When we're not eating (yes, this does happen!), one of our other favourite things to do is chat. And recently we had the opportunity to talk to award-winning playwright Oladipo Agboluaje whose new play New Nigerians is now playing at the Arcola Theatre. From studying theatre in Nigeria to advice for budding playwrights, we had plenty of questions to ask.
We were born and raised in East London but through the food, the music, our grandmother and mother and our trips back home, Nigeria is still very much a part of us. What is your own relationship to Nigeria?
I've lived a quarter of my life in Nigeria. I did all of my secondary school and my first degree there, so Nigeria's a place of many experiences that have shaped me as a person. I'm still in touch with family and friends. Social media, especially Facebook and VOIPs (for example, Skype and Viber)
I have made Nigeria part of my daily experience in a way that was impossible twenty years ago. I've been back a few times since 2011 for business and I have forged new relationships there. More importantly, since I've been going back, Nigeria is no more a place of nostalgia for me. It is a reality.
How do you think studying theatre in Nigeria differed from studying it in London and how has this influenced your writing and career?
Studying theatre at the University of Benin (Great Uniben! Great Ekenwites!) meant that my attitudes towards theatre were informed by that experience. The course was Pan-African in that we covered the continent, reading about writers like Ngugi wa Thiongo, Ebrahim Hussein and Ama Ata Aidoo. We also studied African theatre history and Western theatre history, so we had a rounded education of theatre, but we did so through a Nigerian perspective.
As a result, I write with a Nigerian satirical sensibility and Nigerians are critical with such humour, to the point where you don’t know whether you’re being criticised or not.
If Nigeria was a character in one of your plays, what sort of character would he/she be?
If Nigeria was a character in my play she'd be like Eshu, the trickster god. You never know what's coming round the corner. Nigeria the character would have a mischievous sense of humour, a zestful joy for life, and an indestructible belief that the future will be better than the present. Nigeria the character would always think they're the smartest person in the room (s/he would certainly be the loudest). S/he'd always find ways of digging a hole for themselves. She'd end up digging the hole so deep that s/he'd come out at the other end unscathed and end up jeering at her/his antagonists.
What is the inspiration behind your new play New Nigerians and where does the title come from?
The contemporary political scene and the perennial issue of leadership inspired New Nigerians. The title was inspired by the New Nigerian newspaper. The play is about a socialist party leader who has to make certain political choices that could compromise his integrity but will get him closer to the seat of power where he can effect chance. We follow him as he is pressured by the different forces that make up the political and social body of the country (religion, ethnicity and gender) into making a decision. But every choice has a consequence.
Beyond Nollywood, Nigerian cinema is growing. Do you ever consider writing for the big screen or smaller screen even?
Yes, although my first love is theatre. I've been offered many opportunities to write for the Nigerian film and TV industry. Things haven't worked out yet. Having said that, I've attended the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) twice, once in Lagos and the other time when it was held in Calabar. Both times were great experiences. I made a lot of connections, so you never know.
Do you think there are parallels between starting out in playwriting and starting your own business, as we have done? And what advice would you give to our chop-chat-chillers looking to do either?
There might be some connections but I can't say what they are since I've never run my own business. Although when I worked in Lagos, it was for a start-up, so it was interesting to see how a business starts from the ground up. For both, you need patience and a lot of hard work. You also need a lot more than just one percent of inspiration. It took me three years to get my first play staged. It took my old boss the same amount of time to break even in his business. I'd say use every experience whether positive or negative to learn. Business, like writing, is about human observation. Poor customer service is a death knell to a business, even if you have a good product. Anyone, with enough dedication, can create a good product, but creating a good vibe around it is something else.
For writers specifically, I’d say, you have to write your truth, whatever that truth is and wherever it is situated otherwise it’s like writing with one hand behind your back. You need to tell your story because only you can do that.
A good time for us is great conversation and great food. Which cultural influencer would you most like to go for lunch with and why?
I've got many friends, who may not be famous, but are incredibly astute about every aspect of life. They are the ones I turn to socially or when I'm in need of intellectual or artistic inspiration. It also helps that some of them are good cooks!
We’re all about Nigerian food at Chuku’s so what are your favourite Nigerian dishes and how would you describe them to a newcomer to Nigerian cuisine?
Being from Oyo I have to say amala with okro stew. But I eat all kinds of Nigerian food. I love yam with either egg, fish stew or with palm oil. Roasted corn (aka mouth organ) with coconut supplemented the university 'lifesaver', gari and groundnut combo while I was studying, so I have a nostalgic love for it.
Ifeyinwa is a theatre obsessive and when she’s not working going to see a show is her favourite thing to do. When you’re not writing, how do you like to chill out?
When I'm not writing I'm either at the theatre or cinema, or I'm reading a book. I love travelling, too. I'd like to do more of it in my spare time.
New Nigerians is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 11th March 2017.