust has, for some reason, “beheaded” all of my archived articles, cutting off the first paragraph, I am slowly trying to archive them here on my blog, with their heads retrieved from my pre-edit file and pasted back on.

I thought that the conversation surrounding the “Hollywood” production of this Nigerian novel, was a good time to revisit Africa Ukoh’s play. Please find my original review after the premier copied below.

IMG_5171 (c) Carmen McCain

Premiere stage performance of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes skewers Hollywood

“I’m not really in the mood to do any raping today.” One of the best one-liners I’ve heard ends Africa Ukoh’s brilliant play 54 Silhouettes, a satire about Hollywood’s imagination of Africa. The Stratford East/30 Nigeria House prize-winning play was originally produced for radio by BBC after coming first runner up in BBC’s 2011 African Performance competition. The first stage performance by the African Renaissance Theatre, directed by the playwright Africa Ukoh, premiered on 16 November at the Jos Alliance Francaise.

The story revolves around a Nigerian actor Victor Chimezie (Promise Ebichi), who is trying to break into Hollywood. When his Nigerian agent Sonny Chuks (Williams Obasi) gets him a role as a lieutenant named “Tiger” in a film set in Africa, Sonny thinks he has made Chimezie’s career. Chimezie and the scriptwriter/director Larry Singer (Idris Sagir) hit it off in the beginning, as both turn out to be Wole Soyinka fans: Larry once directed Death and the King’s Horseman and Chimezie once acted the king’s horseman Elesin. In Soyinka’s play, a patronizing colonial district officer Pilkings denounces as savage the tradition of ritual suicide by the oba’s companion after an oba’s death, but in “saving” Elesin he contributes to the death of Elesin’s son Olunde, who takes his father’s place. Chimezie and Larry recite dialogue from the scene where Elesin tells Pilkings, “You have shattered the peace of the world forever. There is no sleep in the world tonight.”

This symbolic tribute to Soyinka’s play resonates throughout 54 Silhouettes: Chimezie, like Elesin, faces great temptation to betray his people for a good life, and the well-meaning Larry, like Pilkings, is so blinded by his prejudices that he undermines (through his writing) the cultures he tries to represent. For a man who directed Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, Larry knows very little about Nigeria. In fact, he’s a hack. His film script is about an American journalist pursuing a ghost story in a “war-torn” Nigeria, somewhere in the Niger Delta. Larry manages to, as Chimezie points out, include “voodoo priests, a wrestling match with a lion, cannibalism, and half-naked dancing women” all in one film. The section we get to see performed features a warlord with a non-Nigerian name, played by an actor with a butchered “African” accent, who orders a child soldier kill a saintly Irish priest with lines like this: “You are an African. There is beastliness in your blood, and I shall unleash it.” Or “This is Africa. We are already in Hell.”

Chimezie grows more and more disturbed by the part he is being asked to perform and gradually makes enemies of most of his Hollywood contacts. Although Larry is smitten with Chimezie and seems to be open to suggestions, the swaggering cigarette-smoking “big-shot” producer Howard Flynn (played by the playwright and director himself Africa Ukoh) is irritated by Chimezie’s challenges to the script, telling him he knows “Africa is a big country.” He is also irritated that Chimezie does not seem “jubilant” enough at the news that Denzel Washington will star in the film. Flynn seasons his speech with racist slurs, calling Chimezie “Boy” and “Chimpanzee” and asking him if “you require jungle drums in order to express yourself.”

IMG_5150 (c) Carmen McCain

Sparks also fly between Chimezie and Kayode Adetoba (brilliantly played by Charles Etubiebi), the Brighton-born British-Nigerian actor whom everyone calls Tobi. He speaks with a South London accent, mispronounces Chimezie’s name just as Larry and Flynn do, and when he plays a warlord speaks with what internet critics call a “generic African accent.” When Chimezie protests, “That name is not from anywhere in Nigeria” and “That is not a Nigerian accent,” Flynn forces him to speak with the generic African accent too. When Tobi performs the hammy role in Larry’s script, asking Chimezie’s character what he is “insinuating,” Flynn asks “isn’t that too fluent?” Despite Flynn’s racist treatment—at one point saying “Down, Tobi” as if he were a dog—Tobi sides with the producer over his fellow actor from Nigeria. Tobi becomes increasingly incensed at Chimezie’s insistence on responsibility to “his people”—what Tobi calls “romantic idealism.” He tells Chimezie, “I was born in Brighton, I live in London. The closest I’ve ever been to Africa is in a plane flying over it.”

IMG_5141 (c) Carmen McCain

The tension also grows between Chimezie and his agent and friend Sonny Chuks, who has cashed in on a favour Flynn owes him to get Chimezie the role. When the two Nigerians get particularly passionate in their argument, they break into Igbo. Chimezie recites a proverb about the tortoise, “They say he is strong and wise, but when he sits for too long, he is seen as a stone. Who is to blame?” “I have a proverb for you,” Sonny counters, “Money, Make money.”

54 Silhouettes brilliantly skewers Hollywood representations of Africa in movies like Tears of the Sun or Sahara and even slyly weighs in on the casting of non-Nigerian “Hollywood” stars and British-born Nigerians who can’t get the accent right in films set in Nigeria, as in the recent film Half of a Yellow Sun. (See my critique of the casting here: first paragraph, rest of column.) Complementing the ethical questions at the heart of the play are a multitude of biting one-liners. The satirical dialogue reveals the subtle and not so subtle bigotry of the characters: “I make movies to make money, not to promote foreign relations,” Howard Flynn says. “The budget alone could feed a third world country,” Larry quips. “The only reason I kept this bizarre excuse of a name is because the sheer oddity of it gets me attention and makes me stand out,” Tobi seethes.

Of course, what looms over the play but is never spoken is the word “Nollywood,” and the absence of Nollywood here is perhaps the major hole in the play. While the first act pops with biting humour, in the second act, Chimezie enumerates in long monologues the invisibility of the African voice and his ethical problems with performing in the film. Here the play begins to drag a bit and seems repetitious—a flaw that could perhaps have been solved by looking to the new possibilities open to actors in Africa. The choice is not between suffering in anonymity, as Sonny puts it, or acting in a compromising Hollywood film. In a BBC interview with Ethiopian-American filmmaker Nnegest Likké about Africans in Hollywood, she emphasized the need to build an alternative African tradition, as if this was something that should be built within Hollywood. But while there is certainly a need to improve the chances of Africans and African-Americans in Hollywood, there is also a thriving alternate film tradition on the ground in Africa, from Accra to Lagos to Nairobi, which could be enriched by the passions and skills of actors like Chimezie.

IMG_5179 (c) Carmen McCain

Despite the perhaps false dichotomy presented here, the acting in the premiere stage performance of 54 Silhouettes was brilliant. I listened to the BBC radio performance online and, with a few exceptions, I thought that the character interpretation in the live performance was better, perhaps because the playwright Africa Ukoh was directing this production. The actor Idris Sagir who plays Larry Singer butchers his Hollywood character’s American (?) accent with a mixture of an American southern accent and some odd unplaceable accent full of “r’s.” But since so much of the politics of the play was about bad African accents by non-African performers, the (perhaps intentionally?) bad accent felt like poetic justice to me. The bad American accent like the caricatured Hollywood icons, and the over-the-top racism were all subversive gestures that mock and undermine Hollywood’s dominance, and the character of Chimezie becomes the ultimate deconstructor.

“I’m not really in the mood to do any raping today,” says Chimezie, effectively committing professional suicide. And in this moment, his resolve seems more like a satirical version of Elesin’s son Olunde in Death and the King’s Horseman, who killed himself so that tradition could live. What follows in my imagination is a “Part 2,” where Chimezie resurrects in Nollywood, moving beyond anxieties about Hollywood to tell stories his own way.

The play will be performed at the French Institut in Wuse 2, Abuja on December 5-6, and will be back in Jos on 7 December at a venue yet to be confirmed. Go see it.

Africa Ukoh’s brilliant play 54 Silhouettes Takes on Hollywood in Jos and Abuja (and Photos of the Premiere Performance in Jos)

publicity poster used by permission of Africa Ukoh

Africa Ukoh’s brilliant play 54 Silhouettes is ongoing right now in Abuja at the French Institut in Wuse II, off Aminu Kano Crescent (Beside Mr. Biggs) and it will also be performed tomorrow, Friday same place. The pre-show activities start at 6pm and the play itself at 7pm. The tickets are N2000.

I am sadly late with this post. I was going to do it this morning latest so as to have it in time for the performance tonight, but I was having such a good dissertation writing day that I figured that the dissertation took precedence over the blog. (It was a really, really good writing day. It helps that it was just rewriting a piece that has already been published…) Then when I finally got on, my Glo internet has been atrocious and is refusing to upload my photos of the premiere performance [update: they finally uploaded] or even keep a steady connection to WordPress, so my apologies. (Come back for the photos, which will hopefully upload sometime before next week… 😛 It has currently been trying to upload one photo for over an hour)

Anyway, I was honoured to be able to attend the premiere stage performance of Africa Ukoh‘s play 54 Silhouettes in Jos on 16 November 2013. The play, which won the Stratford East/30 Nigeria House Award also won first runner up in the BBC African Performance Prize and was performed for radio on BBC, which you can listen to here. I thought the stage performance was even better than the radio performance. I liked the character interpretation better in the stage performance, perhaps because the playwright Africa Ukoh himself was directing it. (And I must admit that Chimezie’s accent in the radio performance kind of irritated me…. I thought Promise Ebichi, who played Chimezie in the stage performance, was much better.) I had gone because I saw that the performance was about a Nigerian actor trying to make it in Hollywood, and I am (and have been for years) obsessed with metafiction, that is self-reflexive fiction that is in someway about the creative process. I am so delighted that my random interest in the theme (well… not completely random, because I have been working all week on a “metafiction” chapter in my dissertation) landed me at the premiere stage performance of a really fantastic play.

I reviewed the play for my column in Weekly Trust, which you can read by following this link. I generally archive my reviews on this blog, but recently my blog traffic has dropped dramatically, by around 70%, and I think the google-bots are penalizing me for “scraping content.” Unfortunately, there is no way for me to let google know that I am the copyright owner of this content and that when I archive my articles on my blog, I improve it with links and photos. It’s very frustrating, especially when blogs, which clearly steal almost all of their content are on the first search page–where my blog used to be. (This has made me aware that the Internet is a whole lot less “free” and “fair” than I used to think it was.) Nevertheless, as I am trying to get back on google’s good side, check out my review on the Weekly Trust site. [Update: 4 November 2015, I have archived it on my site here since the Daily Trust site has cut off the first paragraph.] Africa Ukoh has also copied it over onto his Art Theatre blog. He has also put up a post with a lot of positive audience reactions from the Jos performance. Please note that the posters I use in this piece are promotional photos taken by Victor Audu for publicity purposes. (They are therefore used here under fair use laws.)

The play revolves around 5 characters:

Publicity photo by Victor Audu, used by permission of Africa Ukoh

(c) Victor Audu, used by permission of Africa Ukoh

The principled Victor Chimezie, a Nigerian actor played by Promise Ebichi. Chimezie has played Elesin in Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman

(c) Victor Audu, used by permission of Africa Ukoh

and is looking for a break in Hollywood. But all he seems to get are racist roles like “Monkey Man” found by his agent,

Sonny Chuks (Obasi Williams), who has hustled his way into the big league and is cashing in on a favour a big-time producer owes him to get Chimezie a role in a film about Africa, written by

Larry Singer (Idris Sagir), a well meaning Hollywood hack who has directed

(c) Victor Audu, used by permission of Africa Ukoh

Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, but whose own representations of Africa include ““voodoo priests, a wrestling match with a lion, cannibalism, and half-naked dancing women” all in one film. Nevertheless, despite his obliviousness, he is a much nicer guy than

(c) Victor Audu used by permission of Africa Ukoh

The Big Time Hollywood Producer Howard Flynn, played with zest by Africa Ukoh himself, who drops racist slurs like they’re hot. This cigar-smoking Hollywood icon doesn’t care about pronouncing Chimezie’s name correctly. He could be “Chimpanzee” for all he cares. Chimezie irritates the hell out of him, in fact. He is too noble. He doesn’t get excited enough when Flynn announces that Denzel Washington has agreed to play the lead in the film and he is too “fluent.” All Howard Flynn really wants is for Chimezie to act like

Tobi , the Brighton born actor of Nigerian ancestry, who does a mean generic

(c) Victor Audu, used by permission of Africa Ukoh

African Accent, though he cannot or will not correctly pronounce Chimezie’s name. He only keeps his real name “Kayode Adetoba” because “the sheer oddity of it gets me attention and makes me stand out.” Tobi also becomes more and more incensed at Chimezie’s challenge to his acting skills. Playing a deep-voiced warlord with a name of ambiguous origin who says things like “You are an African. There is beastliness in your blood, and I shall unleash it” is fine by him, as long as he maintains his career as Hollywood’s token African.

As you can see from these brief character sketches, the play is filled with biting dialogue that satirizes Hollywood representations of Africa. It slyly mocks everything from the generic African accents, to the focus on the suffering of white characters in Africa (in this case a saintly Irish priest about to be murdered by a child soldier), to the violence of “African” characters set in Nigeria with no precise identifying name, history, or location, to the casting of “Hollywood” actors in Nigerian roles, that is remniscent of the whole brouhaha surrounding the casting of Thandie Newton as Olanna in the recent film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s bestselling novel Half of a Yellow Sun.

The only thing that was missing was Nollywood, and as I said in my review, I imagine a “a ‘Part 2,’ where Chimezie resurrects in Nollywood, moving beyond anxieties about Hollywood to tell stories his own way.”

If you are in Abuja tomorrow, go see it. The play is supposed to come back to Jos sometime in January. I’ll update this blog when I find out the date, but it is definitely worth it. In the meantime follow Africa Ukoh’s Art Theatre blog for updates.

Stay tuned also for my own photos of the premiere performance whenever in the next century they upload.

[Update. Now that I’ve been able to upload my own photos, scroll below to see a few of them:]

Chimezie and Chuks open the play (c) Carmen McCain

The scriptwriter Larry is quite smitten by Chimezie (c) Carmen McCain

Things get tense when the generic African actor Tobi arrives. (c) Carmen McCain

And things get even tenser when hotshot Hollywood producer Howard Flynn demands Chimezie act like Tobi. (c) Carmen McCain

There is a Hollywood sized gulf between what Howard Flynn and Larry envision and what Chimezie wants to perform (c) Carmen McCain

Tobi and Chimezie are initially civil. (c) Carmen McCain

But become more heated as Tobi accuses Chimezie of attacking his acting ability. (c) Carmen McCain

More heated. (c) Carmen McCain

And still more heated. (c) Carmen McCain

Things become even more interesting when they begin filming (c) Carmen McCain

And they get guns for props. (c) Carmen McCain

Tobi gets mad again. (c) Carmen McCain

(c) Carmen McCain

Yeah, so there’s more to the play than Tobi brawling, but I like action shots. (c) Carmen McCain

One more action shot. (c) Carmen McCain

Chimezie waxes philosophical on how troubled he is by the role he is being asked to play. (c) Carmen McCain

And draws the audience into his dilemma. (c) Carmen McCain

He finally explains to Larry why he cannot perform the role as written. (c) Carmen McCain

Playwright and director Africa Ukoh who also plays the racist producer Howard Flynn watches the actors in two different levels of production. It was a brilliant play. Congratulations, (c) Carmen