Nigerian student directs first black theatre production at Cambridge University
Cambridge University student, Adédàmọ́lá Láoyè, has made history this past academic year (2019-2020), with his critically acclaimed production of Danai Gurira’s The Convert, at Cambridge’s famed ADC Theatre.
Láoyè is a 2nd-year-student pursuing a degree in Politics and International Relations student at Wolfson College, Cambridge has made significant contributions to the dramatic and comedic scene during his time at university.
He remarks that he was inspired to stage The Convert after witnessing the ‘cultural influence of Black Panther in allowing for a reimagining of Africa and the diaspora’, through a vision of a ‘free and ethnically diverse (albeit fictitious) world of Wakanda – untampered by the corrosiveness of Western colonialism’.
This vision of Afrofuturism stands in sharp contrast to the socio-political tensions agitated by British colonial rule in The Convert. The play is situated against the backdrop of the 1896 Bulawayo Uprising in Southern Africa Mashonaland, later renamed Southern Rhodesia in 1923 and Zimbabwe in 1980.
Playwright Danai Gurira, who portrayed Okoye in Black Panther, reconstitutes the erosion of culture kinship ties through her characterisation of Chilford Ndlovu, a native Catholic priest working at the behest of British colonial missionaries seeking to capture the minds, tongues and postures of the Shona population. He does so in two steps: first by training them to speak the Queen’s English, and second by rejecting indigenous ritual practices in favour of the wafers of the Christian eucharist. The story follows Jekesai, christened by Ndlovu as Ester, who seeks refuge in his household to avoid a traditional marriage to an elderly man.
The arc of the play centres on Chilford’s attempts to remove Jekesai from what he perceives to be barbaric native practices and educate her to become the consummate British Catholic convert. The struggle for identity is central to The Convert, as Jekesai/Ester embarks on a journey to discover her autonomy while Chilford’s seemingly resolute exterior begins to unravel as he calls into question the promises of the white man.
As a Christian, director Láoyè remarks that he had to reckon with the weaponisation of Christianity as part of Britain’s colonial mission to ‘colonise the consciousness’ of native African populations. “I had to come to terms with the historical reality that British imperialism meant Christian missionaries played a crucial role in culturally indoctrinating indigenousness Africans with a curated whitewashed conception of God. This created, a false hierarchy of Western sensibilities and customs being elevated above the ‘savagery’ of African cultural belief systems,” Láoyè asserts.
“However, I found that self-determination is only achieved by deconstructing the idea of a ‘European’ Jesus and the accompanying doctrines of inferiority. On the surface, Gurira’s critique of British colonization places Christianity on trial but the complexity and nuance in her storytelling is why I believe The Convert is one of the most important pieces of literature of the last decade.”
“A big moment for us, and a big moment for Cambridge”
The Convert is the first black production to be staged in the 165-year history of Cambridge University’s ADC Theatre. When asked to reflect on this achievement, Láoyè remarks, “It’s a big moment for us, and a big moment for Cambridge”.
Not only is it the first-ever student adaptation of Danai Gurira’s original, but it is the first main show with an all-black cast to ever be staged at the ADC Theatre. “The process was a collaborative effort and I couldn’t have asked for a more dedicated and hardworking cast, many of whom are acting for the first time,” Láoyè mentions.
The production represented a watershed moment for Cambridge theatre as an unprecedented number of diverse productions was staged in the following term. The importance of seeing black and other diverse narratives being told at Cambridge is crucial to increase the visibility of black writers, actors and directors in the entertainment and media industry.
This is especially true when we consider the unparalleled artistic talents who having emerged from Cambridge, including such notable figures as Sir Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Sam Mendes, Tom Hiddleston and many more. However, as a consequence of the historically and structurally discriminatory admissions practices held by both Oxford and Cambridge, there remains a woeful admissions acceptance rate for black students, with only 91 black students (3.4% of the admitted cohort) being accepted in 2019-20, a record high.
As Láoyè observes, “the reality is Oxbridge has a long-standing tradition of exclusion towards certain groups of people in society. However, I feel that attitudes are changing and that we are about to ride a crest wave of change”. He continues, “I think I resonated so much with Jekesai’s struggle for identity because I observed parallels in my own existence in Cambridge as a black man coming from a working-class background with the idealised image of what a Cambridge student should look, sound or be like.
Speaking slang and listening to an often, mischaracterised genre of music, grime and hip-hop, have, at times, made me question my identity. This struggle for identity is heightened upon returning back to the community I came from, only to be alienated further for sounding ‘white’. These struggles all reflect strongly in the play’s central character, Jekesai, who is faced with the expectation of renouncing her language, her name, her cultural rituals, and eventually even her family in order to assimilate as a catholic convert in nineteenth-century Rhodesia.”
“Adédàmọ́lá Láoyè’s directorial vision is true to the essence of Danai Gurira’s script, while also presenting something innovative and new to the ADC stage.”
Láoyè’s production of The Convert was praised as an overwhelming success with both audiences and critics with its double five-star rating by student publications, The Cambridge Student and The Tab. Both newspapers waxed lyrical about the production, remarking, “[Láoyè’s] attention to detail is astounding, with no directorial choice made without deference to the underlying themes. From lighting, to sound, to movement and positioning, and the silences just as much as speaking, every aspect of the play is carefully constructed to present a nuanced dialogue about identity, tradition, personal relationships, and colonial occupation.”
Láoyè cites directors, Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim Vs the World) as his inspirations. Looking ahead, Láoyè hopes to harness his talents and interests in directing, acting, and comedy to “push the boundaries” of what people think students are capable of producing. Láoyè’s involvement in Cambridge University’s theatre and comedy scenes is unquestioned: he serves as the Marlowe Society’s BME Shakespeare Officer and the Cambridge Footlights’ Smokers Officer. These societies count Oscar winners such as Sam Mendes and Emma Thompson amongst their illustrious alumni.
At Wolfson College Láoyè also coordinates the Wolfson Howler, a monthly showcase famed for being the premiere stand-up comedy institution at Cambridge.
These involvements attest to Láoyè’s passion for the performing arts and stand as unprecedented feats for a Nigerian student at Cambridge.
We are undoubtedly witnessing the emergence of a someone to watch in Adédàmọ́ lá Láoyè, a young Yoruba man proudly flying the flag for Nigeria in Cambridge, whilst carving out his space on the table as an actor- director.
His leadership at the forefront of change in Cambridge has served to legitimise the voices of fellow Nigerians and black students within both the university and theatre scenes. Láoyè’s priority whilst studying is to continue directing and acting as his focus shifts to writing and creating an upcoming film project. We have no doubt that any project he’s involved in will be a resounding success as this young history maker continues on his journey toward achieving artistic excellence.