The Gods Are Not to Blame
11 June 2005
Given the big debate about diversity in British theatre, it is fascinating to find that 30% of acting students at Rada are black or Asian. That partly explains why the spring season offers a little-known work by Kwame Kwei-Armah as well as the UK premiere of this play by the novelist and poet Pearl Cleage. Set in Harlem in 1930, it is a formally traditional American play that yields a superb performance from its five-strong cast.
Cleage’s focus is on Harlem as its famous cultural renaissance is stalled by economic depression. That has a direct effect on the lives of Guy, a gay costume-designer who dreams of working for Josephine Baker in Paris, and on his friend, Angel, an out-of-work dancer. But their neighbour, Delia, bucks the trend by setting up Harlem’s first birth-control clinic with the aid of a local doctor, Sam. They make a close-knit quartet whose lives are fatally disrupted by the arrival of an Alabama stranger.
Cleage’s play, which owes much to Tennessee Williams, comes to a melodramatic conclusion but offers a riveting picture of Harlem at a moment of historic transition. You get a fierce sense, in Femi Elufowoju Jr’s fine production, of lives being palpably lived and of the conflict between a debt to the community and a desire to escape. All five actors – Kit Young, Grace Saif, Tok Stephen, Leaphia Darko and Michael Balogun – impress and suggest the talent is there if only British theatre is alert enough to welcome it.
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London, until 18 February.
Box office: 020-7908 4800
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
21 November 2003
Southwark Playhouse, London
1 August 1995
25 May 2009
Chief Adeyemi and his wife Toyin were once the brightest of their generation. Now it is 1989, and the Chief is wheeling and dealing to keep his contracts with Nigeria's military rulers. His discontented wife is facing her 40th birthday, and taking out her feelings on the house girl Helen, a young woman with ambitions of her own. With everyone looking for the main chance in a Lagos where everyone is on the make, the pressure cooker that is the Adeyemi family home reaches explosion point as the birthday dawns.
A prequel to his previous hit, The Estate, Oladipo Agboluaje's Nigerian comedy requires no previous knowledge, just a willingness to go with the flow. Is Iyà-Ilé a great play? Probably not - it's too cursory in its characterisations and crammed like an overfilled pie, but it provides an exuberant, warts-and-all account of Nigerian life. As an experience it rates highly, not least because of the engagement of the black members of the audience, who treat each character as if they know them personally.
By the end I felt as if I did too, although the first 15 minutes are bewildering for anyone unversed in Nigerian life. It is, I imagine, the theatrical equivalent of stepping off a plane in Lagos: slightly overwhelming and culturally dislocating, but fascinating. It's a soap opera on an operatic scale, doing for unhappy Nigerian families what August: Osage County did for unhappy Americans. Femi Elufowoju jr's production has real verve, and the cast give it everything they've got. It's neither subtle nor deep, but terrific fun.
The Hotel Cerise
Theatre Royal Stratford East, London
26 October 2016
Femi elufowoju, jr
Performer & Director
3 November 2010
To run a five-week season of African plays, readings and workshops on a budget of £2000 is miraculous in itself, and one might expect the results to be decidedly hole-in-corner. Not so: the production values of Acquisitive Case bear comparison with any fringe show, and San Cassimally's play bowls along nicely.
This tragi-comedy blends the downfall of an over-reaching individual, Al Haji, and his family with the endemic corruption of modern Nigeria. Al Haji and his colleagues live by the saw, "There are two ways to do everything – the crooked way and the dishonest way." Officials are bribed to allow the purchase of the town's prestigious Pink House, and rumours about ghosts deliberately circulated to knock down its price with the help of nephew Aliya, who has ambitions to join the tribe of Mbenzi (those who drive Mercedes-Benz) but will settle for a Peugeot. In the middle of all this hokey dealing, smart but idealistic daughter Kadiatou is trying in vain to help build a new Nigeria.
Director Femi Elufowoju Jr saves the gloom for the inexorable catastrophe at the end of the second act, allowing free rein to the intimate social satire which informs the bulk of the play. He also bucks the trend of actor-directors proving to be weak links in performance; his own stint as a cowed, shambling manservant is as understated as it can be in the circumstances. Alan Cooper's Al Haji is a bluff, hearty fellow, blind to the developments closest to him; Marcia Hewitt is nobler but no less short-sighted as Kadiatou; and Wale Ojo puts in a delicious cameo as a prophet-cum-gossipmonger blind beggar.
Southwark Playhouse is beginning to acquire an identity for itself by pulling off small wonders, and Acquisitive Case cannot but enhance its standing.
A riveting picture of 1930s Harlem.
This superbly performed production of Pearl Cleage’s drama gives a fierce sense of the conflict between belonging and the desire to escape
Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard takes a trip to election USA
This elegant, timely play is superior work
Blues For An Alabama Sky
Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, London
12 January 2017
Nicholas de Jongh
Was Euripides the first great African playwright? One school of thought links the tradition of Greek tragedy back to Yoruba ritual drama.
Wole Soyinka was the first to create a confluence of Yoruba and Greek traditions in his version of the Bacchae, produced at the National Theatre 20 years ago. And here, the new associate director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Femi Elufowoju Jr, gives Alistair Elliot's translation of Medea a spellbinding African makeover. It's simply a masterful staging of a Greek tragedy with different costumes. But this surely proves the point that, as a civic debate on man's responsibilities to the spiritual and material universe, the two traditions are essentially the same.
There have some been some outstanding Medeas of late - Diana Rigg, Fiona Shaw, Josephine Barstow in Cherubini's opera - and Tanya Moodie is entitled to a place among them. She makes her first entrance on all fours, like a hungry female panther, and uses the full swooping range of her remarkably musical voice to chart the difficult psychological transition from Amazon to wronged mother to child-killer.
Elufowoju himself turns in a broad-shouldered performance that cunningly humanises Jason's arrogance. His only deviation from strict Greek propriety is a terrifying extension to the child slaughter sequence. But as a triumphant fusion of two dramatic traditions, Elufowoju's production draws strength from the best of both worlds.
· Until December 13. Box Office: 0113-213 7700.
Ola Rotimi's Nigerian rewrite of the Oedipus myth is not new to London: it was vividly staged by Yvonne Brewster at the Riverside Studios in 1989. But this lively revival by Femi Elufowoju jr, as part of the Africa 05 celebrations, is eminently justified in that it reminds us how a new spin can be put on an old tale.
In place of an awesome study of malign fate we get a very human play about avoidable error. In Ultz's circular matted space, there is a powerhouse performance from Mo Sesay as Odewale. He treats every prediction as a personal insult, brims with rage on being called a "bed-sharer" and exudes a sense of danger that marks him out as a potential Othello. Golda John as his maternal queen, Kwaku Ankomah as her vituperative son and Ann Ogbomo as a halting prophet all lend vigorous support.
The result, even on a stifling evening, is a shared experience rather than a remote tragedy.
Until July 2. Box Office: 020-7503 1646.
Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange made a huge impression when it premiered a decade ago, and this production by the company Tiata Fahodzi represents a major reappraisal. Director Femi Elufowoju Jr has changed the three male characters of Penhall’s original into women. This may sound gratuitous, yet it proves fruitful.
Volatile patient Juliet is about to be discharged from a psychiatric hospital. But her doctor, Emily, suspects she may be schizophrenic, and evidence of Juliet’s instability surfaces in her wild assertions that she is the daughter of dictator Idi Amin and that the oranges in Emily’s office are blue.
Juliet’s borderline status becomes the subject of cut-throat debate between Emily and her superior Hilary. The audience, seated in the round, inspects the three women’s confrontations through the framework of Ultz’s shrewdly designed set.
We’re voyeurs, sometimes sucked into vivid engagement yet often estranged by the prolixity of the arguments being set before us.
The performances do justice to the excellence of Penhall’s writing, which certainly hasn’t dated.
Ayesha Antoine’s squawking, moody Juliet is suitably ambiguous. As Emily, Esther Hall is detailed and lucid, while Helen Schlesinger conveys Hilary’s mix of arrogance and sudden querulousness.
Besides interrogating the very idea of madness, Blue/Orange explores the connection between ethnicity and perceptions of mental health. And in Elufowoju jr’s reinterpretation, gender also enters the mix.
With a real deftness of touch, the play probes notions of authority. It illuminates the way psychiatry can be strategic — and anatomises the politics of medical care.
Blue/Orange until November 20. Information: 020 7503 1646.
Here’s an elegant, not to mention timely, new piece of theatre. Bonnie Greer has taken Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, shifted it across a couple of continents and updated it to right now, to a black America trembling on the brink of the 2016 presidential election.
There’s an elegiac sense of the end of an era: for this once wealthy but now fallen-on-hard-times family, for the US’s first black president and, just perhaps, for the land of opportunity itself. What there also is, most crucially, is a large and quintessentially Chekhovian ensemble of quiet mavericks, hopeless dreamers and the downright unhappy.
Languorous initial scene-setting establishes the tone of Femi Elufowoju, jr’s confident production: Anita Mountjoy (Ellen Thomas), her family and assorted hangers-on are back from Paris to their titular Michigan establishment, which used to be a holiday resort for the African-American elite (a few more details about the hotel’s renowned past would be a boon). This is, however, not quite the triumphant homecoming it appears, as the family’s luck, money and time have all run out and urgent decisions need to be made about the future.
A few moments of ill-judged extremity aside, this is superior work, as the four acts tick inexorably down to end on November 7th, the very eve of the election. It’s a real luxury to see a 12-strong ensemble deployed like this in a straight play and it’s powerfully headed by Thomas, who has an air of detached benignity and deluded regality in the Madame Ranevskaya role. This is wonderfully ambitious programming from Stratford East which deserves to fare very well – and considerably better than those poor cherry trees.
Until Nov 12, Theatre Royal, Stratford East
(020 8534 0310,stratfordeast.com)