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The Rise And Rise Of Femi Elufowoju Jr.

Femi Elufowoju Jr. Photo/standard

Few directors render Nigerian life on stage as do Femi Elufowoju Jr.

For 13 years, the British-Nigerian film actor and theatre-maker ran Tiata Fahodzi which is considered to be the premiere African national touring company in the UK.

Most recently, he has achieved success directing the stage version of Lola Shoneyin’s novel “The Secret Lives Of Baba Sege’s Wives” at London’s Arcola Theatre for which he won the Best Director Award Of an Off-West play 2019. The play was restaged for the 2018 edition of Ake Arts and Book Festival in Nigeria which was founded by Shoneyin, the book’s author.

This June, two plays directed by Elofuwoju Jr opened at Arcola Theatre, first of which is “Hoard” by Bim Adewunmi which ran from May 15th to June 8th and was followed by “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams runs till July 13th.

“Hoard” is a first play by Adewunmi, a British-Nigerian journalist who is based in New York. She has written a mix of comedy and drama about three sisters – Rafi (Elizabeth Ita), Ami (Estella Daniels) and Bili (Kemi Durosinmi) – who wrestle with their mother’s refusal to give up a failing business exporting provisions to Nigeria, even when it threatens to split the family to the point of no repair.

Both plays have strong similarities that include an overbearing mother whose worry for her two children’s welfare grinds against their individual wishes and ambitions. In Hoard, Ellen Thomas is Wura Bakare, the entitled and self-denying mother whose three daughters are now adults in their 20s managing a work/life balance.

Each daughter has developed individualised trauma from the years squeezed into one bedroom on account of their mother’s unchecked accretion. As adults, the two cohabiting elder sisters have adopted minimalist taste in furnishings for their home. All the action happens in one evening when “Billi” the youngest is invited to dinner with “Brian Burton” her new African-American boyfriend, played by Tyler Fayose as a helplessly cherry and good natured Californian technician at Google.

Neither the sisters nor guest is a match for “Wura Bakare” who has turned up unannounced and on her way back from another shopping trip. We assume her new buys will soon join the hoard. “Wura’s” near-hostile questioning of Brian, her high-mindedness and cutting put-downs of relatives, as well as her own children makes for a laugh-fest. Pertinent questions about familial failures and forgiveness are well interrogated but thankfully also well measured, so as not to drain and disenchanting evening at the theatre.

On press night, it was announced by an associate director of Arcola theater that a day or two before “Hoard” opened, one of the actors had to drop from the play and was replaced by Estella Daniels who would read from script. Daniels, it also turns out, is pregnant and showing. Despite holding a script in hand for most of the evening’s performance, Daniels kept any nerves under control and so well the conspicuous sign of unreadiness was but a prop like any other on the stage. But then Daniels is an experienced stage actor who has had prior success working with Elofuwoju Jr in sold out runs of “Iya Ile (The First Wife)” at London’s Soho Theatre. It was written by Oladipo Agboluaje – a frequent collaborator of Elufowoju Jr and current “playwright in residence” at the UK’s National Theatre.

One effective device used by Elofuwoju Jr in “Hoard” is to have the actors, on occasion, stand on the two edges of the stage next to the first row of seats and project into the stage and audience. This creates a “surround sound” that empathises the aural quality of the actors’ voices and their lines, thereby enriching the listening experience.

No such directorial device is used in Williams “The Glass Menagerie” even when set in the larger of two theaters in Arcola Theatre and in need of louder projections from the actors to fill up the acoustics. Any obvious contrivance is in the first words of Williams’s script, in the form of a direct address by Tom (Michael Abubakar) who introduces the audience to the world of the play, before soon going into character.

All the action in “The Glass Menagerie” takes place in the Wingfield living room whose dim lighting intimates the long shadow of abandonment and shame brought on by an absentee husband and father. Whether as devotion or as a totem to the family’s great loss, a sizeable photography of Mr Wingfield – elegantly suited and gentle-faced – still hangs in the Wingfield living room ** since he deserted the family.

Elufowoju Jr is reportedly working on his first feature film titled “Incensed”, about a woman who is drawn to crime when her husband is charged with financial fraud. The exciting new venture could well open doors for more filmwork. And how he translates his considerable theatre experience on the screen, would be interesting to see. It could be revelation.

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