STRELITZIA: DOWN MEMORY LANE WITH DONNA OGUNAIKE
By Deoye Falade
If there is any atmosphere where the Lagos Theatre Festival could further prove its revolutionary spirit and actualise its mandate of restructuring the creative use of space and the augmentation of conditions germane to the inclusion of more experimental works in the Nigerian theatre – in manner and matter – its fifth edition slated for February 27th to March 4th, 2018 would be apt. Its vision is simple yet intricate: cultivate (new) audiences appreciative of performance art, resourcefully transform space in Nigerian theatre sphere, and engage topical as well as marginal issues that have, through the ages, remained potent enough to be peculiarly Nigerian and require interrogation. The creative works presented in previous instalments of this festival have more than maintained fidelity to this vision, encouraging the rapid development of and sustaining noteworthy dialogues around the theatre form; and it is in furtherance of these, while expectant of another edition, that certain highlights, especially of the 2017 edition, like Strelitza, are being revisited and reviewed.
What are we without memories?
This is the main premise of Strelitzia, an experiential mix of dance, music, and spoken word poetry, produced by Donna Ogunaike. The piece makes the audience a part of the performance as much as the actors. It is one of the performances at the last edition of the Lagos Theatre Festival in March 2017, and for the production to really have the intended effect and feeling, the entire set is constructed from the ground up.
Strelitzia is an intimate journey, both in the literal and figurative sense, to memory. This plays right in one’s face from the entrance where the audience is led by the first performer through a hallway filled with pictures and old newspaper cut-outs of historical political figures in Nigeria. One gets to see pictures of Nigeria’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Murtala Mohammed, the celebrated military leader whose assassination in the late 1970s was publicly mourned by citizens.
The set is imagery-heavy as the audience is immersed into an environment saturated with memorabilia like Choco Milo, a chocolate candy popular with kids in the 80’s, and the boxed-in black-and-white-television. These renders a heavy wave of nostalgia that the audience appears to gladly swim in. An actress renders a fusion of songs garnished with dashes of tunes from Hollywood classics like Sound of Music and Mary Poppins while clips from old movies and global historical events flash behind her in the style of an old film reel in a dark room.
All the while, the audience is being led by a ‘light-bearer’ who with a lamp in the dimly lit space, ensures one only sees and concentrates on specific parts of the play at a time. There might be multiple characters in a scene but because the focus is on a particular event, it gives the feeling of a road trip in time, fumbling around in the dark with certain parts lighting up flashes of history.
The costume adds a touch of surrealism, like one is having an out of body experience in a fantastical dream. Particularly eye-catching is the dance – most notably the performance of the Memory of Movement, symbolizing the agony of dreams repressed into the deepest vaults of the human mind. Also striking is the silhouette dancing seductively to Zayn Malik’s ‘Pillow Talk’, only to abruptly get dressed and get back to her book – an unmistakable visual allusion to our cultural penchant for repressing sexuality like a taboo. Nothing is verbally implied but the message is as clear as day; what we repress is bound to simmer below the surface, waiting to be let out consciously when the opportunity arises or unconsciously, without warning.
Donna herself closes the show, with a reel of stories told to an enraptured audience in a setting akin to the gathering of kids around the grandmother in the village, while another character serenades with an acoustic guitar. The stories have a hit or miss feeling, some resonate deeply while others fly past, barely grazing the psyche. However, no such story comes one after the other, but at that point one is bound to wonder if less isn’t more, like the more nuanced earlier stages of the performance. Donna however redeems with a beautiful spoken-word rendition to cap it all off, not before the audience becomes active participants by being encouraged to scribble their deepest thoughts, fears, ambitions on the walls, like they most likely did in secondary school. It largely feels like a cleansing; others might see it as a form of therapy, an unburdening of sorts.
One doesn’t know what to make of this experiment, but as ironic as the follow up to the preceding part of this statement may be, Strelitzia titillates the senses in a manner that is brazen this minute and subtle the next, entertaining, prompting and probing with an intimacy that cannot be easily forgotten anytime soon.