Tuesday, 7 October 2014

How Nigeria Became - Interview with Gbolahan Obisesan

THIS year marks the centenary of the formation of Nigeria. The West African country, which had been made up of the Northern and Southern Protectorates, was formally united by the British after a period of colonialism in the 19th century in January 1914.The story of the country's formation has provided Deptford-based writer and director Gbolahan Obisesan with the basis for his latest play, How Nigeria Became, which is due to open at the Unicorn Theatre on Thursday.
In creating the piece, which he is also directing, it has also provided him with an opportunity to explore the culture and history of the continent for a young audience.
"I had been speaking to Purni (Morell, artistic director of the Unicorn) about creating a children's show to be staged at the Unicorn and I wanted to do something to tie in with the 100 years," says Gbolahan.
"Whilst we were talking about it we discovered there was a guy called Hubert Ogunde, a Nigerian actor and theatre maker who was born in 1916 and who for the most part created social conscience and political commentary plays about Nigeria and the various tribes and peoples within the country.
"He was an important figure in Nigeria's theatrical history and so it seemed appropriate to introduce this man to a larger audience in a way by including him in my version of this particular social construct, though I've changed his name to Herbert!"
Set in 1914 the play features Herbert and his feisty troupe of female actors who have been asked to create and stage a cultural celebration piece for the British Governor and his wife.
Their story of the Spear of Shango is about a brave young woman who must use her strength and agility to save her father's kingdom.
However, the story doesn't quite fit with the Governor's idea of a united country.
"It's about a small theatre company who create a mythical fable about the various Kingdoms in that area of West Africa so it's essentially a play within a play," explains Gbolahan.
"It's got lots of humour in it which I think is a good access point for anyone whether an adult or a child, and there is a lot of energy in it.
"And although it's set in a particular time period, and I've replicated some of the language, I have tried to make it accessible and up to date for a young audience."
To perfect the piece Gbolahan workshopped it at the theatre and included his eight-year-old Godson in the process.
"I wanted it to have a broad appeal to both adults and children but I had to think about how much of the story youngsters would be able to grasp as well as how to somehow represent a lot of the issues I am interested in," he says.
"I had a lot of conversations about it with the Unicorn staff and when we did a reading of the first draft what struck me was that my Godson was engaged and was able to articulate his ideas and thoughts about it.
"So, this story gets the audience to think and it challenges them but there is also a lot of laughter to be had."
It's not the first time the 31-year-old has written about Africa's heritage and culture. He was one of a group of five writers who created the critically acclaimed production Feast at the Young Vic last year, something of which he is understandably proud
"It's a country, culture and history that I'm really interested in and so it's been fascinating for me to be able to have the chance to write something about subjects I'm passionate about and interested in for children," he says.
"Feast was an incredible experience. It's very rare that those sorts of co-author pieces come along and although it was challenging I had a great time doing it and if someone asked me to to do that again I wouldn't say no!"
And he's no stranger to the Unicorn either. His 2012 piece Mad About The Boy transferred to the Tooley Street theatre after a successful run at the Young Vic, The Bush Theatre and the Edinburgh Fringe.
"I love the Unicorn," he says warmly. "I live in Deptford so I get to cycle to work every day which is fantastic. The team here is always really helpful and the place is inspiring.
"I love to come and see the shows they put on as it's nice to look through the eyes of a young person and see what they engage with.
"Now we are coming to the end of rehearsals, which have gone well, so it's getting exciting," he adds.
"It has been great to see the play change and develop from my first thoughts to having the actors breathing the right life and energy into the characters.
"I can't wait to see the audiences' reactions!"

How Nigeria Became is on from Thursday October 9 to Sunday November 9. Tickets cost from £10. Visit www.unicorntheatre.com or call the box office on 020 7645 0560.

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