US based Sefi Atta, award winning novelist, short story writer and playwright returns to the Nigerian stage on November 9, 2014 with her latest play, Last Stand, directed by the legendary Patrick-Jude Oteh. In this interview with Toni Kan, Sefi describes the play as “a battle of wills between men with strong supporting female roles.”
Sabinews: Your new play, Last Stand premieres on November 9, at Terra Kulture. Even though it is a family drama, do you consider yourself a political writer? Not in the obvious sense of a partisan affiliation but rather in the broader sense of the issues you engage with?
Sefi Atta: I think I’ve written enough to show I’m not a political writer. I write about whatever interests me in the form of novels, short stories and plays.
By the way, I was mortified when a Nigerian newspaper covered my book launch in 2012 under the heading, “I don’t understand feminism.” I never said that. I said I didn’t understand why I was labeled a feminist writer because my stories don’t always follow feminist narratives. In the same way, my narratives are not driven by politics. I am preoccupied with power play though, between men and women, within families and within communities, and I return to that story time and time again.
Sabinews: The premise of Last Stand is both intriguing and exciting as it is topical and political in the sense of its exploration of familial ties and gender issues. What informed the plot?
SA: Last Stand is actually not topical or political. It is simply a family drama and I wrote it because I was intrigued by my characters, which include a dying general and his doctor son. It is one of two plays I drafted in Lagos while I was supervising a group of men who were working on my house. I had to “man up” to do that. Every day was a battle with them, so I’m not surprised Last Stand turned out to be a play about a battle of wills between men with strong supporting female roles.
Sabinews: Why this on-going fixation on family drama?
SA: Don’t make me sound neurotic! It is a preoccupation rather than a fixation. As I said, I am fascinated with power play in families. I am also influenced by English kitchen sink drama, which is not fashionable in England anymore. However, its emotional core reminds me of my childhood. I was an angry Ikoyi girl. A prickly bougainvillea. I didn’t fit in with Ikoyi’s conservatism and I didn’t understand why at the time. I would constantly challenge people’s views and defy conventions.
I grew up in a family that ate together at the dining table. The dining table was dramatic space for me. There was joy and celebration. There was conflict and tension. There were silences and soliloquies, entrances and exits. In my house, my mother sat at the head of the table. In my friends’ homes, their fathers sat at the head. Ikoyi was also patriarchal. In a community like that, when your father is deceased, the hierarchies change and power plays out in a different way in your family, which is perhaps why I am preoccupied with it.
Sabinews: You have worked with Nick Monu, Najite Dede and Ifeoma Fafunwa and now you will be working with Patrick-Jude Oteh, why the choice of Oteh and what do you think he will bring to the mix?
SA: It’s normal to work with a number of directors as a developing playwright. I’ve had successful – and questionable – collaborations, but there is no way of telling what will happen until you actually work together on a production. These days, it is important for me to collaborate with a director who is well-trained, well-read, intelligent, intellectually curious, experienced and confident. I mean confident in his or her role as a director. A director I can depend on and trust. Patrick-Jude Oteh has all those qualities and I have a lot of respect for the work he has done. He is the founding artistic director of the Jos Repertory Theatre as well as the festival producer of the annual Jos Festival of Theatre. We have been communicating by email for years and I have been trying to figure out how to get him to come to Lagos and work with me. I finally have the opportunity.
Sabinews: From radio plays to one-act plays to full on tragi-comedies, what is driving the transition? Age, experience, maturity as a writer?
SA: It is a natural progression. Playwrights usually write one-act plays before they write full-length plays. I started off writing radio plays because it was the easiest way to get my plays produced at the time. This was in the late 1990s when theatre in Lagos was practically dead. I still write radio plays when I have trouble getting my stage plays produced. One-act plays are generally too short to stage alone, though I have done that in the past. One particular production springs to my mind. My Lagos audiences couldn’t believe it when the play ended so quickly. It was a disaster, in more ways than one.
Sabinews: And still talking about the transition, which has presented the most challenge; radio, one-acts or full lengths?
SA: They all have their challenges. I have been doing this for over twenty years now and I’m still learning the craft of playwriting.
Sabinews: You are far better known as a novelist, an award winning novelist, so tell me how does the process work. Do the plays emerge as stories or as plays from the get go?
SA: For me, the form a story takes is a secondary consideration, but all my stories are driven by dialogue. I hear my characters’ voices before I visualize them. I draft short stories and novels as plays and go back to their beginnings to fill in the blanks with descriptions. I don’t know if this makes me more suited to playwriting, but while I am writing dialogue, my breathing is harmonious with my writing. I can almost forget I am writing.
Sabinews: So, are you at heart, a novelist or a dramatist? If someone woke you up and said which are you what would be the quickest answer?
SA: “Let me be.”
Sabinews: Back to Patrick Jude-Oteh. Jos has a storied drama tradition but Terra is in Lagos. Do you think Oteh will be able to recreate his famed directorial magic here?
SA: Patrick-Jude Oteh has had productions in Lagos before and I’m sure he will be able to handle a Lagos audience even if he hadn’t. He is the real deal. However, he directs stage plays, not light entertainment, which is popular in Lagos. Theatre should be entertaining, but it should at least strive to be more than light. It is certainly not a social event that Very Important People attend to see and be seen, as is sometimes the case in Lagos. Theatre shouldn’t mimic society in that way, unless that is its intention. For instance, I’ve had a couple of staged readings where I’ve had casts made up of people who could be in my audiences. For me, the readings were theatrical experiments and not surprisingly, my audiences gossiped about who I’d based my characters on. But I have a preference for social realism, so I’m bound to write plays that accidentally reflect reality.
Theatre can reflect, shock, or even confuse, but it should never pander to audiences. If audiences want to have a laugh a minute, they are better off sitting at home and watching sitcoms on television. I’m not suggesting that all productions should be high-brow, because my plays are not; but, it upsets me that real theatre practitioners in Nigeria don’t get the funding they need to develop. In Lagos, anyone can call themselves a director, producer or playwright simply because they are able to raise funds for a production. People who have no knowledge of theatre, and no interest in educating themselves about theatre, dabble in theatre arts. Consequently, our standards haven’t always kept up with our rising ticket prices. I’ve made mistakes as a playwright and as a producer, but I learn from them and continue to work on my craft. I took a course in stage directing in London this summer and if nothing else, I learned what to look for in a director. I care about substance and Patrick-Jude Oteh has substance.
SSR: Last Stand is going to have a ‘’pretty large cast’’ for a Sefi Atta production. Who are we expecting to see?
SA: Last Stand has six characters. My new plays have between four and eight characters. You’ve probably seen plays with smaller casts because they are all I can get funding for, or all I’m willing to self-fund. You will see Jos Repertory Theatre performing Last Stand. I am looking forward to seeing them perform, myself. It would be lovely to have a full house for once, but the quality of a performance matters more to me. I’ve had a director add lines to my plays without my permission. I’ve had actors say whatever they want in my plays. I’m just glad to have a theatre company that will actually deliver what I’ve written.
SSR: You’ve managed to put on a play almost every year in the recent past. How do you fund your productions and how much of a hassle is it?
SA: What can I tell you? I’ve got stories to share. I need to have an audience, but I also know when to exit stage so I can work on new projects. Finding funds for a production is a humiliating process. It would be more humiliating if I had stamina. I ask for funding and if I don’t get it, I self-fund by sticking to smaller productions and bargaining and begging. Naija fringe theatre is what I call that. I hate to throw money down the drain, which is basically what you do when you fund your own productions in Lagos. I have received funding though, from the MUSON Festival, the Lagos Black Heritage Festival and other sponsors.
SSR: As you keep putting out plays will a time come when you decide to jettison one for the other, that is drama for fiction or vice versa?
SA: I’m just trying to do the best work I can. I started writing when I was thirty. For twenty years I told stories I needed to tell. These days, I am telling stories I want to tell, and it’s wonderful.
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