How do you condense the history of Nigeria into a play for young audiences? Today the most populous country in Africa (and with the second largest film industry in the world), the area of land it covers has been the home of ancient civilizations, the battleground of tribal warfare, a key naval port in the 16th – 17th century slave trades, and a prosperous colonial territory. And technically, ‘Nigeria’ has about two months left: the contract agreeing the country’s name itself runs out on 31st December.
For this new piece commissioned by the Unicorn Theatre, Gbolahan Obisesan’s historical focus is Nigeria’s unification and naming under British colonial rule. In the early 1900s, British High Commissioner and colonial administrator Sir Frederick Lugard was appointed to administrate the commercial territories previously managed by the Royal Niger Company. In the wonderfully arbitrary way of British colonial practice, Lugard took a six-year break from the job to become Governor of Hong Kong before returning to West Africa and uniting the various tribal and commercial regions into Nigeria in 1914, the name suggested by his wife Fiona in an essay inThe Times.
In How Nigeria Became, colonial messenger Charles (Christian Roe) must deliver news of the country’s impending unity to Herbert Ogunde (Tunji Falana), who runs a theatre company, and ask him to create a piece reflecting the positive benefits of a unified territory to be presented to Sir Frederick. With three players (Rita Balogun, Stephanie Levi-John and Rebecca Omogbehin) each from a different tribe, Ogunde’s troupe retells the story of the spear of Shango, an ancient Yoruba creation myth about a tribal struggle for a spear whose possession brings fortune and good harvests, and – with some auspicious editing from Charles – finds a positive spin on the benefits of unification.
Told as a play within a play, the story of the spear of Shango riffs on traditional elements of Nigerian theatre: a strong ensemble storytelling style, a clear narrator figure, and provocative caricatures encouraging a vocal response from their audience – a farmer’s wife weighed down by her 20 children (her baby-laden costume a triumph for designer Rajha Shakiry) and Herbert’s casual misogyny elicit gasps and jeers (not just from the children). Less obviously challenged, however, is the colonial project itself: Herbert and his players submit to Charles’ ideas without much of a struggle; bribery is oddly normalised; and there’s no reference to (nor implication of) Lugard’s concurrent military operations that were needed to bring many other areas of the country on-side.
Indeed, the piece’s overarching narrator Innocence remarks that Nigeria has been this way “for over 100 years now and it’s going OK” – an awkward avoidance of the subsequent century that’s seen independence from Colonial rule and a horrific civil war. While some editing of the colonial history is simply necessary for the purposes of adaptation, its simplification here – regardless of historical uneasiness – is also dramatically unhelpful, the removal of dissenting voices creating a lack of tension between coloniser and colonised; the only struggles shown are those between tribes, and only the play’s closing moment, implying that the spear will one day be fought over again, suggests that everlasting unity won’t come without further strife.
Nonetheless, How Nigeria Became poses key questions about narrative and identity – the naming of a country, the reappropriation of a myth – and Obisesan’s expansive staging of his own text is well pitched to encourage response and discussion. Speaking at the ROH Bridge Culture Counts conference earlier this year, Unicorn director Purni Morell talks about making theatre for young audiences not “for small reasons, to do with the curriculum and measurable outcomes” but “for big reasons, which are about being human… What I would like us to do is to simply give children regular and frequent opportunities to go and see dance, music, art, theatre – unmediated, unprescribed, unexplained, and from the assumption that adult and child have in common that they are part of an audience, at a conversation in which the artists and audience have in common that none of us knows why we are here.” Within those terms, How Nigeria Became is a fearless piece of commissioning; and sitting amongst probably the most diverse audience in terms of age and race I’ve been part of at a London theatre, with the UK’s largest Nigeria community on the Unicorn’s doorstep in Peckham, and with an education pack brimful of tools for debate (as good a read for adults as children), it is a powerful voice in that conversation – with, for and about its community.