New Nigerians

New Nigerians

Image by Arcola Theatre

Daniel Nelson

What if a socialist politician was heading for government in Nigeria?

I know, I know, it’s unlikely, but Nigerian-British writer Oladipo Agboluaje says a lot of his past work has been political satire. One of his previous plays, Early Morning, followed a group of Nigerian cleaners in London who decide to overthrow the government and establish a blackocracy. The set-up for New Nigerians at the Arcola Theatre in London (14 Feb-11 March) follows in that tradition: 

“Set in contemporary Nigeria, it’s about a political leader of Nigeria’s first socialist workers party," he explains.

I ask whether someone like a socialist politician can reach the top in Nigeria without compromising his values. (Later I wish I had asked Agboluaje whether he thinks anyone in Nigeria – perhaps anyone anywhere – can become prime minister or president without compromising his values? Or whether there’s a possibility in the foreseeable future that the he in that sentence could be she. Not in the foreseeable future, is the answer to that last question.)  

The question of whether a socialist can get to the top is looked at through the prisms of religion and ethnicity as well as of politics – “You get to see what he is up against.”

Agboluaje says the play consists of a series of short, sharp episodes, with lots of laughs. I hope the advance publicity taps into the Nigerian diaspora, because that will ensure that there’s almost as much to see and hear from the audience as on the stage.

He recalls that during a performance of an earlier play, Iya-Ile, at the Soho Theatre one of the actors was so surprised by the animated audience response that “he claimed he couldn’t hear himself amidst all the talking.”

The Soho Theatre said they’d never experienced an audience like it.

The Arcola hopes New Nigerians will also attract a “mixed” audience – regulars as well as those who have never previously been to a theatre.

They will find that the play incorporates current goings-on in the world, “so there are echoes of Trump and Obama and Corbyn – I’ve always been interested in the politics of Nigeria and Britain,” says Agboluaje, who despite his penchant for outrageous on-stage imaginings emphasises that “the play ends on a positive note, looking to the younger generation.”

Now 48, he lived in the UK until the age of nine, when he returned to Nigeria to live before returning to London at the age of 25. Some of his plays have been performed there: “Theatre in Nigeria is going through a revival now, with theatres springing up everywhere because the economy is stronger, although it is in the middle of a recession at the moment.”

What’s next for Hackney-born Agboluaje, a winner of the Alfred Fagon Award, Britain's most prestigious award for British playwrights of Caribbean and African descent? (The award was for Iya Ile/The First Wife.) “My next play will be set in London. It’s about love and identity politics.”

* New Nigerians, by Oladipo Agboluaje, is at the Arcola, Ashwin Street, E8, from 14 February until 11 March. Info: 7503 1646

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