During this same period, an extraordinary flutter of excitement was often seen when the announcement of an African production was being whispered across mainstream casting corridors locally and nationally. One of those rare occasions (and indeed my first professional theatre audition) was Phyllida Lloyds’ 1990 production of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Bi-product of a scarce theatre presence is belligerence and apathy within local communities. Naturally the persistent lack of an African theatre tradition within our British theatres invariably exposed a huge chunk of potential audiences which through the decades appeared to be institutionally marginalised and ignored. And it was this phenomenon in 1997 which prompted the charge I set myself and the formation of Tiata Fahodzi.
The Gods are not to Blame (2005)
Arcola Theatre, London
Author, Ola Rotimi
Six months later and encouraged by this litmus test, Mehmet Ergen invited me to form part of the creative team producing a five week season of African plays at Southwark Playhouse.
It was here in 1995 that I made my directorial debut with San Cassimally’s tragic-comedy Acquisitive Case, which blended the downfall of an over-reaching business man and his family with the endemic corruption of modern Nigeria. But it was not until 1996 whilst on a World tour of Jude Kelly’s production of Wole Soyinka’s The Beatification of an Area Boy, that I was faced with the decision of a lifetime.
A short and kind telegram from Philip Hedley spelt out the options I had. The choice was between continuing actively seeking employment as an actor or to accept the unprecedented offer of serving as a trainee director for a year under Jack Andrew’s Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme. And so it was with much sadness that I left the West Yorkshire Playhouse production (now enroute from New York and bound for Sydney) and returned to the UK. Subsequently, I spent the first nine months of my tenure at Theatre Royal, Stratford East researching and devising the building’s first ever international touring production Ticket & Ties – an African tale.
Elsewhere I had the good fortune of working within some of the country’s flagship buildings; the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Court for example, and indeed it was at the latter in 1993 that I first came in touch with Bandele, after being cast by the late great Annie Castledine in the writer’s ground-breaking play Marching for Fausa (the first African play to be staged at the Royal Court since Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel in 1966). And so holistically, the African theatre presence despite being rotund and magnificent in theory was in fact negligible. But more importantly, the genre, from an African theatre practitioner’s perspective, as the years ahead would dictate, remained non-existent.
The Beatification of Area Boy 1996
Several years after leaving Bretton Hall in West Yorkshire (where I had trained as an actor in 1990) Yvonne Brewster invited me to join Talawa Theatre Company and feature in two plays her company were producing at The Cochrane Theatre in Holborn. One of these plays was Nigerian playwright (now filmaker) Biyi Bandele Thomas’ Resurrections. The year was 1994. Talawa at the time was Britain’s premier Black theatre company and this production was one of a handful efforts by the same company to give credence and visibility to a rich canon of literary and dramatic work emanating from the vast continent of Africa. This was a laudable attempt by Talawa, having up to this point, produced Ola Rotimi’s The Gods are not to Blame with Liverpool Everyman and Riverside Studios in 1989 and Wole Soyinka’s The Road at The Cochrane in 1992. Yet nationally, this remained a singular endeavour, and the depiction of Black theatre in mainland Britain despite the growing demographics remained imbalanced.
The narrative of this segment is currently being composed and will be published in the very future.
In the interim, below (in addition to those above) is a short pictorial highlight of productions commissioned and directed by Femi Elufowoju, jr for Tiata Fahodzi between 1997 and his departure in November 2010.
Femi elufowoju, jr
Performer & Director
Between 1994 and 1997, several fortuitous events collided back to back eventually leading to the inevitable formation of Tiata Fahodzi. In February 1994 Philip Hedley, then artistic director of Theatre Royal Stratford East opened up the discussion of new audiences in Newham and neighbouring Boroughs. Hedley (and Paul Everitt his assistant) were particularly keen to explore and welcome potential audiences from the Asian and African communities. Patrice Naiambana, Jude Akuwudike and I, fresh from our Royal Court sojourn, together with musician Juwon Ogungbe set up ‘Fraudsters Inc’ (a troupe of travelling actors parodying the West African immigrant experience). Hedley programmed us and our vignettes of skits It's Good to Talk for a solo night performance in the main house.
The Estate (2006)
Soho Theatre London
New Wolsey Ipswich
Southhill Park, Bracknell
Author, Oladipo Agboluaje
Arcola Theatre London
Author, Joe Penhall
Joe Guy (2007)
Soho Theatre London
Author, Roy Williams
Designer, Yukiko Tsukamoto
What was increasingly required, from mine and my peers’ point of view (other second generative descendants of immigrant African families) was for the creation of a penetrative initiative which gave permanency to ‘an experience of theatre’ which catered for and demonstrated the lives of the growing network of actors and audiences alike. Historically decent parts in theatre for actors of African descent were very few and far between. In the early nineties both late John Adewole and Rufus Orishayomi of Zuriya Theatre Company, and Ritual Theatre Arts strenuously played their roles as artistic directors to impact Africa on to our national Stages. They were very successful in galvanising access and participation within grassroots communities, however it was with much regret that their main objectives and overtures were never entirely realised in their respective lifetimes.
Tickets and Ties 1997
AFRICA in British Theatre and the Birth of TIATA FAHODZI (Part One)
Birth of TIATA FAHODZI (Part Two)
It was this production in the spring of 1997 (with further encouragement from Arts Council official Robert West and fellow actor Ekua Ekumah) which solidified firmly the roots of Tiata Fahodzi’s initial mission statement. Tickets & Ties played to packed houses in London and Sweden across five extensive weeks, yet never before in the history of modern European Theatre had a show unified the huge number of African audiences in attendance each night. It fuelled the ambition for continuity and indeed validated the ambition for the realignment of Black British Theatre. A realignment placing the African theatre persuasion firmly on the Black Theatre agenda and hopefully in the long-term, a central place on the British Theatre landscape.”
The Estate II
Iya-Ile the first wife (2009)
Soho Theatre London
Author, Oladipo Agboluaje