As her spectacular musical comes to London, Bolanle Austen Peters, founder of Lagos’s popular culture spot, Terrakulture talks to What’s On Africa contributor, Samuel Kent about musicals, career changes and extravagance.
Things did not go so well when Bolanle Austen Peters first handed over the space in Terra Kulture – her cultural centre in Lagos – to serious theatre types. “I kept watching – I’m a businessperson as well – I kept watching the attendance. Two people. Ten people. Fifteen. Thirty. It was always yo-yoing. So I asked what could be the problem?”
I had come to talk to Bolanle Austen Peters ahead of the premier of her own production – Wakaa! – at London’s West End, curious to know how she ended up in musicals. “I noticed any time there was any kind of music”, she explained, “the attendance quadruples. The missing link was music! Nigerians love to sing. They love to dance – their attention span is next to nothing”
That may sound elitist but really she is just as deprecating about her own dramatic tastes – “there have been a couple of plays, Shakespearean plays in Lagos, when I’ve thought, ‘when is this going to end?’” – and the root of her musical story was, more prosaically, a business decision. Music sold, and then so did her musicals.
Her first musical production in 2013, Saro, for which she was a creative producer, had people “asking to pay and stand”; her latest, Wakaa!, this time directed by her, played to 10 000 people last year in Lagos across twelve performances. Though, such is her desire to see Wakaa! succeed commercially again, she has changed 40% of the production – including the ending – for the new London audience. For a moment I think that the setting of our interview has begun to make sense. This is no artist’s hovel; it’s a spacious flat in Chelsea.
But this impression quickly disappears, for it is clear that Bolanle Austen Peters is no bean counter. After graduating at the London School of Economics she worked first as a lawyer, and then with refugees at the United Nations Development Programme, before quitting it all in 2003 to set up Terra Kulture – a centre in Lagos dedicated to Nigerian theatre, visual arts, literature and cuisine – to the general bewilderment of all those around her. “What is this art thing?” is how she describes the general reaction. She is, at the very least, someone who is serious about culture. Someone too who cares for performers, directors, artists, and hates to see them demoralised by so many empty seats.
Which leads to Wakaa!, described by Bolanle Austen Peters as a “fusion of theatre and Vegas” and brought to the stage by a now-trusted cast and crew that have developed at Terra Kulture over the last few years. Meaning ‘journey’ in Pidgin English, Wakaa! follows the interlocking stories of four Nigerians after graduation: Ngozi, the one that leaves the country; Tosan, the one that goes into politics; Rex, the one with get-rich-quick syndrome; and Kike, the frivolous woman.
It is, Austen Peters says, full of wit and humour about the present state of Nigeria. It is also, unashamedly it would seem, a real show: lights, glamour, music. “There is so much drudgery and so much grime in Nigeria”, she says, “When you give people entertainment, they just want to laugh. They just want to be happy.”
Yet as we talk about Wakaa! there are hints that for Austen Peters populism is a means, not just an end – that there is something deeper to her in all of this. I ask her, for example, what Nigeria can bring to the world of musicals, and she is quick to point out the country’s rich traditions in music – “Fela, Sunny Ade”, then, trying to cater to her interviewer’s taste, “the Lighthouse Family” – not to mention fashion, dance and storytelling. “I want you to come, look at our play, and say ‘wow, Nigeria has such a beautiful culture. Wow, Nigerians can dance. Oh my goodness, Nigerians have talent in singing. Their costumes are incredible! Is this politics in Nigeria – it’s crazy!” The pride in her voice is clear. This is the Nigeria she wants to show to her audiences, and she wants it to be shown to as wide an audience as possible.
It’s a Nigeria she might want to help change too. While Austen Peters says she is “completely disengaged from all of the shenanigans in Nigeria’s polity”, Wakaa! does have something to say about Nigerian society. Hidden between the afrobeats, hip hop and love songs, Wakaa! addresses what Nigeria has in store for the aspiring, educated Nigerians Bolanle Austen Peters has come from, “bringing a very serious message but making it not too heavy. You will walk away from Wakaa! realising a lot has been said about our politics, our politicians, and our future.”