AN INTERVIEW WITH OLADIPO AGBOLUAJE
Wednesday, April 23, 2008.
He is an emerging force in Black British drama. Described as an ‘exciting, vital new voice’ with a sharp satirical eye, Oladipo Agboluaje is winning plaudits for his versatility to write plays that transcend two cultures -African and British ways of life.
In The Estate (2006), Oladipo Agboluaje depicted the comic events that follow the death of a rich landowner in Nigeria. Another critically-acclaimed production, The Christ of Coldharbour Lane (2007) was a comedy about street preachers in Brixton, south London.
His latest offering, ‘For One Night Only,’ tackles the topical issue of migration. Agboluje tells The NewBlack Magazine why migration is making its way to the British theatre stage.
What's the inspiration behind ‘For One Night Only’?
I was asked if I was interested in writing a play about immigration to take on a rural tour. Since I'd never done either, I thought it would be an opportunity to learn to cater for a new audience with a play about immigration.
For One Night Only deals with a topical subject matter. Do you agree it is topical and what inspired you to take the point of view with which you wrote the play?
Immigration is definitely a topical issue the world over. People assume that immigration occurs only from South to North. The truth of the matter is that South-South migration is larger. A series of reports last year in the New York Times dealt with this issue.
I decided to deal with the issue of Africans migrating to Britain because that is the immediate concern for us here.
A number of themes jump at you, migration and the reasons people are leaving their homeland for greener pastures. Which of these themes did you decide to focus on in order to bring the story you wanted to tell alive?
I focused on the dreams of the two characters, Bode and Eddie. They want to become international performers and believe that Covent Garden is the performance venue of the world. I've always been interested in the dreams and ambitions of people, Nigerians in particular.
We seem to have no limit to our dreams and therefore treat barriers as hurdles to be crossed, legally or illegally. That creates a mindset that can be threatening to non-Nigerians. But as we say, 'we know ourselves'!
How extensive was your research in order to cover the subject matter with depth and understanding based on what you want the audience to see on stage?
The research has consisted of reading about the personal stories of immigrants and also about how society in general treats them. Again I point to the notions of dreams and how far people will go to achieve them, for most immigrants survival is utmost on their minds. Not only personal survival but survival for their families back home.
The dangerous journeys have been made for them. These people who have made these journeys, what happens to their dreams? Are they deferred or abandoned as they have to get to grips with their new status in an alien society?
Why did you decide to deal with the themes in ‘For One Night Only’ using a Diasporic narrative?
My voice has been created by two societies: Nigeria and Britain. For me that is an inescapable fact whatever politics of writing I might claim. As people of the Diaspora we inhabit diverse worlds: home communities back home, home communities within the host nation and relationships with other Diaspora communities. We respond to the politics of the society we are in.
As individuals we engage with these societies differently. I'm interested in the place of Africans and Africans in the Diaspora in the world. I'm working on a play with the Theatre Centre that is set in Brazil, which has its own history of relations with Africa. What I find is that Africa has stamped its mark all over the world in many different guises. If I can lend my voice to telling these stories, then I've not done too badly as a writer.
‘For One Night Only’ will not speak to black audiences alone, Asians and migrants from other European countries. Did you find it challenging to capture the points of view of these different sections of society?
I believe that you can only tell the story you are most familiar with. It will resonate with audiences on its own terms. If you concern yourself with making yourself clear to all and everyone you end up pleasing no one. What you get is tofu theatre. Particularity adds the colour and verve to a play. It situates it in a concrete reality. If you decide to go non-naturalistic, that is a different matter. But a straightforward narrative has its own momentum that can carry a diverse audience emotionally and intellectually.
What's the message that you believe you are relaying to audience members and society?
I wouldn't say there's an overt message I'm trying to convey, and I say that as one who considers himself to be a political writer. The best kind of politics is one that understands that systems are man-made and human beings will respond differently to the same situation.
Understanding the minutiae of life is what I try to do. I'm not one for emphasising the liberal assumption that we are all the same and that my job is then to go on and prove it. That breeds smug theatre, a theatre of recognition, preaching to the converted. There's no challenge in that.
For one Night Only is now showing at the Oval House Theatre until May 3, 2008.
Interview by Belinda Otas. She is a London-based freelance journalist and The New Black Magazine's features and theatre editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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