THE Directorial approach to such a play — that appears complex in context; and near abstract in concept? And what is the relevance of the play to discourses around contemporary global polity and social reality(ies)?
The play is actually not that abstract. It is drawn from current and on-going internal struggles of race, religion and politics within the United States. September 11, 2001 was a day of horror for the world, when some religious nuts attacked the United States and killed thousands of innocent Americans and nationals of many other countries. This was a vile act of raw hatred, unjustifiable by any rational thought, but perpetuated anyway, in the name of God.
God has become the weapon of mass destruction used by ignoramuses across the globe. They freely use God in funding their campaign of bigotry, racial prejudice and genocide. We have seen it even in Nigeria — Kano, Jos, Katsina etc.
So picture this. Barack Obama an African descent is now the President of God's own country. He sits atop the most powerful democracy that we know. He carries a middle name that is Islamic but he is a Christian, he exhibits a high level of judgment and intelligence, he is a grass to grace example whose story inspires many. Do you see the complex formations? We are all of such layers of inter-relationships.
Yet there are those who absurdly pursue the insane agenda of separatism and violence is their recourse! Here in America there are those who passionately want him to fail, crash and burn. They swear on the radio, television, pages of newspapers and even in the well of congress! Can you believe that?
Nigerians are fervently praying for a president with enough integrity to make life better and be successful in serving the people. But here is this vociferous group of Americans who because of Obama's race, they question his citizenship, question his faith, work everyday to de-legitimize his birth and his accomplishments. Sounds familiar? Is this God's agenda? I had a friend argue with me some years back that George Bush was anointed by God to wage and his unwarranted "Preemptive" strike and destruction of Iraq.
George Bush was God's missionary? I could not close my mouth for days! These same arguments were used to perpetuate colonialism and slavery and we will not stretch the references to include Adolf.
But the threads become even more absurd when some African Americans, descendants of Africans themselves, also claim Obama is not Black enough for America! The same Obama whose father was a fierce political activist shunning the privileges of his education and status for the common man; the same Obama whose grandfather went for long weeks on hunger strike in protest against the colonial Brits in Kenya and in support of whom our own Wole Soyinka as a very young man in Britain joined with Harold Pinter and co in marches of protest and hunger strikes. So bigotry has become a cancer to our world. It uses God, it uses religion, it uses culture, it uses education and oh, it possesses politics and politicians! Because of America's tremendous influence all over the world, we must address this paranoia!
"Preemptive" presents a realistic front in opening up these complex subjects for a non-confrontational, yet engaging and entertaining exploration of the ways theatrical performance creates meaning and shapes social life. The issues are as American as they are Nigerian and human. What pushes a son born into wealth (even if stolen) and influence to go take up arms in a foreign country against another country? He claims it was in the name of God! When exactly were the seeds of such profound dysfunctional thought sown? What fuels such depth of hatred and narcissism into full-blown campaigns of violence and genocide by one race, one people, one religion, one culture, one God against another? The subjects are compelling and urgent. Our strike is a Preemptive one to forestall the full tragedies, that may yet be unleashed on the world.
The directorial approach is informed by what I have defined as the poetics of panic. Theater must entertain, engage and inform. It must come with a certain degree of urgency - an urgency of need - the urgency to express oneself in celebration of life or (and particularly) in the face of any form of oppression. Nation states and the cabals of corruptive power must be confronted with art when they challenge humanity's inalienable rights in the pursuit of happiness. Audiences will be taken beyond the realistic to the imagined and perceived. We will deploy the marginal plains of theatrical illusion to reveal the best and the worst in us as humans.
Ahmed and Vivian - the two characters who drive the plot in Preemptive come from two different worlds. The differences are in culture, religion, political history and even race. But their essential humanities connect in the deepest places. There is something to say for exchanges of goodwill across man-made boundaries. A simple story of love and romance could actually help. We are playing such themes of goodwill and reconciliation through theater. Niyi Coker's play is deceptively straight forward, but its undercurrents are disturbing and weighty. I think the big question we ask is this - What do we gain when our collective humanity is the price for the power-grabbing pettiness between families, races, nations and cultures today? Theatrically, we are traveling these three continents - Europe, America and Africa, as a form of re-staging of history
The performing company and cast composition?
The company is an interesting mix of performers — all graduates of Southern Illinois University Carbondale and associates of the Africana Theatre Lab. Some are recent graduates, others are seasoned professional actors. There is also a core of scholar-artists - Professor Niyi Coker for example is the Desmond Lee Endowed Professor at the University of Missouri, Saint Louis, Drs. Chris Collins and Rachel Hastings are Performance Poets, Tania Coambs and Basha Evans are working professionals — Coambs as a director of Operas and Evans as an actor, while Bobbie Bonebrake is an award winning scenic designer working out of Chicago. All I had previously worked with in one capacity or the other. There is a healthy excitement in the company - the first is to present their gift of artistry to the world and wait to see what the audience's response will be to our performances, and the second is encounter and experience the to visit Nigeria, my so much talked-about homeland.
Objective of performance
My first objective is to open up a slice of the world that I know to this company. We are all hopeful that we can share and experience the linkages between Nigerian and American cultures, our Performing arts and artistic expressions as agents for social mobilization and development.
A focused engagement with peoples of the different countries and cultures in unfiltered urban and village settings. Group will have access to some selected key cultural, political and academic centers through visits, lectures and shared workshops. We look forward to positive encounters with the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle existential similarities, between Nigerians and Americans.
The performance of an American play, presenting a slice of American life and culture we hope will generate some pertinent feedbacks
This is your reappearance on the home stage after nearly a decade and half; what are the expected challenges? Any sense of nostalgia or manifest special interest in the context of current project?
There is definitely a warm nostalgia. This is my homeland and it has been quite an unexpected while. In those years of being away, I have worked alongside some of the great minds of modern Theatre that I studied in Ibadan — Lloyd Richards, August Wilson, Arthur Miller for example. I have worked in those major theatres of the world that we dreamt about as undergraduates — The Everyman Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre, Pittsburgh Public Theatre, Kennedy Center amongst others. In all these I was always drawing from my essence as a Nigerian, a Yoruba man and an African. Though there was always a hint of estrangement, I also always felt I was serving as the essential bridge to the 21st century. In that sense, my homeland Nigeria and I stayed intricately woven as in an ecstatic dance.
I have tried to maintain contact with my friends and colleagues in the field. Constantly, I hear people say that Nigerian Theater is dead. My first reaction has always been "Oh hell, no!" Nigerian Theater is not to be confused with the National Theater as a building, or Theater in Lagos, Ibadan or Ile-Ife. Nigerian Theater is a distinct aesthetic in which culture, history and social ideals are to be found and given expression. So I have maintained that Nigerian Theater is an organism with the possibilities for adaptations and mutation. It is not a stagnant, self-regurgitating entity. It is a magnificent genie once let out of the bottle is never contained or killed. It may experience a lull, but it is not dead. The performances of Soyinka, Osofisan and Osanyin's plays, the productions by Niyi Coker, Esiaba Irobi, Awam Amkpa, Femi Elujobi, Biyi Bandele Thomas and mine outside Nigeria are more frequent now than say in the 70s or 80s or 90s. Our collective aesthetics are all legitimate children of a living Nigerian theatrical tradition. People should be a little more proactive and stop waiting for a Godot who never shows up. What we are doing with this tour is to prove that point too. Niyi Coker the playwright and I are Nigerians as well as Americans. These two realities and cultures are reflected in our production.
I cannot wait to be in Nigeria again. I cannot wait to see my friends. I cannot wait to celebrate the gifts received from my departed mentors and friends — Uncle Bola Ige, Bode Osanyin, Hakeem Shitta, Afolabi Alaja Browne, Rufus Orisayomi, Wale Ogunyemi and many others. I also want to be able to give a good account of my absence to others like Dapo Adelugba, Segun Olusola, Abayomi Barber, Olu Okekanye, Ojetunji Ojeyemi — those who took me by the hand and gently led me through the secret places of our invaluable culture and traditions.
As a recipient of a number of international fellowships and grants, I was taken out of Nigeria to see and partake in the very exciting traditions of world theater. This tour is a reflection of that exposure and the thrilling experience I gathered working as the Cultural Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Embassy in Lagos. I hope our gifts received with as much value as we have packaged it.
What are the inherent advantages of the tour and the project to the Nigerian or African stage?
Beyond the performances, we will also be seeing quite a bit of Nigerian culture. It is great to have a committed and innovative Nigerian partner in Wasee Kareem and Zmirage. High production values are therefore assured. Zmirage is also our partner in London and the Caribbean. We have also received support from some key Nigerian sectors in government, education and private institutions. We are also in communication with the Public Affairs office of the U.S. Embassy in Abuja. This kind of partnership is quite enterprising and we hope will encourage a resurgence in Nigerian-American exchanges to foster stronger dialogue between our peoples. My institution — Southern Illinois University Carbondale is also very progressive in seeing the opportunities in building a more coherent global community where Africans have a major role to play. We have a Global Studies program and a recruitment effort to attract new ideas, new scholars as we embrace the 21st century. I am personally looking forward to what the future brings.
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