Issue 12.3-13.1 | Summer 2014/Fall 2014 / Guest Edited by Kim F. Hall, Monica L. Miller, and Yvette Christiansë

“There’s Trouble Out There”: Interview with Director Wole Oguntokun

Playwright-director Wole Oguntokun has been a major figure in contemporary Nigerian theater for over 15 years. As the artistic director of the Renegade Theatre, he directed groundbreaking productions, including a Yoruba version of The Winter’s Tale in London’s Globe theater as part of the Shakespeare Olympiad. He became the first Nigerian producer and director to present a play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where he directed his own piece, The Waiting Room.

Oguntokun has directed a broad repertoire of works, including his own plays: Who’s Afraid of Wole Soyinka (2002), The Inheritors (2003), The Other Side (2005), The Tarzan Monologues (2009), The Waiting Room (2010, 2011), Ajai (2010 and 2012), and Eni Ogun (2013). He has also directed works by other Nigerian writers, including Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, and Ola Rotimi, and works by non-Nigerian playwrights such as Eve Ensler and Athol Fugard. He was also founding artistic director and producer of the Theatre@Terra project in Lagos. Oguntokun obtained master’s degrees in both law and humanitarian refugee studies at the University of Lagos and has been called to the Nigerian bar.

Oguntokun directed the first Nigerian production of for colored girls, which premiered in December of 2011 at Shell Hall, Muson Centre, in Lagos. Producer Keke Hammond proclaimed that the play “presents an opportunity for the Nigerian woman to see her struggles through the lives of other women and also to birth a conviction within her to stand up for their rights.” She and Oguntokun reprised the production in June 2014. This interview was conducted via Skype on September 18, 2013 while Oguntokun was in Lagos and Cynn was in Richmond, VA, and later via email.

fcg-cast-with-wole-oguntokun

for colored girls cast with director Wole Oguntokun, moments before the first performance.

Chris Cynn: The 2011 production of for colored girls seems to be so specifically American in its urban geography and it seems to be responding to such a specifically US feminist, a white feminist, anti-Vietnam War, Black Arts Movement of the 1970s. But you and Keke Hammond presumably saw this play as being particularly relevant in addressing some of these issues that you identify as specifically Nigerian. What about this play made you feel like it would be a suitable, relevant response to some of those issues?

Wole Oguntokun: Roughly speaking, it was still the case of women speaking up, speaking out against subjugation. It [the American context] didn’t matter. The language was a bit dense because it was language peculiar to a particular section of the American community: black females. But we saw that the problems, the obstacles that women face around the world are usually the same. From the man who beats a woman, who holds a woman in check through physical force, from the man who puts a woman down … to the woman who seeks to free her spirit and seeks to find liberation. The stories are the same.

I directed The Vagina Monologues here once, too.[1] In Nigeria, The V Monologues was not just about the woman being the underdog. It’s a woman herself, in search of her identity. It’s not just about a woman being the underdog all the time. It’s a woman herself, in search of her place in the world, of where she stands in the scheme of things. for colored girls openly confronts the complexities intertwined with being colored and being a woman at the same time, two “weaknesses” in a global system that is rigged against them. There are certain disadvantages that come from being a woman, that come with being black, even in the twenty-first century, and it is a brave person that marches on towards the rainbow in spite of these obstacles.

So basically, even though [for colored girls] was American, it still struck a chord with us here. It was a story of women trying to find themselves again, which was why we thought it would be a good story here. Also, the movie was very popular here as well. It was about everything. The story cut across humanity, basically, because they were true stories. There was no geographical lock on those stories. It was not work that only stayed between the boundaries of America and wouldn’t travel. Those stories were real to us here.

Chris Cynn: You mentioned The V Monologues adaptation of Eve Ensler’s work. And you also did the Yoruba production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, where you did a more literal translation of the actual language.[2] I wonder what kind of specific adaptations you felt you needed to make to [for colored girls] to make it resonate more with Nigerian audiences? Or did you really leave the script intact? How did you translate some of that idiomatic American language, or did you not?

Wole Oguntokun: The language would have been incomprehensible to the Nigerian audience if left as it was. I suppose the language would have been incomprehensible to a lot of Americans as well. It was heavy going. When I first came across it, it was like reading Shakespeare. Sometimes, in these things, you have to look for the meaning behind it. You try to adapt speech without losing the meaning and the essence of the language. When we began to rehearse the play, we had to translate it into everyday usage here.

I think that the average Nigerian speaks regular English, not English peculiar to a certain geography at a certain period in American history. The average Nigerian speaks English, but we had to bring her language into the parlance that we use here, into the idioms that are peculiar to us. There were some things that were really, really obscure in the script, and we had to look for the given circumstances in the play and the things that prompted that kind of language; what the language meant when Ntozake wrote her story.

Chris Cynn: Can you give me an example? In her play, [Shange] seems to be affirming a black diaspora, and in her prologue, she writes that “everything … African was mine.”[3] Did you allude to that context, for example, to Toussaint L’Ouverture and Haiti in your production? Did you refer to a lot of the Caribbean context, the music, the dance?

Wole Oguntokun: No, in many ways we couldn’t. For example, we couldn’t use the music because it would have had no anchors here. Even the dance was translated to an African dance. The woman who went to the nightclubs, who she said she loved to dance, she loved to party … We had to translate that character into something people would recognize here. It would have been a bit difficult trying to dance as she does. It would be like doing the tango. That’s not normal to us here. It’s not an everyday thing, and people might have thought it was pretentious if we had tried to do that; basically because it’s not us. For example, the young woman who ran away from home and said she had found a hero; she went in search of a hero. What was her name?

Chris Cynn: The lady in brown, who was looking for Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian revolutionary hero.

Wole Oguntokun: Yes, it was her. What we used was someone I would have considered a hero here … the name I used was someone worthy of emulation. It was our Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka.

So it would have been, I think, a bit—not a bit—it would have been highly pretentious to have attempted to keep the story as it was, completely. We kept the essence of the play, but the anchors were peculiar to us, in this part of the world. The anchors that people here would see and immediately engage with. They think: okay, we all understand this. We understand this dance. We understand her need to want to break free, to want to get rid of her stress and her troubles. And to say she’s going to go to a party and she’s going to dance and she’s going to set her spirit free.

Some things didn’t need any touching up. The girl who said she was tired of hearing “I’m sorry” from a man who put her down all the time. She said she had had “sorry” up to here. That’s universal; that’s a story that all women and all men would understand. If you go to a woman and tell her “sorry” all the time and she says, “look, I’ve had enough, you know where to put your sorry.” That kind of thing doesn’t need any touching up. Other things had to be drawn into the African context, into the Nigerian context.

Chris Cynn: And how did audiences respond to your production?

Wole Oguntokun: I’m going to—totally without any attempt at modesty—say they enjoyed it. I believe they enjoyed it. I believe they appreciated it. We had to be careful because in the pursuit of wanting to put up this American piece, so to say, we had to find the humanity in it. We had to maintain the connection that the African would have to it.

There are a lot of stories out there that an African might say—you know, this has nothing to do with me; this thing doesn’t reflect hunger, it doesn’t reflect lack or penury. And so, you can’t tell my story if you haven’t felt my pain. So we had to hold on to the strain in the story because it really was a universal thing, really, most of it. The language wasn’t—I didn’t grow up in America in the ’70s. Even though the language was very strong in many places, I think we kept the essence of it, and therefore, the audience was able to appreciate what we had done.

Chris Cynn: The play seems to, and it’s well known on this side anyway, for asserting a new black feminist dramatic idiom because it incorporates the dance, the movement, the speech, the music in really—at the time, especially, right?—new and radical ways. Did you feel like your audiences really appreciated it? How did you do the choreography?

Wole Oguntokun: Yes, I did the choreography here. It wasn’t all dance. For example, there were only specific pieces that had the dance theme in there. There was music because we had a drummer on set throughout the play. There was music and there was some dance, but it wasn’t because I wanted to keep in tandem with a particular movement in the world. It was because for me, stories get told better sometimes when there’s music and there’s dance. There was no, how do you say—highfalutin’ ambition behind that.

Chris Cynn: You said that audiences were familiar with Shange’s for colored girls because of the Tyler Perry movie. Are other Nigerian writers influenced by her work? Are they familiar with any of her other work? Or had they known her before the film, do you think? Do you think the general Nigerian public had known about Shange before the Perry film?

Wole Oguntokun: No, I do not think her work was very popular with the average Nigerian here before Tyler Perry made a movie out of it … I didn’t see the movie until after I had done the play. But when the movie came in here, it had a large impact, I think, in pushing her name and that particular work into the faces of people. A great work, but it hadn’t gotten around here before the movie.

Chris Cynn: Do you think other writers or other artists are familiar with her work, more so than the general public?

Wole Oguntokun: I’m sure the literati, I’m sure writers and people with artistic leanings, knew who Ntozake Shange was before the film. But for the average Nigerian, I think cable TV and that movie helped it a bit. I think it was the movie that brought it to their consciousness.

Chris Cynn: And how about for you? I’m just wondering for you personally—you mentioned Soyinka. You’re also well known for having directed a lot of his work. So how would you situate this production, the Shange production, in the context of your other work in terms of your political activism/transformation, as well as your larger artistic projects?

Wole Oguntokun: Yes. Okay. As I said, in 2007, I was asked to do an adaptation of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues here, and so I selected four other female writers and we did. We wrote something for Nigeria and called it The V Monologues. And I was also the first director of The V Monologues here…. So basically, I would think for colored girls would be in the same category with [V Monologues] because … it’s basically about raising the consciousness of women here.

When I saw The Vagina Monologues myself, it was really … it was life-changing. I had never seen these sorts of women, women just speaking of their essence, saying words, calling things that you wouldn’t think polite society would allow.

That was The Vagina Monologues. So when we did the rewrite of The V Monologues, we had to do the rewrite because people, a lot of Nigerians felt the language was a bit too strong here. I don’t know if it’s hypocrisy but you can’t use some words in public here. So that forced the rewrite. And then, The V Monologues still had to be made, it had to be made suitable. It had to be based on stories, and Nigerians told of the things that had happened to them through interviews undertaken by the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (K.I.N.D.),[4] the organization that commissioned the rewrite, and the interviews spoke of things like women who had been passed to other men as gifts by their husbands.[5]

So, I would say that for colored girls was a bit like that for me. It stands apart from a lot of the things I’ve done because it is geared primarily towards women. Basically, it doesn’t matter how you look at it; it is geared towards protecting women, their awareness, the way they see the world. Sometimes it appears to be man-hating. But it is geared towards telling women to speak up, stand out, and not be afraid to express themselves.

Chris Cynn: Is that a criticism that was leveled there against the play? That it’s man-hating? That’s a term that circulated around here.

Wole Oguntokun: No, no, no. Okay. What I said actually was—sometimes it appears man-hating. It appears. It has a semblance because it speaks so much against the wrongs done. It has a semblance of being man-hating … and some men spoke about that, and even some women too, in their feedback, that this is just anti-man, and all that. I suppose it’s an irony that a man directed it here.

Chris Cynn: Did you encounter any resistance from audiences for being a male director of a work dedicated to “colored girls”?

Wole Oguntokun: There was no resistance on account of me being a male director of for colored girls. The producers and cast felt my body of work gave me an advantage in performances like these.

Chris Cynn: Had you seen a production of for colored girls before you directed it?

Wole Oguntokun: No, I refused to.

Chris Cynn: Not just the film. But a play production—you hadn’t seen the play either?

Wole Oguntokun: Oh, yeah, yeah. I actually saw bits of the play. Someone brought a video for me. It was a bit of stage and—it wasn’t Tyler Perry’s film. It was bit of stage and film.[6] Now, I didn’t see the movie because I didn’t want to have the heavy influence of Tyler Perry in my life, at that particular moment—I didn’t want that. And there were people who met me after and said—so where’s the Lady in White? And that made me wonder. Because apparently Terry Perry had created the Lady in White. What’s her name? Whoopi Goldberg. I didn’t know that until after. But I might have been forced to have run along with that idea by having a Lady in White, if I had watched [the Perry film]. There might have been some influence on me. I didn’t see it until after.

Chris Cynn: And that would really transform the meaning of the play, right, to have a Lady in White?

Wole Oguntokun: Well, he’s a director. And honestly, I write plays and pieces, too, and I know that all writers have … most writers have a problem with their works being touched, but I speak now from a viewpoint of a director: anything can be done to your work, as long as the story is told.

I was just glad I didn’t see that movie because I might have thought: what is the possibility of creating another lady? I was glad that idea wasn’t foisted on me by Mr. Perry. But as a director, I think people are allowed to change whatever they want, or to turn a play on its head, if they think it would make a more interesting story, and it will tell the story better.

Chris Cynn: Is there anything else about the play, about Shange, that you would want to add?

Wole Oguntokun: I remember you asked if there were some circumstances in 2011, around that time, that would have, maybe, been a catalyst for the choice of that particular play. So maybe I should address that properly now. What I want to say is, the story of women is, how do you say it—the “problems”—in quotes, are things that have gone on through time. So basically it was why Ntozake’s work was important at that time. Women have faced problems from the beginning of time. They have had issues of subjugation. Well, we all know what women face. We know the natural obstacles that are thrown their way, and that’s why that play was chosen. I’m going to get a bit political here. It’s a bit like, women have problems; women have things that trouble them; women have ceilings that are designed to prevent them from crossing over, and it’s always a fight to get them across. It’s a bit like the black man in the world—and this is not the angry black man speaking now—it’s a bit like the black man, the African male in the world. There are some problems that are peculiar to him. You understand?

Chris Cynn: But what about black women in the world?

Wole Oguntokun: Oh, yeah, they do have their issues too. I’ll just give you an example. The problem faced by the black female, by the African female here, actually may be a bit more pronounced than those faced by the American female. So basically Ntozake’s work cannot actually totally blanket … it cannot totally encompass all the troubles that women face. Because even in the ranks of those women, there are categories of troubles, if you get my meaning.

The mortality rate, for example, in Africa … the infant mortality rate here is something the American mind will never be able to understand. It would be totally incomprehensible, so those are African issues that cannot be addressed because, I mean, you can’t talk about a scar if you have never felt a wound. It’s not possible. So that’s me going deeper into the story. Not taking anything away from Ntozake’s work, of course.

Chris Cynn: So for you, she did address some of the issues, but because of the nature of the work and its specific American-ness, it was unable to actually convey some of the most pressing issues that you feel actually are confronting African women, or Nigerian women in particular, or many of them, anyway.

Wole Oguntokun: No, no, Chris. I have to be careful here. What I’m saying, Chris, is—yes, I have a degree in law [laughter]—what I’m saying is that there are sub-chambers, even though she did so brilliantly in her work, even though her work was so brilliant … there are sub-chambers into which Ntozake might not have been given entrance because she never experienced those things. So there are many sub-chambers, there are rooms underneath. There are cities under the cities, which Ntozake might not have been able to reach. She hasn’t experienced it. For her, it would be incomprehensible. Where do children die on the streets? It doesn’t happen, except in Africa.

Chris Cynn: I really like that metaphor of the cities under the cities, because she sets the play in specific cities—Detroit, New York, very American cities. This notion of cities under cities …

Wole Oguntokun: Ah, exactly.

Chris Cynn: … in Lagos, or Abidjan, or any place. I really like that metaphor.

bWole Oguntokun: Thank you. The actor who took that particular piece about the cities, about the square mile of cities, grew up in the UK, she grew up in England. That’s the person who took it here, Marcy Dolapo Oni,[7] she grew up in the UK, and I told her: before you can speak like someone who knows the city, you have to walk the streets of this city as well. You have to experience what the people, what the, in quotes, the “ghettos” of Lagos are like. So even the person who took that part here, had no idea what some things were like until we touched the play. She had no idea what the city under her own city was like. She had no idea that her city had layers, so to say.

Actor Tiwa Savage at the for colored girls audition.

Actor Tiwa Savage at the for colored girls audition.

Chris Cynn: Did you feel like the play that you directed was able to convey to audiences … and I mean, I would imagine that the audiences are maybe not dissimilar to the audiences here, where mostly the elite tend to go to the theater, just because of the price and because of the connotations of “the theater”? I don’t know if that’s different for attendance in your play.

I was interested in what you just said about how even some of the people who were involved in the play were not aware of some of the most marginalized in their own city. I’m wondering if the audiences who came to your play also might not have been aware of that either—probably not on a daily level—of the lives of those who are depicted in the play. And there’s a way in which the play seems to address, and maybe, in a really complicated way, engage in what it means, that elites are watching representations of the most marginalized. I’m thinking about Sechita when she is dancing and seems to be deriving pleasure in criticizing and defying the audience’s gaze. At the time of the play’s initial Broadway production in 1976, too, audiences were also mostly white. I’m wondering whether you were trying to convey some of the complexities of that relationship between actors representing the most marginalized and the elite audience, and how some of those complexities translated?

Wole Oguntokun: Yeah, I tried as much as I could to show there was a world different from the things we take for granted. I tried as much as I could. Now, the peculiar thing about the theater audience is that people come for different reasons. Some come because they think it’s an event. Some come because they want to see art. And some would have come because it was Ntozake’s classic piece, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Theatre does have an audience that appears elitist. We had an actress, Funke Akindele, who is known for her films on the more marginalized in the society, take on some portions of the 2014 production of for colored girls, where the performer seems to openly defy the audience’s judgment of her and declares that she is in their faces and is staying there.[8]

Now, I think, what I try to do is to change the world, a play at a time. That’s going to take a very long while … to change the world a play at a time. I left home quite late today because I was watching a documentary on cable TV. It was titled Great Africans, and it was on the life of Patrice Lumumba.[9] I, honestly, this morning could not understand how people could make discussions on hair or shoes or things, when things like—I was really upset this morning—when things like the assassination of Lumumba happened. Nobody ever talks about things like that.

I directed a play about the Congo, here at the Black Heritage Festival a few years ago.[10] Professor Wole Soyinka called me to the Black Heritage Festival and asked me to direct that, and that’s the first time I actually came across the story of Lumumba. What I’m saying is, audiences are peculiar, and I don’t want to speak from a position of arrogance, but people … sometimes the most important things just pass over them.

The best you can do is just hope that it reaches a few people. I think for quite a number of people, it doesn’t matter how profound what you have done is. It just washes over them like water, and they move on. What I’m saying is, this morning—I give the Lumumba example because I was immobilized for a few minutes after the film—I just thought, “this … this happened, and nothing came out of it.”

Okay, I get very political when it comes to these things. I get worked up.

Chris Cynn: But you clearly have a firm conviction in the power of theater. I mean, it’s what you do.

Wole Oguntokun: Oh, yeah. Oh, yes, I do. I think it’s a chronicle, it’s a way, particularly in this part of the world, it’s a way of chronicling history. You have to continue to do those things so that people don’t forget. Or you take examples, like Ntozake Shange’s work, and you bring it into our own context, so that people can see the world through the eyes of others. They can see their world through the eyes of others. They can see the things that a lot of people don’t think, basically. So I think theater tries to shake them out of complacency and tries to make them remember that there is trouble out there.

Chris Cynn: I like that: there’s trouble out there. That’ll be the title of the interview. [Laughter]. Thank you so much.

Wole Oguntokun: Thank you.

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Footnotes
  1. See footnote 8 in Kaigwa’s interview, this issue. [Return to text]
  2. In May 2012, Oguntokun adapted and directed a Yoruba adaptation of The Winter’s Tale at the Globe Theatre in London, England. For a recorded interview with Oguntokun talking about the adaptation, see http://globetoglobe.shakespearesglobe.com/archive/2012/plays/the-winters-tale/interview. [Return to text]
  3. Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (New York: Macmillan, 1977) xi. [Return to text]
  4. A Nigerian nongovernmental organization based in Lagos that, according to its vision statement, works “to strengthen organizations and create initiatives dedicated to the advancement of women. Our work is primarily in Nigeria in the areas of leadership development for young women and on collaborative projects aimed at removing barriers to public participation of women and ending violence against women.” See http://www.kind.org/version3/about.php?id=4. [Return to text]
  5. Oguntokun wrote the Nigerian adaption of The Vagina Monologues, The V Monologues, as well as a male version of the play that was incorporated into the V Monologues in a production, The Ultimate Face-Off: V-Monologues v. Tarzan Monologues, that he directed in March 2010. See http://pridenigeria.com/spotlight/wole-oguntokun/. [Return to text]
  6. The Broadway production of for colored girls filmed in 1982. for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, dir. Oz Scott, perf. Alfre Woodard, Lynn Whitfield, and Ntozake Shange. Broadway Theatre Archive, 1982. [Return to text]
  7. Oni is an actress who was also one of the stars of for colored girls. [Return to text]
  8. Akindele played the lady in orange in the 2014 production of for colored girls. [Return to text]
  9. Patrice Lumumba was the Congolese independence leader and Prime Minister, imprisoned and executed in 1961. On his murder, and Belgian and United States governments’ complicity in his death, see Ludo De Witte, The Assassination of Lumumba, trans. Renee Fenby (New York: Verso, 2001); Didier Gondola, The History of Congo (Westport: Greenwood, 2002) and Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History (New York: Zed, 2002). [Return to text]
  10. Aimé Césaire’s A Season in the Congo that Oguntokun directed for the 2010 Black Heritage Festival in Lagos. See Aimé Césaire, A Season in the Congo, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005). [Return to text]