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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Abuja International Theatre Festival Debut; A Convergence Of Cultural Diversity  

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By Paul Liam

The maiden Abuja International Theatre Festival and Awards which was held between October 31, and November 5, 2023, at the Brazilian Embassy Theatre, with the theme “Peace Building, Performing Arts and the Society,” once again brought to the fore the enigmatic powers of theatre as a cogent tool for fostering peace and harmony in a world faced with multidimensional conflicts and economic strife. The festival brought together experts from the academia, diplomatic community, art and culture, media, and government officials to celebrate the beauty of theatre and honour art patrons whose patronage continues to sustain the art and creative community, especially theatre practice in Nigeria. The festival also highlighted the importance of cross-cultural and institutional collaboration in strengthening dialogue and sustainable development.

The opening ceremony of the festival paraded dignitaries from all walks of life including the host of the festival, the Brazilian Ambassador to Nigeria, Ronaldo De Lima, Ambassador T. Y. Buratai, who chaired the ceremony, the Ambassadors of Spain, Cuba, Botswana, Sao Tome and Principe. Other dignitaries included: Hajiya Lantana Ahmed, Dr. Lizzy Iheanacho, Mr. Dotun Osunsanya, Mr. Larry Ogbeche, Dr. Amina Salihu, Dr. Lizzy Iheanacho, Mrs. Ngozi John-Uyah, among a host of others.  The festival equally featured two keynote addresses by Brazil’s Natalia Mallo and Ukraine’s Alex Borovenski.

The festival also featured international participants including Makeda Solomon and Rae-Alexandre Rout from Jamaica, Raluca Radulescu-Gabriel and Filip Ristovski from Romania, and Tendai Mandishona from Zimbabwe. Local theatre companies that participated in the festival included: Spurs on Stage, Port Harcourt, InnerVasion Hub, Jos, AfriDance Theatre, and Arojah Royal Theatre. There were also panel discussions and workshops focused on critical issues affecting theatre practice in Nigeria and around the world. Some of the performances included Husayn Zaguru’s unique Dervish-themed performance entitled “Afrodervish Performance”, Teresa Oyibo Ameh’s novella, “The Torn Petal” by Arojah Royal Theatre, Akolo Anthony James’ “And Vice Versa” by InnerVasion Hub, Machado De Assis “The Alienists” by Arojah Royal Theatre, Tayo Isijola’s “Ask The Almighty” by Spur on Stage, Ema Nicola’s translated “Nijinski” by Filip Ristovski, Makinde Adeniran’s “I Confess” by Arojah Royal Theatre, Alex Borovenskiy directed “Love At Times” and Janice Lee Liddell’s “Who Will Sing for Lena?” by the remarkable Makeda Solomon, etc.

Makeda Solomon’s riveting performance of “Who Will Sing for Lena?” had the audience erupting in applause and standing ovation for her brilliance and depth of interpretation which held the audience spellbound throughout the duration of the performance. In a solo performance, Makeda brought to life the opulence of theatre as a concrete tool for reawakening the consciousness of society towards the injustice in the world and in particular, the travails of Africans during slavery. “Who Will Sing for Lena?” is a theatrical magnum opus by Janice Lee Liddell, which honours the memory of Lena Baker, a black maid who was executed by the State of Georgia for the murder of a white man. According to Wikipedia, “Baker was the only woman in Georgia to be executed by electrocution.” After her electrifying performance, Makeda shared that she had for long looked forward to bringing the performance to Africa to reconnect Lena Baker’s spirit with her ancestral land. 

Despite the richness of theatre and performance art in enhancing human consciousness and fostering social change and regeneration, its appreciation in Nigeria has declined over the years due to a coterie of factors including the lack of funding and structural support for the creative sector, lack of standard public theatres in most cities, especially in Abuja and a dwindling theatre culture occasioned by the socioeconomic realities which hinders ordinary citizens’ ability to access theatre performances. Although the decline in the appreciation of theatre and its impactful role in fostering dialogue and enhancing human relations is not peculiar to Nigeria, it is a global phenomenon occasioned by the advent of advanced digital spaces like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube platforms which have further shrunk the enthusiasm that people once had for theatre. While technological advancement may lay claim to democratizing access to information and entertainment through digital means, it has also widened the gap in human interaction by replacing physical human contact and engagement with virtual reality which offers a false sense of community. The digital divide particularly in developing countries ensures that a large percentage of the population has no access to digitalized theatre or entertainment content due to a lack of access to the internet and other enabling resources to participate in the new mode of consuming entertainment.

This ugly reality foregrounds the imperative of theatre festivals to facilitate discourses that will not only enable access to live theatre but will also aid in the formulation of sustainable pathways that will lead to positive policies that will encourage the promotion of a sustainable theatre practice with huge socioeconomic implications for society. It is this premise that gives credence to festivals like the Abuja International Theatre Festival and other similar festivals in Nigeria. The festival’s director, Om’oba Jerry Adesewo captured this in his welcome address at the opening ceremony of the festival when he posited, “In times of uncertainty, theatre has proven to be a steadfast companion, offering solace, reflection, and a lens through which to examine our shared humanity. Today, as we inaugurate this festival, we acknowledge the agelong relevance of theatre and its power to transcend borders, fostering dialogue, understanding, and, most importantly, peace.” He further highlighted the areas of interventions that are fundamental to the growth and sustainability of theatre in Nigeria, “To sustain and elevate our artistic pursuits, I advocate for the establishment of an Art Endowment Fund, providing a stable financial foundation for the arts. Additionally, a Mobility Fund will enable artists to transcend geographical barriers, fostering global collaborations. Infrastructure development is equally crucial; a robust and supportive environment is fundamental to the flourishing of the arts.” Adesewo, who is a renowned theatre practitioner and founder of the Arojah Royal Theatre company based in Abuja, has for decades advocated for the revival of theatre practice as a tool for social reengineering, especially among young people in Nigeria.

Ambassador T. Y. Buratai, Nigeria’s former Chief of Army Staff and former Ambassador to the Republic of Benin, in his speech as chairman of the opening ceremony, extolled the nobility of art and theatre festivals to society and called on the government to support the development of art in Nigeria as it is done in other parts of the world. He submitted thus, “I call upon the esteemed Ministries of the Federal Capital Territory, Arts & Culture, and Tourism to rally behind this initiative. Just as renowned festivals globally enjoy the support of their governments, let us recognize the imperative for our Ministries to champion the cause of the arts. Adequate funding is not merely a fiscal concern; it is an investment in our cultural identity, a commitment to nurturing the talents that elevate our nation onto the international stage.”

On his part, the Artistic Director of the festival and a theatre scholar, Dr Ola Ifatimehin of the Bayero University, Kano, reflected on the significance of the festival and its implications for national development when he disclosed that theatre is an important art form that is often neglected in Nigeria, he submitted thus, “The maiden edition of the Abuja International Theatre Festival and Awards (ABITFA) is an important currency in the theatre practice and enterprise. A field in the creative industry largely ignored in these parts, the theatre has the quintessential trait of unraveling the beauty of the world’s variety of differences as well as the uniqueness of a people’s artistic expressions. This festival is important because it harnesses the creative impulses of the world and draws them to Abuja to share a common heartbeat on the anatomy of the much-needed peace-building across the world. This can be seen right from the theme of the festival and the performances by the Romanians, the Jamaicans, the Ukrainians, and Nigerians who participated in the festival. Indeed, ABITFA is our way of advancing the Renewed Hope of the current political dispensation in Nigeria.”

Sharing his thoughts on the festival, Tendai Mandishona from Zimbabwe had this to say, “the festival was a wonderful opportunity for exposure for me which was well organized with an international and multicultural footprint. Online meetings reach out to wider audiences. However, a bit low turnout for the audience, and you can mention the venue as one of the reasons. Improvements are required probably in publicity in the city. I’m sure lots of people would like to come. The festival ended on a high note notwithstanding.” The festival incorporated a virtual component to accommodate those who couldn’t make it to the physical event due to funding, visa, and other challenges. Overall, it was a commendable maiden edition that can be improved upon with adequate preparations and funding support. The festival however benefited from its partnerships with the Brazilian Embassy, Mambaah Cafe, and Korean Cultural Centre.

In conclusion, it is instructive to acknowledge the important role of theatre platforms like the Aroja Royal Theatre in resuscitating the dying theatre culture and practice in Nigeria. Such resilient commitment is a testament to the unwavering spirit and passion of Nigerians across fields of endeavours who even without adequate support continue to strive and thrive. Art practice, especially theatre festivals and productions cannot achieve their desired impact on society without the support of established institutions and private donors. While politics create chaos and wars, it is art’s therapeutic powers that serve as the healing balm. Thus, it is imperative to embrace the alternative approaches to the world’s conflicts offered by art for the attainment of sustainable global peace for the survival of the human races.

Paul Liam is a poet, author, and critic based in Abuja

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