Uche Nwokedi’s impressive musical Kakadu, which opens at the Johannesburg Theatre this June, may have been set in Lagos, Nigeria but its themes resonate with Rwanda, Kenya, South Sudan and many other African nations.
Set in mid 1960’s Nigeria, the musical is told through the lives of four friends living in post independence Nigeria and working out the challenges that come with nationhood.
They meet frequently at Lugard Da Rocha’s Kakadu, whose name is borrowed from what was an actual nightclub back in the 60s. Nwokedi notes in an interview that Kakadu was the place his uncles often went to which inspired the decision to situate his musical around it.
Da Rocha, the boisterous nightclub owner puts on quite the show-taking guests through periods of musical history from the Limbo, twist and bop, to Nigerian highlife music like Rex Lawson’s Sawale and Bobby Benson’s Taxi driver. Lagos is a city of nightlife, the city of promise, the no-joke city.
The thrills in their lives – women, night escapades and economic aspirations are cut short by the Biafran civil war, rendering those like Emeka and Osas who came from the East back home while his friends Dapo and Kola remain in the city. There’s a period of searching for those left behind, wondering what had become of the country’s freedom. Da Rocha loses his clients to the war but it is in this haunting silence of his bar walls that he has to come to terms with his own identity.
After the war, Emeka returns to Kakadu to find his friends. Lagos feels like a different town and he cannot return to business as usual having been on the frontlines for so long. It is the conversation with his friends that resonate with anyone who has experienced war, unrest or ethnic strife so common across the African continent.
“Hostilities? Is that the euphemism for the war?” Emeka asks his friend Kola who refers to the civil war in this way. Nothing will ever be the same. The reality sinks in when Emeka makes a request to marry his long-term girlfriend Bisi – but she’s from a different ethnic persuasion and both parents will have none of this.
Writer Nwokedi pushes his craft in Kakadu. A lawyer of known repute particularly in the oil and gas sector, he is at home on stage in his rolled up sleeves as he is in the courtroom closing cases. Where legally he cannot get away with mere emotion, in Kakadu he exposes the boldness of poetic license, getting on stage a message across that shared elsewhere would perhaps have different results. The conversations are difficult but here they come alive on his stage.
At the staging of Kakadu in May as part of the activities lined up to mark Lagos@50, there was palpable silence across the auditorium. At the mention of the war, some people walked out, perhaps because the play is considerably lengthy without a break, but also that there is still a lot of discomfort at the mention of Biafra. Kakadu played to audiences alongside Fela the musical – a Broadway and Royal National Theatre production – and Wakaa the Musical, produced by Nigerian veteran Bolanle Austen-Peters, albeit on different dates.
The music on this show scores high; the voices blend effortlessly conveying the right emotion. Musical director Benneth Ogbeiwi who also plays Lugard Da Rocha combines his own skill and mastery of voice with those of the entire cast. There’s not a dull moment with the music, only tapping of feet and nostalgia of the music of yesteryear. The costumes lend to each period in time heightened by the artistic woven display of the women’s hairs.
The shows antithesis would be its length, at three hours and without an interval it is a stretch but the scenes are captivating and one immediately forgives the producer for this faux. Also, the dialogue from Emeka and his friends is a tad bit drawn out in the opening scenes but they make up for this with their animated dances, which follow thereafter.
It is a show relevant for 60’s Biafra, post-election violence Kenya in 2007, the Rwandan genocide in 1994 or even the protracted Sudanese civil war. It speaks to the memories of hope of the locals, their dreams and aspirations for their future against the harrowing recollection of loss, displacement and death of those they know.
A fortnight after Kakadu was staged, the Shehu Musa Yar’ Adua foundation and co-sponsors hosted a colloquium in memory of Biafra@50 which had Nigeria’s acting President Prof. Yemi Osinbajo and former President Olusegun Obasanjo in attendance.
Issues of marginalization, the memory of entire savings and business entitlement whittled to a mere 20 pounds and the starvation of children were brought up. In the same vein speakers celebrated the citizen-to-citizen efforts made by ordinary Nigerians to form an inclusive community where everyone was represented.
In his speech, Prof Osinbajo alluded to Biafran commander Ojukwu’s words on why he didn’t think a second Biafra would not be necessary, “We should have learnt from that first one, otherwise the deaths would have been to no avail; it would all have been in vain.”
Although Kakadu the musical is largely about Lagos, high living and merry good times, it is largely about finding the right place to appropriate a nation’s history and question what do we do with this. Africa should be having more of these conversations. Memory has a way of constructing our individual and cultural identities, particularly in literature, both oral and written and should therefore be embraced to help us evoke nostalgia and then move on.
As a Journalism student at Wits in the early 2000s, I came across many students, particularly undergraduates who had no sense of the other Africa, still reeling in their newly found freedom as a nation-state blurred by the promises of BEE.
Grace Musila, associate professor of English at Stellenbosch speaks of this idea of South Africa’s conflicted relation to its Africanness in her essay Lot’s Wife’s Syndrome and Double Politics In South Africa.
Although speaking from the point of literary awareness from its students, her postulation that South African exceptionalism manifests a conflicted kinship to its Africanness and a fear of glancing back, becoming “like Africa”— a phenomenon recently embodied by Zimbabwe’s crises. She continues, “Like Africa” is shorthand for all that is wrong with many postcolonial African states, including developmental challenges, weak institutions, and various tropes of failure, arguing that this undermines their ability to learn lessons from the rest of the continent.
Kakadu would offer some sense of other for these students, and nationals of all African countries as they struggle with their own issues down South, examining in their own ways, their response to their neighbors from across the continent. Particularly Nigeria.