Dipo Agboluaje: From Early morning cleaners to Established Class Warrior

The most poignant point in my interview with Dipo Agboluaje happened off-stage-  so to speak, as we sat down to a post-interview dinner he told the story of how a few years ago, he was approached by the proprietors of a cultural centre in Abeokuta, Nigeria to come ‘home’ and make drama. He refused. On the surface, of course, it’s a telling story about the seductiveness of opportunities in the west for African cultural practitioners. But all is not at it seems in the story. As Agboluaje tells it, when he received this call, he was more than excited – he’d already begun planning the stories and plays he would stage alongside his long-time theatrical partner, Femi Elufowojor.Jr  and other luminaries of Nigerian and British theatre. It was during this state of elation, that the proprietor explained the proposed organisational structure of the centre to him. “Ehn, it will be you, Femi and then of course, we will have to have a white man as oga [boss]…” Agboluaje was speechless, till he found his tongue, and said “Come Again?” The proprietor said, “A – ah – ah, you know how our people are…with the money”.

Even over our dinner table, Agboluaje’s shock and disgust over the incident is still palpable. “Imagine…the experience that ….Femi and I would bring to a project like that…” It was, he said, insulting – and not merely for the sheer racial prejudice – but also the palpable “kolo mentality” behind the proprietor’s thinking – his fellow Nigerians he needed for authenticity, but for money, for anything resembling competence he felt the need to get a white person to lord it over them. It was, Agboluaje says, with great understatement and not a little regret – a shame. Yet what has been the Nigerian theatrical scene’s loss, has been one of London and the UK’s greatest gains. Over ten years, Agboluaje has produced a body of work, which has for many redefined the possibilities of African theatre on stage, both in the UK and globally. His work, in particular Iya-Ile and The Estate, both rambunctious social satires which put Nigerian social dynamics centre-stage have had an influence on a slew of writers including Bola Agbaje, Janice Okoh and Ade Solanke. So, the recent publication of a collection of his plays perhaps cements his move from mould-breaker to an established, but still iconoclastic voice in theatre.

(Dipo Agboluaje, (centre) with other writers during a post-production Q & A at Talawa Theatre in 2011)

His tone bearing the unmistakable mark of the perfectionist, Agboluaje says he wanted to go through the plays again before publishing them. “When I was editing…you know…there were things that I thought I would not write now”. Yet despite this diffidence about the plays as they stand, he’s proud of having his first play in particular,  in published form. “My pride and joy was having my first play, early morning published, for the first time” Early Morning, premiered at Oval House, in 2003. Despite its successful run at Oval House, Agboluaje says of the play, “a lot of people heard about it. I remember I’d be walking in Brixton and bump into a friend and they would say, “didn’t you have something on? It was a play about cleaners. That’s what everybody remembers – it was a play about cleaners”. But to say Early Morning was a play about cleaners is rather like saying Macbeth is a play about a bored housewife. What was riveting about Early Morning was that it was about cleaners. In the early 2000s, nobody was interested in African cleaners – those ubiquitous presences, many professional [and other] Africans fleeing their countries – who blended anonymously into the background of the metropolis – it was a daring subject for a first-time playwright. A fact that he acknowledges. His pre-occupation with the drama in the lives of the excluded, Nigerian and otherwise continues to be a theme he’s revisited in his work, from the satire Iya Ile to the tragedy of David Oluwale, the Nigerian immigrant hounded to death in 1950s Leeds by two white british police officers.

Class Warrior

(Antonia Okonma as Toyin, the troubled lady of the house in the 2009 Tiata Fahodzi production of Agboluaje’s Iya-Ile)

Agboluaje’s describes some of his work as an attempt to break out of the typical representation of black  and working class characters on the British [and indeed Nigerian] stage. “The thing about British theatre is naturalism is the dominant force and the problem with naturalism is that it keeps us in our subject position. We can never break out of who we are in terms of our class, upbringing and all; what it means is that your characters can be limited by what they can say or what they can think by extension…when they see a black person on the stage or a working class person on the stage, they expect them to speak in a certain way and act in a certain way, and therefore when they speak in an intellectually informed way or in a heightened sort of register, it jars ” The they in his expression is both audiences and the taste-makers of the theatrical establishment.

Certainly, the class divide is exquisitely mined in his most celebrated play The Estate. Agboluaje places his working-class characters centre-stage. In The Estate and Iya-Ile, a house-girl usurps the position of the lady of the house, care-takers and houseboys conscientize their fellow workers, and drivers inherit the land. It’s a topsy-turvy world, but one in which the peripheral characters of Nigeria’s brutal social milleu get a loud, humorous, and often triumphant voice. He’s probably too subtle a playwright to say his work as an overt message, but Agboluaje says class is a big issue. He agrees with critiques that say Soyinka and other early Nigerian playwrights never properly address class privelege.

“It was a big issue” He says, “Where it really got to me was in popular culture, where always the house boy was constructed most of the time either for comic relief or they were criminals, they were always stealing…there was never any suggestion of their own lives, or kind of…how they felt about Nigeria, and their place in society…it was always just acceptance of the class system. So I wanted to interrogate that. I used to say to myself, if I have the opportunity to write a play about Nigeria, I’m going to write it in a very conservative, traditional class setting, but I will look at the character’s from a class [conscious] point of view, so in The Estate, you have the driver telling the house-girl that they need to strike…trying to conscientize her about what’s going on in the country and their place in it”. Agboluaje says “it saddens him that most people look at the humor of the play and didn’t see the politics in it.

The empathy he has for his characters is evident, speaking of Helen, the housemaid whose ascent and descent is at the centre of his two dramas Iya-Ile and The Estate, he says “I wanted her to be somebody who…even though we know she is a victim, she has her eyes on that goal. She chooses to be the victim, but in a sense, she chooses it on her own terms and she is conscious of what she is doing…because for people like her, they don’t see any other way out”. The Nigerian context is so brutal he seems to suggest that any venality in these characters is a product of the system. Nevertheless, it’s a system that rewards with rich material for the playwright.

Nigerian Concerns

Despite being based in England for many years, his dramas are still shot through with sharp observations of Nigerian social reality, although many of them, particularly commissions, have been concerned with a British social milieu, albeit with a strong Nigeria flavour.  “The Hounding of David Oluwale” about the murder of Nigerian immigrant by two racist police officers in Leeds, was in the territory of racism and racial dynamics mined by many UK-based black playwrights.  Agboluaje describes the process of writing the play as poignant and painful. One gets the sense that for a writer used to confronting tragedy with the comic, an encounter with the irredeemably tragic might be fatal. But it’s not a territory he’s necessarily shying away from – some of his new work,  will apparently focus on the less than noble history of the UK police service’s history of race and racism. Agboluaje seems willing to take on other sacred cows, including those closer to home. He’s developing a play about the Kalakuta Republic,  Fela’s legendary self-proclaimed republic with very little of Fela himself in it – and a skewering of the idealistic spirit of rebellion it represents for many in Nigeria. The play, which received a rough performance at Rich Mix late last year, suggests, Fela’s republic may have reproduced some of the worst excesses of the Nigerian state, including imprisonment, beatings and poverty.  Once again, the pre-occupation with class shows itself; the play, he explains, is meant to go behind the myth of Fela’s idyllic republic, and explore life, not from the perspective of the mythologized musician, but from the many hangers on, dancers, spare wives and freeloaders who made up the Kalakuta republic. It has incensed a few people, but Agboluaje doesn’t give the impression of someone who minds controversy.

Agboluaje On Actors and those pesky African Accents

“The onus is on us, on our African actors to learn that…[African accents]….and they won’t learn it at RADA. RADA will not teach it. I always say to actors…play the emotions. I am not too worried about the authenticity of sounding like a Nigerian…because by the time you get to Warri, accents are more like Americans, only not faked, by the time you get to Igbo, they have a different way of speaking their English…but you can’t really get into all that in a three week rehearsal. So what we insist on is clarity and playing the emotional line…and when they do it, they find their register and an emotional authenticity”

Dele Meiji Fatunla

Plays One – By Oladipo Agboluaje is published by Oberon Press and is available from all good bookstores.