First published in The Times, Monday August 8 2016
“I used to dance,” says Tolu, the protagonist of this new one-act play from the award-winning writer/director Adura Onashile. “When I danced the world would disappear.” Tolu (Sabine Cameron) still plies her trade with music rumbling faintly in her ears, but there are fewer opportunities to dance these days. She attends the women’s loo at a nightclub somewhere in Scotland, dispensing bottled water and toilet paper to a dressed-up clientele.
Most of the inebriated young women who pass through Tolu’s mirror-lined palace ignore her, at best turning up their noses at her sartorial advice and tips on how to pull a man on the dance floor. When she forges a hesitant connection with one of her charges (Teri Ann Bobb Baxter), the girl’s questions lead Tolu to reminisce about her past life as a resident of the Kalakuta Republic, the community established by the pioneering musician and activist Fela Kuti and declared “independent” from the Nigerian state.
Pic: Sally Jubb
In an hour-long play that shifts between 70s/80s Nigeria and present-day Scotland, Onashile contrasts the way in which dance was used by the women of Kalakuta (who met in the toilets of Kuti’s Shrine nightclub) to construct a sense of self-worth and independence with the humiliations endured by the girls Tolu observes staggering out of the club’s toilet cubicles. As the story advances, however, we learn that Kuti’s commune was not as progressive as the afrobeat musician proclaimed, and that the polygamy he practised was hardly benign. (One of his love songs was called Mattress, for heavens’ sake.)
It’s a diverting piece, energetically performed by the cast of four, and with a superb lead performance from Cameron as the woman who questions her position in society, only to end up more compromised than ever. Onashile knows her subject, but her play does start to lag after a while, with too much exposition of a well-researched and complex subject crammed in at the end. The points about female control and power in the face of rigid patriarchy are made clearly, but the piece needs a touch more drama to be truly engaging.