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I love telling African stories
By Belinda OTAS
Bola Agbaje took the London theatre scene by storm with her first play, ‘Gone Too Far.' What started as an assignment so she could get feedback, went on to win the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for outstanding achievement in 2008. But her passion is to write plays with African names and tell African stories.
Her story reads like the classic tale of a writer's journey. By day, she is a Neighbourhood manager, managing over 600 residents in the East-End of London and at night, she is a writer. Bola Agbaje at 28 is taking it all in her stride and has Africa in sight, as the next place to conquer.
Her first play ‘Gone Too Far,' was a hit with critics and audience alike; the Royal Court Theatre, one of London's best known theatre venues, had no choice but to revisit the play; and staged it on its main stage. ‘Gone Too Far,' explored the issues of identity, youth crime and clash of cultures with robust authenticity. Today, Agbaje is under commission with some of London's most elite theatre companies and she is delivering. Her latest offering, ‘Detaining Justice,' examines the British immigration system through the lens of the African experience and has been described as a ‘gripping drama with sharp humour and unsentimental compassion for its characters.'
Plays with African names
Born in London to Nigerian parents, Agbaje explains that her first play was inspired by the fact that she really wanted "A play with African names in it. I felt that in terms of having young British Africans represented on the screen or in the theatre, that was never going to happen; and there were enough of us in London in general for there to be a great representation. The main aim was to have African names for my characters in it and then it spiralled into other areas of identity and culture."
‘Gone Too Far' also dealt with the issue of accepting one's heritage and culture; especially for young Nigerians in London who straddle two worlds and often question where they truly belong. This stemmed from her own experience of going to Nigeria at the age of six, where she says she did not feel like she belonged and was often told she was British; and on her return to England with a Nigerian accent, was told she was ‘African.' In addition to this, Agbaje had to learn to live with her two older sisters who had grown up in Nigeria, when they came to live in London with the family. "The culture shock and the change - we all had to adapt to a new way of living because we all had to live in one room, four of us in one room, it was almost a war ground because they had different ideologies and ways of doing things.
"Then there was my brother and I, who were very English and had an English way of doing things and the world collided at some point. It took us a few years to know each other, get along and embrace each others culture. That's why it was easy for me to explore one of my characters in Gone Too Far - Yemi - as someone who didn't embrace his Africaness, unlike Ikudayesi who did. In a sense, I was Yemi," says Agbaje.
Concerned with heritage
With six plays under her belt; Agbaje credits Tiata Fahodzi, one of Britain's foremost British-African theatre companies, for igniting her passion for the stage. "Tiata Fahodzi is one of the reasons I started writing. I went to watch the ‘Gods Are Not To Blame' in 2005, a production of theirs; and it was one of the best productions I had ever seen. It was the first time that I had ever really been to the theatre. So when I saw the ‘Gods Are Not To Blame,' I was really impressed with what they had done because their work is about African theatre and that was the first point of attraction."
Agbaje innately leans towards telling stories about her heritage and has written a few short plays and monologues based on Yoruba mythology. Her most famous to date is ‘The Legend Of Moremi'. A big fan of Yoruba culture, she says her attraction is because, "I like the fact that there is no story that has never been told. Every story has been duplicated. What I like about them is that though they are old stories, they have themes that still resonate now and run through other storylines. I just love the fact that they have a moral tale to them, I love moral stories and that is what I love about storytelling, that they have morals."
Heading Nigeria's way
Her next stop is the National Theatre of Nigeria and Nollywood. While she admits she does not know everything about the state of theatre in Nigeria, she says she is learning and is aware of the fact that there is a thriving theatre. "Though, a lot of it, you have to get your own funding and there isn't government funding like [in Britain]," she adds. However, Agbaje remains unperturbed. "I would love for my play to be on at the National theatre and that is something I'm working on at the moment, so that I can get my work shown there."
If you are curious as to what her first play in Nigeria will be about, your guess is as good as hers because she has no idea. "I'm really not one who plans ahead. I plan for the moment. A lot of people think that because my plays are politically based, that I'm a political writer but it's not like that. I write what interests me. So, if someone asked me, I would write about what interest me at the moment because I'm not led by political statements or making one. It's just that at present, those are the things that do interest me."
A young woman with a self-assured confidence in her own ability, Agbaje asserts she has no influences in the theatre world but there are people whose work she likes and respects. "You don't want to be like anybody because you want to be your own unique self. There are people who I like their work because of the way they do things. It's not that I like it because I want to copy it or be like them but because they have their own unique style. There is no one that I would say I want to be like or copy their style. I want to be my own person," she says.
Agabje is currently adapting ‘Gone To Far' for the screen in association with the British Film Council while also making short films with her friends. For a playwright, who did not to go a creative writing school to learn the craft of writing, Agbaje is winning the respect of her contemporaries and her journey to conquer the world looks like it has already started.