A talented 100 man cast. Nine shows over three days, in one venue.
No wonder some people say it’s the biggest original musical to hit the stage since Fela! On Broadway.
Others say it is the future of Nigerian theatre.
All the same, the story of Saro: The Musical will never be complete without Bolanle Austen-Peters, the creator and executive producer of the show, which is poised to redefine the landscape of theatre in Nigeria, nay Africa.
Beyond being a story of a group of people who decided to embark on a journey to Lagos, the city of dreams and opportunities, Saro: The Musical is another definition of Austen-Peters’ passion for theatre as a tool for societal change.
“Culture, arts and music are some of the things we have that can bring us out poverty, but we don’t seem to see it,” she said.
As its managing director, she has succeeded in transforming Terra Kulture, which was established in 2003, into Nigeria’s renowned one-stop hub for everything related to arts, culture and lifestyle.
And with Saro: The Musical, Austen-Peters wants to transfer that influence into producing a show of global acclaim.
“I also want to produce plays on a regular basis that would allow us (Nigeria) to shine on the global stage,” she said.
With a talented cast of producers and performers, only a few would disagree with her.
Even before its opening at the Oriental Hotel, Lagos, Nigeria, on October 25, 26 and 27, Saro: The Musical has already garnered the praises of veterans in the arts circle and arts enthusiasts who witnessed a sneak preview at Terra Kulture recently.
In this exclusive interview with Sam Umukoro in London, Austen-Peters shares a part of her life story, woven in England and Nigeria, the story behind Saro: The Musical, her passion and love for theatre, and more.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You once worked for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), how was the experience?
Bolanle Austen-Peters: I actually worked with various organisations within the United Nations (UN) system, including the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The UNDP was my last job. In UNDP, I learnt about putting things together. We worked within frameworks most of the time, so everything was highly contextualized, which had its own benefits, but it also had its own drawbacks.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Having worked with the UN and seen people living in extreme poverty and suffering in refugee camps, one will expect that, upon your return to Nigeria, you would be more involved championing the cause of the poor masses…
Bolanle Austen-Peters: I think that is a fair point. For me, my experience with the UN was a moment in time. It was something that I did in my 20s. In Nigeria, we don’t have that many NGO’s or organisations involved in things like this, or rather, I didn’t go out to look for them when I got back home, because I honestly did not know what I wanted to do as well. But then, doing refugee and poverty alleviation work on a sustainable basis demanded a lot emotionally and physically.
I told myself that whatever I did on returning to Nigeria was going to add value to people. Now, you can add value in various forms; by working with the homeless on the streets of Lagos, teaching in schools, creating jobs for artistes, and creating a platform for people to use to express themselves.
This was what I found myself doing eventually. I could have worked in any other organization, but I chose to do this because I felt that I had to give back. I wasn’t also doing this because I had a higher calling or anything like that; it was just part of me. I wanted to do something that would impact my society. It was tough at the beginning but I am grateful that I have done it so far.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What inspired your current project, ‘Saro: The Musical’?
Bolanle Austen-Peters: Saro: The Musical was a deliberate thought process. About six or seven years ago, I started this project called ‘theatre attire’ and it had no direction. But I said, ‘one day I would like to revive theatre in Nigeria’. At the start, it wasn’t well received.
Then, I started again with Segun Adefila, the director. He was willing and available. Through him we started having other directors who came on board, like Wole Oguntokun, and now we have hundreds of them. It is a journey that started simply because I wanted to do theatre, because I loved theatre in school. Later I realised that we had more experts and people showing more interest in the project. I said to myself, surely, if we are not known for anything else, Nigerians are known for music, dance, and for our creativity. I think this is where we have an advantage; we write, sing, dance, and act; it’s part of our DNA.
So I tried to find and fill the missing link, which I found out was funding and visibility. I decided to write a play and thought that a musical would be better received because I saw how Fela! On Broadway was received. So I started the process. Starting the journey looked like a very simple thing, but honestly, I did not realise the enormity of it. With each day it got bigger, but I am happy doing it. I just hope that we would get the positive feedback and impact.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What were some of the challenges?
Bolanle Austen-Peters: I think the problem is that we have institutions and governments that are not funding things. The movies or theatres in Europe and America have huge budgets, while people with deep pockets support massive initiatives. Look at the people who funded Fela! On Broadway. These are all mega stars, people who could deep their hands into their pockets and bring out hundreds of millions. In Nigeria we don’t have that kind of mindset.
Those that are capable of doing it are not interested; somehow we fail to see the link between art and job creation, we fail to see the link between talent and possibilities. It is one of those things that bug me because Nigeria has an abundance of talents. Developmental journals will tell you that the greatest wealth of a nation is its people, not its oil or diamonds.
For example, look at what Nollywood and the music industry have done independently. That is what we are going to do with theatre. We started as a very small initiative, but in 10 years from now, we will be talking about something totally different. It always takes someone to decide to do something and do it well, and that’s what I am trying to do with this project. We just have to do it right, until we get to a stage where we have spaces that are dedicated to one show for a couple of months and all of that. For now, we will do what we can do to augment and roam the shows, but we will get it done to the high standard we believe that it ought to be.
Obviously, the first challenge is the budget, but we have a very talented team working on different aspects, and when you talk to these people you will see their level of expertise. So equity is not a problem. We also have a talented cast, trained in Europe, America and Nigeria, people who have chosen dance and music as a profession.
So the missing link is the institutionalisation of all of these, the coming together, somebody giving them the spearhead and making sure that there is enough money to do it right, that we get enough funding to stage it right in the right place to give us the required level of visibility.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Fela! On Broadway show was taken to different countries, do you have that kind of plans for Saro: The Musical?
Bolanle Austen-Peters: Yes, absolutely. We are looking at starting with neighbouring countries like Togo and Ghana, based on availability of funds, but we will do it. Then we are thinking of London. Those are our first plans immediately after the shows in Nigeria – we are starting with a grand performance for three days, October 25, 26 and 27, at the Grand Banquet hall, Oriental Hotel, Lagos, Nigeria. We also have some billed to hold at the MUSON centre, Lagos.
We are also thinking of bringing it to Abuja and one or two other places in Lagos, possibly UNILAG. There after we would have received enough critical mass and attention to move it around.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What inspired the name, ‘Saro’?
Bolanle Austen-Peters: I brainstorm a lot. I must give credit to the script writers that also worked with me on this after I had developed the original concept and story. What happened was that I had written the story but I didn’t have a name for it. It was similar to when I started Terra Kulture, I didn’t have a name but I had wanted something that was apt and spot on.
For this show, I wanted a name that reflected Lagos, since it was a play about Lagos being an allegory for a land of opportunities. This applies to so many of us who are not Lagosians, because the play is about people who are Lagosians. Somehow, I needed to tie the history of Lagos into the story. Now the Saros are also synonymous with migrants that came in from Sierra Leone, and then there are economic migrants as well, highly educated and talented.
They came to Lagos through different entry points; Yaba, Ebute Metta… the history is there. My husband’s grandmother was actually called Mama Saro. Apparently I am now called Mama Saro as well on the stage at Terra Kulture (general laughter). My husband’s mum’s of Sierra Leonean descent.
So I tried to reflect the fact that Lagos has indigenous people. We also have the Brazilian Africans that came back, and all of that. I wanted to just tie a group around it, the festivals in Lagos and how our music evolved.
Saro: The Musical came simply because I wanted to have a hook to talk about the story of Lagos and its people. We need to teach our history. It is a joke that we do not study History in schools today. That was my best subject. I was fascinated by the story of the Ghanaians, the Ashanti Empire, the Sung Hi Empire, and the Oyo Empire. Here in England, my children are studying the history of the Anglo Saxons. So what is wrong with us?
Sam Umukoro Interview: Is the project self-funded?
Bolanle Austen-Peters: So far, yes. It’s by the grace of God and the fact that I have a supportive family, especially my husband. As with every project, the seed is important. Project ideas dry out if you do not have the seed to start. Funding is critical and I have been fortunate enough to have the support of family that can fund it thus far.
If I go to institutions, which I have done, and I tell them I want to do a play, they think they are going to have another N100 naira show. But when they come to England, they go and pay £200 to see a musical and they do not ask themselves why ours is not as pleasing to see. It is because somebody here is putting two million pounds to fund the production, that’s why you have excellent lighting, and audio, excellent cast and costume.
It’s difficult getting funding, but every day I just kneel down and say, God make this possible. Some Nigerians are into instant gratification, we focus on monetary aspect and things that bring instant gain; our desire and hopes are not based on value-generating projects; things that really bring no joy and have no soul at the end of the day.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Don’t you also think that the economic gap between Africa and Europe affects the acceptance of arts and culture?
Bolanle Austen-Peters: For me, it is a chicken and egg scenario. You use what you have to get to where you want to get to. Culture, arts and music are some of the things we have that can bring us out poverty, but we don’t seem to see it. We go borrowing millions and billions from banks abroad to fund oil rigs that we don’t even have the expertise to run. Then we pay foreigners to do it for us. We export the oil and bring it back, whereas we have the human resources.
Most of the developed countries do not have the kind of natural resources that we have, which is to tell you that we are not focusing on the right things. The greatest wealth of a nation is its people. Who has more culture than us? For example, Brazilian culture is derived from things exported from Nigeria, Britain and America. Their culture is half as rich as ours.
But look at what they have been able to do with it; hundreds of museums, galleries and theatres. I just came back from a trip to the US, where I watched some shows. What we spent on each show, with all our family members, was in excess of thousands of dollars. They are generating an income from something they really don’t have. In fact, 90 percent of the content of one or two of the plays I saw was African.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Don’t you think the government has a critical role to play, in terms of shaping the way we look at our culture?
Bolanle Austen-Peters: It is obvious that if the government was doing what it was supposed to be doing, we will be economically, socially and culturally developed. But we are not, simply because we have had governments over the years that have not done the right thing. The private sector is the major thing that drives Nigeria.
If Terra Kulture had waited for the government, we wouldn’t be where we are today. They should be funding us. We don’t even ask them for a thing. If Nollywood waited for government they won’t be where they are today. If all our writers waited for government grant to write their stories, would they be where we are today?
Sam Umukoro Interview: You once said you are not giving to religiosity. Being a former Sunday School teacher, isn’t that like a contradiction?
Bolanle Austen-Peters: I have to be honest with you, I believe in God. I am a practicing Christian, but I am not a fan of the way religion is practiced in Nigeria. I don’t believe in all these excessive display of spiritualism that, in most cases, does not translate into your reality. For me, my faith is personal. It is not something that I need to get to the office and start telling all my staff that you have to start praying and fasting, what is that? That is not my calling. You discover your faith, practice it and hold on to it dearly.
I have developed my faith and I’m able to teach younger people, I am grateful to God for that privilege. But I am not going to go out and sermonise everybody I see on the streets, especially as we are also a very diverse country in a diverse world. And if you have lived all over the world, you will realise this excessive display of religiosity in Nigeria doesn’t make any sense.
I have lived with Buddhist, and with people who practice Hinduism, there are so many faiths. Who am I to now tell them, ‘look, abandon yours and follow mine’? Do yours, I do mine, that is my view. My faith is personal to me; that’s the way I just look at religion.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You believe in moulding the lives of children as a sure way of adding value to the society, how successful has this been for you?
Bolanle Austen-Peters: It has been fulfilling for me. Let’s put it that way, although I don’t teach Sunday school anymore because I’m always on the move, majority of the kids that I taught in Sunday school have graduated from the university today. When I look at them, I just smile because I remember how little they were then, how very little they knew in terms of the Bible, and where they are today as human beings. It is same thing for our nation, art, and everything. Those who have gone ahead need to invest, that’s the problem we have, no one is investing.
When I look back at Terra Kulture and see some of the people that have gone through it, I am actually emotional because I see people now who are stars, some are on radio, others on television; some and directors, people who came in green and all of them now have their cast and crews. I just thank God because He has created something through me. I am very grateful. For me, that is the joy.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How does society and cultural background affect the role of women?
Bolanle Austen-Peters: People come with prejudices; unfortunately you cannot address everybody’s issues. I have a very progressive husband who is very international in his outlook and I raise my son and daughter in the same way. We are equals, male and females are equals. The same way I gave birth to my daughter was the same way I gave birth to my son. Every other advantage men think they have in the society is imposed by the society, culture and religion.
To be quite candid, I don’t believe in that and I don’t allow anyone to impose it on me. So when some people tell me, ‘your culture has made you the way you are’, it depends on what you are willing to accept as well.
When people (sometimes even foreigners too, surprisingly) come to Terra Kulture, they expect that it is a man that owns the establishment. For example; a German guy came and told me he wanted to see the oga. I said I could only present myself. He was so embarrassed and said, “Oh no! Nigeria has affected me….” You get my point? It is what you allow to affect you. To an extent, it is a male dominated society; although the present government of President Goodluck Jonathan has been quite pro-women, in that key ministers’ portfolios are run by mostly women. But again, I also think that women have a greater role to play. One should only accept what one thinks is right. If you don’t feel it is right, then don’t take it. That is how I feel. But then, some might say I am a bit militant in my views.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What is your greatest ambition?
Bolanle Austen-Peters: I am going to build a theatre by the grace of God, a nice 400-seater theatre that would give enough room to stage good productions, with proper technology, a place where Nigerians could come to relax and have a good time. I also want to produce plays on a regular basis that would allow us to shine on the global stage. That is the only thing I want to be doing now, but to be quite honest, even if i don’t do it, I am happy with where I am today.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What is your advice to young women in Nigeria and Africa who see a lot of obstacles on their way to achieving their dreams?
Bolanle Austen-Peters: The first thing is that, people have to work on themselves. Another thing is that a lot of us don’t read or expose ourselves to other cultures and other people. When you live in a cage, you can’t see anything else other than that cage. You are moulded by your circumstance and your environment.
But it is also very important that you open up to the world and see people who have different views from your stand point. Honestly speaking, if I was raised in Nigeria and never had the privileges and opportunities to mix with other people, like I have done, I probably won’t be where I am today, because that has allowed me to fly.
I have seen people who are equals with their husbands; there is no rocket science to it. I have seen women who own bigger and stronger businesses.
So it is absolutely important that a woman develops herself. You shouldn’t wait for society or for family, you have to invest in yourself and I think the greatest platform for doing that is reading a lot. You have to read and get into people’s minds through books if you do not have the opportunity to travel. It is so critical because everything starts from the mind. Once your mind is small, there is nothing anybody can do to help you. You have to free your mind of cobwebs and fear if you want to achieve something.
That’s why I think not only religion is important. Faith is important too. Faith allows you to shake away fear. Once you have faith, you’ll recognise that, at the end of the day, there’s just nothing to be fearful of. You never know what you could have achieved if you didn’t try and that is my attitude, I try everything. If you try it and you fail, you get up and you continue.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Are you a feminist?
Bolanle Austen-Peters: No, I am not. I believe in equality. Sometimes, the feminist message comes out almost as if you are also saying that women are superior or the women should be given advantages. I just believe that everybody should just be. A man is a man, a woman is a woman; everybody is equal. Let us all be happy. I don’t push for any agenda.
Sam Umukoro Interview: The Bible talks about the man being the head of the family, don’t you think this is a ‘first among equals’ kind of situation?
Bolanle Austen-Peters: Don’t test my faith here because I have Sunday school (General laughter). Honestly, I believe that there should be a leader in every room, otherwise there will be rule, but no control, and there will be anarchy. So to that extent I am willingly to infer that you can put the male ahead… it is like having a president.
He is serving, he is not a boss. He is only serving. You should recognise that if I give you a leadership role, it is for you to serve us, not that you now boss it over others; that is not the role of a leader. Yes, somebody has to be in the leadership position. So, that extent, I agree the male can be, but understand that we are equal.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Are you then an advocate for equal opportunity?
Bolanle Austen-Peters: Yes, I am. I also studied human rights and I’m an advocate of treating everybody as equal. Nigerians should understand that equality is not based on gender or vanities. It is sickening sometimes to hear how some Nigerians refer to people who have money, it is not about the wealth you generate; it is about the quality of the individual that you are. We are all equals. I have people who work for me that I respect so much and I also know people with so much wealth that I have no regard for. So, it is a quality of the human being.