By Anote Ajeluorou
On July 24, the Command Performance of Sam Omatseye’s historical play, The Siege will be staged at MUSON Centre, Onikan, Lagos to draw attention to raging issues of religious bigotry and nationalism. In this interview with the director and some cast members, the essence of the play is made manifest, as it affects current realities in Nigeria. Excerpts:
Oguntokun: “I’m a theatre producer and director and my theatre house is Renegade theatre. I have been in the theatre business for a decade. Sam Omatseye is the writer and executive producer of The Siege. He conceived the idea of the play, which is based on an original happening. Charles Gordon was a British Army General, who was in charge of Sudan, Khartoum in the 19th century. He was asked to leave Sudan by his government, which felt they couldn’t hold Khartoum anymore but he thought he could hold it for his country. So, he refused to leave.
“Unfortunately, he met a man who was as zealous and strong as him in the person of the Mahdi, who fought to hold his country back from the British. The play is about the siege the Mahdi laid on Khartoum with Gordon unwilling to give up the city. It led to the death of Gordon during the face off between Gordon and Mahdi’s men. The play’s about people who hold and believe in their own ideologies; the two men fundamentally believed in the cause they were fighting. It’s based on true-life story.
“The writer is telling people to sometimes look at both sides of an altercation. Sometimes people just believe that because I’m a Christian or Muslim, others cannot have another view point; it’s dangerous, and vice versa. A Muslim cannot try to impose Shari’a, for instance on others, be they Christians or not. In any situation where two sides are fighting, each must try to look at where the other is coming from.
“Elections are coming and people tend to feel that because you come from a particular side of the country you shouldn't vie for the position. We are very tribal people. Individuals look at tribe first before the country. That is one of the lessons we want people to take home. Always allow room for the other side because that other side has a belief that is as valid as yours. The play forces us to look at situations objectively.
“I hate it when people say Nigeria got independence. Independence from what? What were we before? We were a people before Britain came; we had a government no matter how it was. The colonial master had the mentality that they were superior. So, that’s what The Siege is about. No side can claim to be superior to the other. It’s wrong.
“You know, Boko Haram says a certain way of life is wrong. That is The Siege because it is wrong for them to say that, or that they will destroy the way of others just because you believe in your own way. It is wrong. The Siege teaches us to live and let live. We can actually live side by side. It’s a large world and we live in a large country that can accommodate all of us. This is the same situation in Cambodia when a certain dictator came in and killed every journalist, every professor or intellectual; in short, he killed everyone who could use pen and paper. He murdered millions basically. It was wrong. If your ideology or belief says don’t go to school, then don’t, but stop someone else from getting educated.
“Wole Soyinka is a foremost proponent of live and let live. It’s not that we must stage one of his plays to celebrate him but this is like showcasing his philosophy. As long as a belief does not lead to killing people then let it be. That’s how best to celebrate Soyinka who strongly believes in freedom. This is the Command Performance of The Siege. I would like the play to go beyond Lagos but that’s for the executive producer. The play is unique and even the lines in verse form are unique as well.
“It’s poetic, an epic play; it’s a play that everybody should see and appreciate. Unfortunately, infrastructure for theatre is not very strong in this country. If I have a venue paid for it will allow me to show it for four or five months. The play speaks to society and the situation on ground, how people should relate and treat each other with respect. The Siege takes a serous look at bigotry and exposes it for what it is. It has 16 cast members, and will run for one and a half hours because there will be dances. So, there’s fusion of play and dance.
“It’s challenging because it deals with another culture, and we have to be careful that we stay true to the Sudanese culture it’s set in terms of dresses, music and mindset that existed at the time, etc. we have four British actors among the cast. We are taking the play to Edinburgh this month but as a director, the situation of theatre in the country is affecting us so much, especially the shortage of venues. The only venue we have for plays apart from the National Theatre is MUSON Centre. There are other places that they call theatre but they are not. They are just spaces or halls, which aren’t good for play production.
“We have artistes all over Nigeria, at the National Theatre but there’s nowhere to ply their trade. To tour a Nigerian play abroad is cost-intensive; you have to apply for visas, as there are no grants or endowments. Imagine that the only person that brought a Nobel Prize to Nigeria is a poet and dramatist; that is Wole Soyinka but there’s no single endowment fund for those areas by government or any philanthropist. We have many theatre-loving people but the problem is that there’s nowhere for them to go and see a play. Which theatre will they go? This play at MUSON Centre will be filled to capacity. People need to relax after a hard day’s work”.
Colonialism is not something I’m proud of as an English person, British actor, Quin
“I’m Sam Quinn, an actor and I live in London. This is my third time in Nigeria. It’s good to be back in Nigeria. Charles Gordon was a very successful military figure. Being Gordon is an interesting role to play. Colonialism is not something I’m proud of as an English person. It’s a dark chapter when you consider what happened to local people. It’s a difficult role to play being the bad guy.
“Both key players were very religious and strongly believed that God was on there side. It’s challenging role because I’m not a Christian; I just believe that one should just do what is right. I love Nigerian audience; they are fantastic. Their applause, their cheers and their response are fantastic. They ginger you to give your best.
Ola Rotimi Fakunle (who bears the name of a late literary icon as well as a character in the writer’s bestseller, The Gods Are Not to Blame).
“I’m playing the Mahdi. It’s very challenging role because I’m trying to become a Sudanese. I’m doing so much research on the characters. The script is very inspiring because basically, what happened to the Sudanese is not different from our own experience here. The play offers us an idea of how our people, our forefathers who existed at that time were treated.
“It talks about a lot of things like the Berlin Conference where Africa was shared among European countries. It gives us a background of the Africa we used to have. It’s good to know our root so as to solve our problem. The play is not just about Sudan or Nigeria but the entire world. It’s good to listen to people who are agitating for something. The Mahdi, for instance, was not fighting a religious war but he was a Muslim; he was fighting to free his country from foreign rule. It’s good to look inwards. I believe so much in the course of the Mahdi. I have to know all the nuances of the Mahdi’s religion so I don’t desecrate it”.