Lagos is what it is.

On 3rd Mainland bridge, on any given evening, you may look to your right and be confronted by the tiny shacks of Makoko and the people who live in them carrying on with their lives. Or see a rare sight: the perfect orange circle of the sun, just as it falls behind the houses on the Mainland side of Lagos, fleeting, immortalised only by the lagoon that runs through and separates the Mainland from Victoria Island and beyond.

To an outsider on this bridge, Lagos, unapologetically and perpetually, exists in two constant states. You are coming or going. You are from the island or the mainland. You are looking at the clutter of a slum or at a world of lights, sunsets and billboards. You hustle and you play. Everything is deliberate. And loved for what it is. No branching allowed. No in-between states of being.

And, on some days, to play in Lagos is to sit under a tree in Freedom Park in a crowd with a scattering of movie stars and oyibo people, keeping a subculture alive.

If nothing else signifies art as a subculture in Nigeria, Segun Adefila’s Crown Troupe of Africa does. His underground movement has managed to survive chiefly on the passion for twenty long years from its early days in Bariga.

So far, a week-long celebration to mark this milestone has featured a film screening, art and fashions exhibitions seminars, workshops and theatre performances.

On this fateful Saturday, the evening features a Boxing Bout, a play by Ola Rotimi and live music by Wura Samba. I am here for the last two. Boxing is not my thing.

Grip Am by Ola Rotimi

Ola Rotimi, the foremost playwright, was either super creative with his insults or the actors whose job it was to bring Grip Am to life were masters of improv. Still, it is easy to imagine Ola Rotimi laughing a lot as he wrote this Man vs Wife vs God comedy.

Grip Am, simple and straight forward, is a play on very Nigerian domestic archetypes. A dyspeptic, possibly overworked wife whose singular reprieve is her husband’s death. A laissez-faire husband solely dedicated to the preservation of his orange tree. The rent seeking landlord. The charge and bail type all-knowing lawyer with the misplaced accent and dress sense. The gossipy neighbour. And then, there is the good angel and the angel of death.

In Oxzygen Concept’s performance of the play, everything is outlandish and everyone is hilarious and funnily dressed. The good angel, for instance, is inexplicably sporty and has a thing for lawn tennis.

Grip Am is good fun for everybody gathered around a tree-stage by the museum in Freedom Park, except for the man who sits next to me. He has a permanent frown on his face. His T-shirt has the curious phrase “You must be MAD” emblazoned on it. So, it checks out, I guess.

Some Wura Samba, Maybe?

An extensive testing-the-mic session entertains the preoccupied crowd. I do not even know who Wura Samba is and I suspect that I am the exception in a crowd like this. Everybody is in groups, for a bit, I consider chatting up a middle-aged man sitting alone nursing his 33 lager. Probably not, I decide.

Comedian, Koffi, when he finally mounts the stage to emcee the rest of the evening begins with an extended political monologue to put the crowd in the mood. And then segues into a nostalgic hole where he extols the virtues of a childhood spent watching Tales by Moonlight and listening to Eddie Quansa (Peacocks Guitar Band) by way of The New Masquerades. From this place of pining, nothing can assuage the loss of the golden years and the following contemporary musicians Kcee and Tekno and their terrible songwriting are the most culpable emblems of the decline of the years.

Does it matter that it is his job to introduce and praise the artistry of some ‘upcoming’ Afro hip-hop guy TJB whose job it is to open for Wura Samba and whose performance is expectedly bad and in complete variance with his energy? Probably not. It is his job. Either way, people are beginning to leave or have decided that this is as good a time as any to stretch their legs for a bit.

Then the music starts.

My Yoruba vocabulary is limited to life-sustaining transactional phrases, “E lo ni,” “Fun mi ni change,” Mi o mo change,” and the final desperate “mi o gbo Yoruba.” My written Yoruba is even worse.

And so, naturally, Wura Samba’s music is for all I can discern, French, but who cares? Even the man in front of me, a huge bald Oyibo man clearly in the same boat as I am, is shaking his head and asking, with an enviable degree of enthusiasm, to know what a talking drum is.

When Wura Samba starts it starts.

Some Soyinka and the State of the Union

There are many valid reasons why even the most consumable kind of cultural production in a place like Nigeria is still an act of subversion.

But to sit here on two separate nights and watch plays created by literary greats you are made very aware of a few things. The level of engrossment and radical, if you will, love that enabled the creation of a play as expansive and alive, as Death and the Kings Horseman and permitted the creation of something as playful and evidently self-satisfying as Grip Am is endangered now more than ever.

But maybe it is not as bleak as Koffi would have us think?

If this generous, anxiety-free type of art is not always possible, it is not simply because something is lost, or that people no longer get it. It may just be that, in this age of everything, art has become a lot of things at the same time. Art is Kcee’s Limpopo, Wura Samba’s percussive magic, a viral video by Funny_African_Pics and so on…all of which are valid.

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This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.