The venue for our meeting that warm Sunday evening was at Lekki, Lagos, Nigeria. I knew it would be an interesting meeting, it was an announcement of the closure of the audition for ‘Sister Act’, a musical drama billed for the stage later in the year.
At the lobby was seated, Soji Akinkugbe, the initiator, executive producer, and brain behind the idea of bringing the famous American musical to Nigeria. His quest to be a game changer in how musicals are performed and consumed in Nigeria led him to the Waterfront Theatre Company, Cape Town, South Africa.
Akinkugbe says growing up in the 1970s campuses of the University of Lagos, and Ife exposed him to eclectic theatrical performances and well produced musicals that became instant hits. It is this lofty taste for rare musical performance that is leading him to produce ‘Sister Act’ with a Nigerian cast.
“I had a great opportunity to watch some of Nigerian plays and musicals while growing up,” he explains. “We want to use an all Nigerian cast for this production. The skills we have here are quite robust but amateur. It took me about four years to get the ideal team to work with on the project. After a few emails Waterfront Theatre Company decided to come to Nigeria for auditioning.”
Based on the 1992 eponymous film, ‘Sister Act’ tells the story of aspiring disco diva, Deloris Van Cartier, who having witnessed her gangster (and married) boyfriend commit a murder, ends up in hiding in a convent whose parish has fallen on hard times. Though the sequin-free lifestyle doesn’t agree with her, Deloris finds her calling working with the choir, and breathes new life into the dusty convent while discovering a sisterhood she’s never had before.
Delia Sainsbury, the project co-ordinator, says Waterfront Theatre Company is largest performing art academy in South Africa. “We are passionate about developing young artists. Our primary interest is in audience and artistic development. The first time we came to Nigeria, we saw so much passion with dancers working under conditions in the studio without the right facilities.”
A year after her first visit to Lagos, Nigeria, Sainsbury and her team are back to see if Nigeria has the talents they need to produce the ‘Sister Act’ Musical. According to her, they were amazed at the level of talents available in Nigeria during the auditioning which took place in Lagos between February 25 and 27, 2016.
Paul Griffith, director, says the talents in Nigeria are world class although they have been nurtured in the bathroom or living room. “I haven’t seen such courage in performance as I have seen in the last three days in Lagos,” he says. “The energy, and passion have been humbling for us. There is an incredible lack of ego in your actors. They are the most generous performers we have ever seen. We have auditioned actors who have been well established and those that are not so established.”
In addition, he says there is a long time plan by Waterfront and Akinkugbe for the talents to get infrastructure that can make them work. In the same vein, Akinkugbe adds that his desire is to use the production of ‘Sister Act’ to create a training platform that will change raw local talents and skills into best standards available in the world.
Elvina Ibru, the producer, says after working with the team from Waterfront, she is amazed about the level of professionalism brought to the audition by Sainsbury and her team. “They are not just professional teachers but they are good at discovering new talents. What I admire about them is their level of patience with those who came to be auditioned. They discovered a new talent this afternoon in a girl that one could never thought had such an amazing vocal.”
Finally, Akinkugbe says ‘Sister Act’ is billed to be staged at the MUSON Centre, Onikan Lagos later in the year. He says he believes strongly in the talents of Nigerians to realise a world-class production of the play.