guest blog: pre tiata fahodzi / femi elufowoju jr
femi elufowoju jr, april 2015
“Several years after leaving Bretton Hall in West Yorkshire (where I had trained as an actor in 1990) Yvonne Brewster invited me to join Talawa Theatre Company and feature in two plays her company was producing at The Cochrane in Holborn. One of those plays was Nigerian playwright Biyi Bandele Thomas’ Resurrections. The year was 1994. Talawa at the time was Britain’s premier Black theatre company and this production was one of handful efforts by the same company to give credence and visibility to a rich canon of literary and dramatic work emanating from the vast continent of Africa. This was a laudable attempt by Talawa, having up to this point, produced Ola Rotimi’s The Gods are not to Blame with Liverpool Everyman and Riverside Studios in 1989 and Wole Soyinka’s The Road at The Cochrane in 1992. Yet nationally, this remained a singular endeavour, and the depiction of Black theatre in mainland Britain despite the growing demographics remained imbalanced.
Elsewhere I had the good fortune of working within some of the country’s flagship buildings; the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Court for example, and indeed it was at the latter in 1993 that I first came in touch with Bandele, after being cast by the great Annie Castledine in the writer’s ground-breaking play Marching for Fausa (the first African play to be staged at the Royal Court since Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel in 1966). And so holistically, the African theatre presence despite being rotund and magnificent in theory was in fact negligible. But more importantly, the genre, from an African theatre practitioner’s perspective, as the years ahead would dictate, remained non-existent.
What was increasingly required, from mine and my peers’ point of view (other second generative descendants of immigrant African families) was for the creation of a penetrative initiative which gave permanency to ‘an experience of theatre’ which catered for and demonstrated the lives of the growing network of actors and audiences alike. Historically decent parts in theatre for actors of African descent were very few and far between. In the early nineties both late John Adewole and Rufus Orishayomi of Zuriya Theatre Company, and Ritual Theatre Arts respectively played their roles as artistic directors strenuously to impact Africa on to our national Stages. They were very successful in galvanising access and participation within grassroots communities, however it was with much regret that their main objectives and overtures were never entirely realised before their individual untimely demise.
During this same period, an extraordinary flutter of excitement was often seen when the announcement of an African production was being whispered across mainstream casting corridors locally and nationally. One of those rare occasions (and indeed my first professional theatre audition) was Phyllida Lloyds’ 1990 production of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Bi-product of a scarce theatre presence is belligerence and apathy within local communities. Naturally the persistent lack of an African theatre tradition within our British theatres invariably exposed a huge chunk of potential audiences which through the decades appeared to be institutionally marginalised and ignored. And it was this phenomenon in 1997 which prompted the charge which tiata fahodzi set itself then and continually represents today.
Very swiftly between 1994 and 1997, several fortuitous events collided back to back eventually leading to the inevitable formation of tiata fahodzi. In February 1994 Philip Hedley, then artistic director of Theatre Royal Stratford East opened up the discussion of new audiences in Newham and neighbouring Boroughs. Hedley (and Paul Everitt his assistant) were particularly keen to explore and welcome potential audiences from the Asian and African communities. Patrice Naiambana, Jude Akuwudike and I, fresh from our Royal Court sojourn, together with musician Juwon Ogungbe formed ‘Fraudsters Inc’ (a troupe of travelling actors parodying the West African immigrant experience). Hedley programmed us and our vignettes of skits for one night in the main house.
Six months later and encouraged by this litmus test, Mehmet Ergen invited me to form part of the creative team producing a five week season of African plays at Southwark Playhouse. It was here that I made my directorial debut with San Cassimally’s tragic-comedy Acquisitive Case, which blended the downfall of an over-reaching business man and his family with the endemic corruption of modern Nigeria. But it was not until 1996 whilst on a World tour of Jude Kelly’s production of Wole Soyinka’s The Beatification of an Area Boy, that I was faced with the decision of a lifetime. A short and kind telegram from Philip Hedley spelt out the options I had. The choice was between to continue actively seeking employment as an actor or to accept the once in a lifetime offer of serving as a trainee director for a year under Jack Andrew’s Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme. And so it was with much sadness that I left the West Yorkshire Playhouse production (now enroute from New York and bound for Sydney) and returned to the UK. Subsequently, I spent the first nine months of my tenure at Theatre Royal, Stratford East researching and devising the building’s first ever international touring production ticket & ties – an African tale.
It was this production in the spring of 1997 (with further encouragement from Arts Council official Robert West and fellow actor Ekua Ekumah) which solidified firmly the roots of tiata fahodzi’s initial mission statement. tickets & ties played to packed houses in London and Sweden across five extensive weeks, yet never before in the history of modern European Theatre had a show unified the huge number of African audiences in attendance each night. It fueled the ambition for continuity and indeed validated the ambition for the realignment of Black British Theatre. A realignment placing the African theatre persuasion firmly on the Black Theatre agenda and hopefully in the long-term, a central place on the British Theatre landscape.”
Femi Elufowoju, Jr is an actor-director, and freelance Radio Drama producer for the BBC.
As an actor he has featured in BAFTA nominated & award-winning series’ worldwide (Borgen, Moses Jones, Wire in the Blood and Little Miss Jocelyn). He has worked with acclaimed Italian and Oscar award winning film director Guiseppe Tornatore on The Legend of 1900 and at the end of 2014 shot Mechanic: Resurrection alongside Tommy Lee Jones and Jason Statham for Millennium Films.
Elufowoju, jr became the first theatre director of Nigerian descent to establish an African national touring company (Tiata Fahodzi) in the United Kingdom. In 2010, the company was nominated for an Olivier Award – Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre (Soho Theatre) for Oladipo Agboluaje’s Iya Ile (the first wife). He has directed plays for Salisbury Playhouse and the National Theatre, and been an Associate Director at the Royal Court and West Yorkshire Playhouse. He was also Michael Attenborough’s Associate Artist at the Almeida between 2010 & 2014.
Femi was segment director of the Commonwealth Parade on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2002 after which he was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He was recognized by the Nigeria High Commission during in 2014 as one of 100 Outstanding Nigerians, resident in the UK and received a Centenary Award.
In 2014 he set up the ElufowojuJrEnsemble in Lagos, a company under Femi’s leadership with a dedicated remit ‘contributing to Nigeria’s burgeoning theatre renaissance’. The organization partners with the Muson Centre in 2015 in producing the eagerly anticipated remount of the stage adaptation of Lola Shoneyin & Rotimi Babatunde’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives which premiered under Femi’s direction at the 2013 Ake Festival in Abeokuta. Later that year, he produced and directed Finding Home at Terra Kulture, an ensemble of Performance Poets in Nigeria’s first ever Spoken Word Theatre Production.
He continually shares his time between the UK and Nigeria fulfilling professional engagements, and has just concluded his first leg of visiting all 54 nations in Africa.
In 2015 Femi rejoined Complicite on their global tour of LionBoy, and is currently engaged on The Ghost Train for Told by an Idiot and the Royal Exchange in Manchester.