In side the Lagos Theatre Festival (1)

Actors of Illuminate Theatre rehearsing “When Lemons Grow on Orange Trees”.

I drop in at Freedom Park — the nucleus of the 2018 edition of the Lagos Theatre Festival — just about when rehearsals for Dialing Love and August Meeting are rounding off. The former is on the Park’s main performance stage and the latter behind a crescent of a colour wall directly facing Gate 3, which I am seeing open for the first time in five or so years.

Meanwhile, the cast of When Lemons Grow on Orange Trees (adapted from the novel of same title (By Diekara Oloruntoba Oju) are on break by the space allocated to them behind the Food Court and would resume in two hours.

The festival opens on 27 Feb at the nearby and underutilised City Hall at 6pm local time (last year it was at the largely disused National Theatre at 10am), followed by the first performance The Illusions of Truth; after that everybody will transfer to the Park for the festival’s opening after-party (9pm).

This year, there will be 100 performances at a dozen venues across the city (UNILAG, MUSON Centre, PEFTI film Institute and Terra Kulture, among others) but, as it was in 2017, most of the plays will be staged inside the Freedom Park, so workmen are busy nailing, sawing and hammering the various performance spaces into shape, clearing rubbish and generally preparing the place for the next six days of activity.

A banner detailing the calendar of what’s happening where covers a portion of the front wall of Kongi’s Harvest’s Gallery, so that at participants and guests can see at a glance — just in case they don’t have the printed festival programme — where the play or workshop they’re interested in is taking place. I make a mental note of a play or two should like to see — 3Some and Tori Tori among them.

It’s rained earlier, so it’s a fairly sunny day and the trees are as green as they can be. I am keen to see what the other parts of the Park look like, so I take a walk — past the Food Court (only a handful of people are seated and chatting), the block of old prison cells (where exhibitors will be for the Arts and Crafts Fair) and the banners-heavy Amphitheatre (already fitted with stage lights but the temporary walls are still a work in progress).

By the Museum block, adjacent the i-Groove Radio, the white tent that’ll be the staging area for Strelitzia is up and the playwright and director, Donna Ogunnaike, is overseeing the setup inside. Strelitzia was one of the raves of the plays of 2017, plus it’s had a stint in Hong Kong so I am not surprised that it is back to the festival this year.

“We are expand the sitting capacity to 40 (up from last year’s 25) so we can have more people in,” Ogunnaike tells me hours later when we meet for a brief chat.

I was one of many who didn’t see the poetry-infused play so I ask what it’s about (A trailer describes it as “an intriguing way to liberate your memories and emotions”).

It’s an intense personal journey, she says, adding that the story has always been in her subconscious but she didn’t realise it, until an artist friend invited her to perform (she’s also a spoken-word artist) at his exhibition.

“I had not seen the exhibition space, but while preparing for the show I began to see in my mind long corridors and characters began to materialise along it,” she says, pausing briefly to reflect on the memory of the whole experience. “When I was putting the cast together, I didn’t have a script but I knew what each character had to say and do. I literally held them by the hand and told them that we are going on a journey, describing the scenario and guiding them on what the situation demanded in terms of dialogue.”

At that point, in a split second, I imagine a world in total darkness illuminated by ghostly humans, picking their steps nimbly through a mud as black and sticky as lava. Then Ogunnaike pops a question: “What would you do if you could step into your diary? How would you take the negative memories you come across, how would you handle the positive ones?”

I have never once thought about that. But my interest in the play has now trebled and I am sure to see it this time.

Back behind the Food Court, rehearsals for When Lemons… a story of grief, loss and agonizing romance has resumed. An unfortunate 18 year old struggles with all troubles that life has thrown at her: the death of her parents, particularly the father’s who was killed while he tried to fight of his daughter’s rapist; a pregnancy resulting from the rape (“How will I love it?” she wails at some point), siblings who need to be supported through schooling and life; a beloved aunt killed by Boko Haram, and a cluster of relations who wish them nothing but ill.

“It is a story about the human capacity to withstand life’s many troubles and makes us reflect on how we react to adversity when our wills are tested,” says Illuminate Theatre’s Artistic Director, Taiwo Ojudun. “Do we fall or do we fight? Sewa realises that she has to do the latter, if nothing but for the sake of her younger ones.”

Continues…

PS: Lagos Theatre Festival was conceived and launched in 2013 by British Council, the United Kingdom’s cultural organisation, inspired by the need to provide a platform for theatre makers in Nigeria to produce works for unconventional spaces and develop audiences for theatre productions.

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