I grew up in northern Nigeria in the late 70’s and early 80’s on a university campus where a love of stories and how they are told was instilled in me. The university environment in Nigeria at the time was where the most urgent political discussions about what it meant to be African were taking place. Even though I was really young, I already had the sense that that exploration was partly my responsibility also.
Coming to England when I was eleven, I took to both English and Drama because of inspiring teachers who continued to foster my passion for stories and performance. I have a particular interest in telling forgotten or hidden stories and histories; stories that cannot easily be seen in black and white, or right or wrong terms; where uncomfortable truths sit side by side. I’m always fascinated to explore things that confuse me, subjects I’m suspicious of my relationship to. These invariably end up being subjects to do with class, race and gender. As artists I think we are all used to the idea that part of our work is to examine the world around us and I’d add to that, my place in it.
The idea for Expensive Shit first came to me about ten years ago when toilet attendants became a real feature in nightclub toilets. I was uncomfortable with the exploitation of immigrant Nigerian women as toilet attendants, being paid mostly by tips no one wants to leave. On the one hand I felt a sense of guilt that they are put in a position where they had to perform for tips in nightclub toilets, and on the other I was suspicious of my own judgements being about us sharing a cultural heritage.
Expensive Shit is set in the toilets of two different clubs, one in Glasgow in the noughties, in the infamous Shimmy, where in 2013 a story broke about a two-way mirror in the ladies’ toilets, where men who could pay for the privilege, were watching unsuspecting users of the toilets. The other is in Lagos, Nigeria in the late 90’s in the high-octane world of Fela Kuti’s Shrine Nightclub. It explores the objectification and exploitation of women, power, the male gaze and what female empowerment or lack of might look like.
I grew up listening to the music and politics of Fela Kuti, whose anti-colonial ideas and Pan-Africanism were inspiring and still very relevant today. I found liberation in Fela Kuti’s way of dealing with difficult subjects about African identity and society in a humorous, subversive and infectious way. His concerns were as relevant to me as a Nigerian and as a young Black British woman. However, I always wondered about the women who were such a vital part of the Afrobeat aesthetic. Who were they? Where were their voices? Where are their voices now?
The central character is Tolu, the toilet attendant, we follow her story in the club in Glasgow, with three other female characters, on a fateful night where she questions the choices she is asked to make. How could I give this character power and agency within these exploitative conditions? How could I create a complex character that we might feel ambivalent about? In the Shrine club in Lagos, the younger Tolu dreams of being a dancer in Fela Kuti’s band. We see her practicing in the toilets with other women who have the same dream. The Fela Kuti songs I chose all have something to do with the themes of the play, sometimes in an inverse way. For example, ‘Lady’ is a song that belittles female emancipation but we celebrate it; and ‘Zombie’ questions the exploitation of power and ruling classes.
I have been asked if I feel as a Black artist that I have a responsibility to focus on positive representations and to celebrate the giants of culture within our heritage. Absolutely, but the way I do that is to question things, to create multi layered stories and characters in all their complexities. I am aware that the depiction of Fela Kuti focuses on the revolutionary ethos of the Afrobeat scene but also questions a misogynistic attitude towards women. That those two truths sit side by side is what I am interested in exploring. The way we look at ourselves, the way others look at us and how much power and agency we have within that.
For me these are questions we are still grappling with on a global level but also within Nigerian and British society.
Article written by Adura Onashile
Expensive Shit runs at Soho Theatre until Saturday 22nd April 2017. Find out more here.