Published: Monday 25th July 2016 9:03AM
Updated: Monday 25th July 2016 9:03AM
This is a whole new take on diversity in the theatre
The West End stage is usually filled with plays that tell stories from a white perspective and acted out by white actors. Then one or twice a year, a play features a black lead and/or an all black cast, that usually tells the stories of black America. While it’s always refreshing to see a black face on the London stage, Bolanle Austen-Peters is giving the West End a much needed shot of diversity. Why? Because the lawyer turned production director is giving the West End its first Nigerian play….
BB: How would describe yourself?
BAP: The first thing is that I’m fearless. I believe there is only so much you can do, so you should just be fearless. That’s how I look at life, plus I have a strong faith in God.
BB: Has directing always been a passion?
BAP: Directing and what I do with the arts sort of built up over time and gained momentum. I started out as a lawyer. Growing up in Nigeria in the 80’s, theatre, performance and all of that wasn’t a strong course to pursue at university. Your parents certainly wouldn’t encourage that. So I did law, partly based on my father being a lawyer, so it was a natural progression. I practiced as a lawyer with the United Nations for a couple of years and returned to Nigeria.
Once I returned, I asked myself what I truly enjoyed doing and that’s how I started ‘Terra Kulture’, one of the leading arts spaces in Nigeria.
From there, we focused on visual arts, culinary art, performing arts and increasingly I found out that I enjoyed theatre and performances. The more I watched, the more I realised I had the abilities in myself do direct and produce. I had promoted theatre for seven years in Nigeria through ‘Terra Kulture’.
BB: How has your history in practicing Law impacted your work in theatre production?
BAP: I believe that there is no knowledge that is lost. I think what is important is that working in a structured environment like the UN helped me put together a phenomenal institution; we’re one of the few art spaces that are run professionally. My lawyering skills helped me to build a structured institutional which has been critical to our success, as well as working in a corporate environment, which gave me diligence, efficiency and time management skills, all of which came into play in me putting together my production company.
BB: How did your production house ‘Bolanle Austen-Peters Production House’ come to life?
BAP: We had been supporting other production houses at ‘Terra Kulture’ and it felt natural to start my own place, so I formed a production house called ‘Bolanle Austen-Peters Productions’ company. In less than three years, we’ve created 10 plays and two movies. We have a movie coming out called 93 days, which tells the story of how Nigeria overcame Ebola. It will be premiering in Toronto in September and I am excited to say I am the executive producer for the film.
BB: What challenges have you faced as a black woman in your field of work?
BAP: In Nigeria, we don’t have the issues of race, so for me is more about being a woman. My field of work is male dominated, so when I walk into a room they are shocked to see a woman. There are also very few female directors and producers at the level that I work at. The one thing I deal with is the refusal and denial to believe in my ability because I am a woman. They try to make light of my talent, but I am not easily intimidated so I just ignore it. Plus, I believe in time. Time always reveals substance from fluff. People try to more or less dismiss you and the next thing, you begin to see a small recognition and respect, and when they realise they can’t hold back the force, they begin to acknowledge you.
I’ve been through all the phases, but I believe in time, so I just do what I need to do and ignore the doubters. When we started Terra Kulture almost 13 years ago, people said we would be another art institution today and gone tomorrow, but 13 years later we’ve changed the narrative. With over 300 art exhibitions, over 100 plays (co-produced) and workshops for 15,000 children. The narrative has changed.
BB: What was the purpose of Wakaa, the musical?
BAP: Mainly, I wanted to showcase Nigerian brilliance, the talent that we have. I want to challenge those who feel that Nigerian is corrupt. To show that we are also victims of our corrupt leaders, not every Nigerian is happy about the state of affairs. A few are corrupt, but not all of us. Just to celebrate us and show we are not our politicians.
What is interesting though is since the advertisement for Wakaa, a lot of Nigerians based in the UK and also non-Nigerians have shown interest in being part of our production company. Whilst we will look into incorporating Nigerians in the UK and non-Nigerians, our focus is to sell our country and sell our people. It defeats the purpose of selling Nigerian talent if 90% of the production is foreign. From Wakaa, you should expect fun, expect to learn about Nigeria. To enjoy and have a good time. The audience will see Nigeria from a different perspective.
BB: Why has it taken so long to reach the West End?
BAP: First there’s the fact that theatre is not very popular. Theatre is harder than movies. You can do a movie for a low price, but theatre requires heavy funding. It’s taken some time to get to this level, but we now have more credibility and access to funding. Very few art institutions can attract funding because they don’t have certain structures in place. It’s a combination of different factors; we have the structure, the expertise, and the profile to take it out. Due to this, we have been able to attract the attention of others.
What we need is more partnership with companies here in the UK. The more we do, the more people see that Nigerians and the community of Nigerians are interested, the dynamics will change. We’re taking the right steps in the right direction and hopefully, the lines will fall into pleasant places for us as we go along.
As parting words, Bolanle Austen-Peters reminds Black Ballad that:
“No one is going to sell you better than yourself. At some point, we have to take ownership and buy into who we are. Make the world see us the way we’d like them to see us. We have to change the conversation.”
To see the last performance of Wakaa tonight, grab your tickets here!