Opening Pandora’s Box – Ade Solanke takes on Britain’s schooling system

Failing schools are the stuff of sleepless nights for many parents, and the source of more than a few inspirational, as well as dystopian Hollywood films – but they have rarely featured in the landscape of African or British drama for that matter.

So Ade Solanke’s play, Pandora’s Box is a breath of fresh air, or at least the breathing of life into a topic that’s rarely encountered in newspapers. The play tells the told story of a Nigerian family grappling with the disappointments of the British school system, and the often, low expectations it has of their children, particularly boys.

Set in London, the play originally premiered at the Arcola Theatre Shed in London, but is now going on a national tour, with a new cast; apart from it’s national tour, the play has earned Solanke a place on the shortlist of the Nigerian Prize for Literature, billed as Africa’s largest prize for literature. But it’s birth has not been without setbacks, originally meant to debut at the Oval House Theatre, the play was pulled following a dispute between playwright and director, and then returned with a sold out run at the Arcola to warm reviews. Solanke taps into the anxiety of many African families to produce a story that explores not only parental anxiety about education, but issues of abandonment, migration and loss.

Lyn Gardner reviewing the play at its debut said sometimes it felt like she was watching a newspaper article transformed into drama; which is perhaps not a distinction that Solanke would shrink from, as she puts telling African stories authentically centre-stage. Pandora’s Box addresses some of the quotidian anxieties familiar to so many African families, and this is no bad thing in a context where the stories and voices of African diasporans, and other UK minority group experiences seldom make it onto the big stage – often competing with epic spectacle plays like the recently staged Feast at the young vic, or with productions from Africa which are typically part of international seasons at many of London’s theatres. Yet of late, stories like Pandora’s Box are getting more ‘airtime’ for lack of a better word.

Solanke says she’s keen “to contribute such stories as I desire them myself…The old images of poor, starving, victimised Africans are so boring, most of us are ready for more reality. So I’m both an audience member and producer; I aim to create work which is as high-quality and challenging as possible, because that’s what I like.” Asked about the increased presence of African stories on the British stage, Solanke says “It’s funny: those stories have been so limited in the past, and the range of images of Africans so narrow, that the exclusion is paradoxically what’s now spawned this renaissance. People, Africans and others, are tired of the old stereotypes. But it’s the appetite for fresh stories within the African audience that’s so striking; I’m amazed at the response we get. But it’s also striking that people are turning up for work that is solid, not just because a piece is ‘African.’ There are African plays that really connect, and some that don’t. The African audience for African stories is so choosy”

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Her stories have certainly been chosen by audiences, and Pandora’s Box, has certainly struck a chord; perhaps because it comes from pretty close personal experience. The play, Solanke says “is based on the story of the son of a friend of mine. He was sent to school in Lagos after getting into trouble in London. I saw him a few days after he returned, having come back to London with a clutch of GCSEs. He actually said to me, ‘Auntie Ade, I never thought I could pass exams.’ It broke my heart to hear that. It still makes me sombre when I remember those words. His mum told me that when he was 5 he used to say, “I am the best.” By the time he was fifteen, he was adding an ‘a’ and saying, “I am the beast.” How do such poisonous ideas get into their heads? There are many fantastic schools and great teachers, but what is in our culture that’s so toxic that it disturbs the self-image of our children so profoundly?

It’s a question Pandora’s Box doesn’t seek to answer directly, instead exploring what happens when a mother is forced to choose between this possibility of a bleak future for her son, and the uncertain certitudes of returning him to life in a country he has never lived.

Almost every diasporan has an apocryphal story of a friend or relative who was sent ‘back home’ to straighten him (or (her) out, and in Pandora’s Box, we encounter both the success stories and the boys who fall by the wayside. Nevertheless, if it’s a sense of entitlement which a good education breeds, it doesn’t seem to be the same entitlement famously possessed by public school Englishmen that Solanke suggests her character needs, rather an entitlement to a sense of ownership and belonging.

The play delves into this terrain, while also movingly and humorously probing the psycho-drama of a particularly clingy mother-son relationship with devastatingly funny and ultimately dramatic life-changing decisions.

Pandora’s Box by Ade Solanke is on a National Tour from Friday Sept 12th – 1st Nov

Dele Meiji Fatunla