Reva Klein watches a Yoruba play take shape. Africa 95 has brought celebrated Nigerian theatre company Odu Themes from Ibadan to work with the Royal Court Young People's Theatre in a possibly unique partnership.
The play that director Bode Sowande and his company are working on with the 14 to 25-year-olds is his own adaptation of Amos Tutuola's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. It is quintessentially Nigerian, drawing on traditional storytelling traditions and incorporating spine-tingling drumming, singing and dance. Which means that, in Nigeria, its inclusion in the festival was contentious and led to a campaign against the company bringing the play to Britain: its opponents didn't like the play's traditional foundations and animist representations.
Sowande explains: "The strongest voices against the play said that it would invite condescension by English audiences because of its emphasis on the traditional African culture that Tutuola presents in his writing."
And as an allegory on the struggle between good and evil, it was considered inflammatory by a government which, in the manner of repressive regimes everywhere, sees enemies and opposition in every word and behind every bush. Consequently, the Nigerian government refused to contribute "a single copper" to bringing the company to Britain. Instead, Sowande himself raised Pounds 40,000 from private donations in Nigeria as well as money from bodies that included the Princes Trust and the British Council.
The effort has been, all participants have agreed, worth it. The first part of the project was a visit by two directors and a producer from the Royal Court YPT to Lagos last May to see the play and "have an excursion into the Yoruba culture," in Sowande's words.
The next part, working on the play itself, is proving to be a challenge and a delight, making demands on young actors that most have never confronted before. "The foundations of this work are in the oral tradition that has one of its branches in truly authentic African theatre, a storytellers' theatre," explains Sowande. "It is different from western theatre or even from educational theatre in Nigeria."
The play's structure sandwiches dialogue, dance and song in the Yoruba style to tell the story of a young boy who gets lost in the bush among ghosts, spirit forces and other creations of animist Yoruba folklore. These ghosts vie with each other to control the boy's fate in a richly animated and complicated forest-world.
But Sowande has been careful to explain these complexities to the Royal Court, looking at the similarities between aspects of Yoruba culture and western folklore. "You find in English folklore things like fairies and fairy tales and, within each culture, its own meanings and superstitions. For me, using folklore is like uniting all our cultures."
And do the cultures unite? For the multicultural group of young people themselves, there's no doubt that the process has been, in the words of 23-year-old Jumanne Bailey, "hard work. We've had to learn 16 songs all in different Nigerian dialects, all of them traditional songs really personal to them and foreign to us." Michael Esswood, 24, finds it intriguing that "none of the songs have ever been written down before. They've been passed on orally from generation to generation, and no one is a hundred per cent sure about how the songs should be sung. So everyone has their own interpretation."
Other youth theatre members found the experience profoundly moving. "I've always wanted to know more about African theatre styles and doing this has shown me an element of spirituality, about being free," says Queen Allen, 19. "It makes me feel like I'm getting in touch with my own identity. But it's not just the black members of the company who are realising the richness and the colour of other cultures."
The cultural meeting also led to readjustments on Sowande's side and he had to be talked into letting girls play lead and male parts, which was different from the way he was used to doing things in Nigeria.
Royal Court Young People's Theatre at The Tabernacle, Powis Square, London W11 from October 3 to 7. Tickets: 0181 243 4343.