Brume… Today’s black woman reclaiming her identity and dignity
When the curtains fell on that humid Sunday evening after the performance of My Nina Simone Trip, the small audience at the Amphitheatre, Freedom Park, Lagos, rose up as one man to applaud Ese Brume for a superlative performance. Nina Simone (born on February 21, 1933) was a legendary African-American singer, who died in 2003 in the South of France. A jazz, blues, classical, pop singer, Nina Simone was also a leading activist, who enlisted her music in the defence of civil liberties, especially of her fellow racially oppressed African-Americas. She forged a close relationship with the leading Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. She was to suffer all the vagaries of life artists of her age and focus for using her music as a weapon against the racial oppression that sought to keep blacks down under racist white Americans.
In frustration and as a means of seeking a fresh breath of life away from her toxic America’s racial bigotry, she left for France in the hope of a quiet retirement. However, it was not until her death in 2003 that Brume read her obituary in French leading newspaper, Le Monde that a creative spark was ignited in her about this amazing woman, who had given so much to the world of culture and humanity with her inimitable music. Brume researched her further and has since come up with her own theatrical tribute to the goddess of jazz and soul music, who she sees as the epicentre of black consciousness and a fine specimen of black femininity.
Simone’s life’s struggles, as a young black girl, who was refused scholarship to study at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, and which was to set her on a path of activism, with her music as a potent tool, forms the plot of Brume’s My Nina Simone Trip. It is a theatric piece that portrays Simone from childhood to adulthood and the complex life she lived, the mostly low points that threatened to overwhelm her and also the high points that elevated her to the height of her music career. But importantly, the play is about her deployment of music to the fight against racial discrimination in her American society and the persistent question of identity, the place of black people, black women especially, who and what they are?
Brume says the question of identity for the black man and woman has been an age-old one, which recurs in many forms and manifestations. The black man and woman, she concedes, have suffered the most blight among the races of the world, but she is quick to add that redemption has been coming incrementally. While the black man and woman have walked a long path in the struggle to regain their humanity that other races have denied them, Brume is saddened that the black woman suffers a different kind of denigration, both from his fellow black man and the white man.
But Brume also argues that the black woman today has begun active reclamation of her identity and dignity, as she is more open and vocal about what she wants, how she wants it and how to get it.
“In no other time in human history is the black woman more vocal, more assertive about who she is than now,” she insists. “So, who are we? We know better now than ever before and there are instruments of advocacy open to us, like My Nina Simone Trip to tell the world who we are! We no longer accept being put down by anybody. Simone used to accept being beaten up by her husband, Andy. But at a point, she said no and stood up to him. To me that was a turning point. That is the turning point black women have arrived at, which is very significant!”
Brume’s My Nina Simone Trip is a play packed with so much energy and flair and Brume was the lone, possessed priestess offering appeasement to the disoriented, vexed spirit of Simone with her superb performance.And she says, “I know Simone was looking at us from somewhere up there and feeling happy that she was well represented. And the energy, oh, I don’t know. It just came, you know. As an actor, actress, you assume your part and just carry on with it. Simone is an intense piece of work. Well, I guess it is my job to deliver it. I’m glad you liked it.”
At last, when Brume had convincingly rendered the checkered life of Simone on stage and the curtains had fallen to end the show and Brume had gone backstage, there was a somberness that befell the audience as if Simone wielded a gloomy spell over it. The audience sat quiet, immobile, as if waiting for the reincarnation of a happier Simone, not believing that one single woman could have had such a life of misery spiced with occasional brightness. But…
“There was no way I was going to leave them in that gloom!” Brume says, looking back. “Simone’s life was such a complicated one. She had spells of erratic behaviour. She shot and almost killed a music producer, who was cheating her in music sales, but she missed. Even in the South of France, where she lived till she died, she shot at some neighbourhood children because they were making noise!”
Although Brume had worked in the French theatre for 20 years, she simply wouldn’t stage the Simone play over there first, as she asserts a cultural affinity with home, “Lagos here is home and where I needed to show My Nina Simone Trip! A French colleague had approached me to stage it in Paris, but I knew I had to do it here first, as my homecoming of sorts. I love working here. Look at the people who worked with me on this show. You can’t find such dedication in France. They are like civil servants over there. Once it is 5pm, they are going home. But these amazing talents here will go the extra mile to make sure it gets done. There is so much talent under-employed, under-developed here. I will work here any day.”
Having conquered the French theatre working in it for 20 years, Brume believes it is time to head back home. She has no illusion about the toughness Nigeria’s cultural scene and life present, particularly the sheer absence of purpose-built performance spaces, but she says the idea is worth giving a try. She has infectious optimism and approach about the challenges Nigeria’s cultural work life presents. Also, Brume is getting encouragement from professional colleagues like dancer and choreographer, Kudus Onikeku, who she worked with both in France and in Nigeria, to return home.
“We just have to deal with things like that one day at a time!”
ALTHOUGH she was born in Lagos, Brume’s life straddles many cultures and two continents. At an early age, she went to a boarding secondary school in Kaduna. Midway through she was taken to Switzerland, where she finished school and then to Britain for her university education at University College, London, where she majored in French Language and Literature. Switzerland more or less decided what she wanted to become or the direction of her career in French, both as a subject of study and career path. With a firm grasp of French in a Swiss school and subsequently a degree in French, Brume didn’t need any more prompting what she needed to do.
French theatre and an immersion in French cultural life beckoned. Welcome Paris.Brume confessed to be specially favoured in her career in France, as she works with some of the leading French theatre directors in Paris’ elite theatre circuit, a rare feat by a black woman. Although the French, she says, are quite accommodating there is a hint of urbane racism, which they are hardly aware of or own up to but which is there all the same.
“They categorise black women in three ways,” Brume says at the atmospheric, garden ambience of Freedom Park one evening, with the park’s kaleidoscopic lights shimmering and light music issuing from Esther’s Lodge. “There are the cleaners, housemaids types of women they are so used to. Then there are the illegal immigrants all over the place. Then the third category, which is where they place me, is the African Princess, the queenly type of woman and I have been so lucky to be so categorised. When I first arrived and they heard me speak, they thought I was African-American woman. But I told them, no; that I was from Africa, Nigerian. My accent was so pure in their ears they didn’t think I could be from anywhere else but America. But I’m proper Nigerian!”
Brume says working in the French theatre is such a privileged position, as everything works to perfection. Culture, she notes, is so highly regarded in France so much so that the French government highly subsidises it. The theatres, she states, are built and maintained by government, but independent producers and directors take their works there for exhibition. However, government gets money back to maintain the theatres through a rigid tax regime that ensures that the theatres work well all year round.
The multi-lingual thespian argues that the French theatre model is something Nigeria can learn a thing or two so Nigerian practitioners could be employed all year round working on projects. Although she also says she was delighted to learn that the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) was compiling names of members with a view to working out insurance and other social schemes, Brume still argues that government has a role to play in providing practitioners a platform for employment, as the benefits will redound to government’s primary role of catering for its citizens.
After her education in London, Brume moved to Paris to work with the Cameroonian film director and producer, Jean-Pierre Bekolo. From cinema screenplay research, writing and producing, she found herself on stage, creating a niche and a name for herself as an actress-performer-vocalist in the exclusive contemporary Parisian theatre scene.
She has over 20 years of experience working with directors such as Joris Lacoste, Gildas Milin, Benoît Bradel, Frédéric Fisbach, and Roland Fichet, touring Europe, Africa, and America with their plays. On the Parisian music scene, she performed and recorded with the jazz saxophonist, Julien Lourau’s Groove Gang, as a spoken word artist. Brume combined vocalization and rhythmic experimentation with the internationally renowned Greek composer and contemporary music theatre director, George Aperghis.
And more recently, after a rich experience as Executive Producer of the Nigerian Musical Diasporama – a music festival the occasion of the London Olympics for which she won an award showcasing artists such as Asa, Tony Allen, Femi Kuti, Keziah Jones, her artistic path has been drawn towards her passion: music, and her roots: Nigeria.Collaborating both as a performer and a writer with the Nigerian-based internationally acclaimed choreographer and dancer, Qudus Onikeku, on his piece We Almost Forgot provided the platform for which she could express her roots, her cosmopolitanism and her creativity.