2020 African Writers Award for Drama: A Dialogue with Akayi

2020 AFRICAN WRITERS AWARD FOR DRAMA

A DIALOGUE WITH AKAYI

Gloria Akayi Asoloko, popularly known as Akayi, is a Nigerian playwright and poet, whose first play, ‘Who Knows Amanda?’ won the Society of Nigeria Theatre Artists (SONTA) Drama Prize, 2018, and the African Writers Award for Drama, 2020. The play was also shortlisted for the 2020 Beeta Playwright Competition in Nigeria.

Akayi is a scholar, and a development worker. She is the co-founder of Framework Advocacy and Development Initiative (FAD Initiative), a non-profit organization aimed at community development, especially youth empowerment in Nigeria. Akayi is also a consultant with RNW Media, The Netherlands, where she is involved in youth-centered developmental projects. She is currently a staff of the Institute of Strategic and Development Communication (ISDEVCOM), Nasarawa State University, Nigeria.

Her hobbies include reading, traveling, playing the piano, singing, cooking/baking, making jewelry, arts and crafts, fashion, and swimming. Akayi loves plants and animals, especially cats.

Edith Knight Magak

BY EDITH KNIGHT MAGAK

This conversation took place between Kenya and Nigeria, via Zoom.

Edith: Congratulations on winning the 2020 African Writers Awards Drama prize for your play ‘Who Knows Amanda?’ What does the win mean to you?

Akayi: I wouldn’t limit how I feel to this particular win, because whatever win I get means a lot to me, especially in terms of recognition. I went from a self-acclaimed writer, to a nationally acclaimed writer when I won the Society for Nigeria Theatre Artists (SONTA) Playwright Award in 2018, and the work was again shortlisted this year for the Beeta Playwright Competition. Then came this one, that is international, so it’s like ‘I am internationally acclaimed.’ I feel I’m growing in my writing career, because with every step I take, there is an achievement. It’s growth. I’m not sure if I saw it coming, because for you to submit your work for a competition, you expect something, you want to win. So, I maybe sort of expected it. I mean, out of 537 entries, that’s huge. The shortlist came out and I was like ‘wow, I made it, let’s see how it goes from here’ then came the announcement. I was happy and surprised, elated even. This means a lot to me. 

Edith: Oh yes, we always except to win, even if we don’t admit it.  And with this trajectory—from self, to national, then continental—I know your next win will be a global prize. Congratulations once again. ‘Who Knows Amanda?’ is a well-deserved win. 

In the written art forms, we don’t have a lot of competitions for script and drama, even here in the continent. We mostly have competitions and awards for poetry, short stories and novels, but very few in scriptwriting and drama, how did you find yourself in this genre and not prose? 

Akayi: Firstly, I’m a theatre artist by training. I studied theatre arts for my Bachelor’s degree here in Nigeria. So, I have a background in stage productions and drama. It was from there I took playwrighting as a major. Then a lecturer, Professor Barclays Ayakoroma took an interest in me and my writing style and he actually nudged me in that direction. Your question is interesting because at some point I felt I would be better off writing prose, because it is more widely read and recognized than drama. So, I approached the lecturer and told him the same, but he advised me to hold on to this. He kind of enabled that foundation for me in writing drama and put me in the know for some of these competitions out there for drama. That’s what led me from being a student writer into professional drama writing. He made sure he polished me for professional writing. 

Edith: What a great lecturer, I am so glad he invested in you. And look we are having this conversation now, so ‘some’ thanks should go to him, I guess. I remember when I started writing, which of course meant zero confidence, 100% confusion, and 100% self-doubt, an author, stranger back then- right now we are good friends, encouraged me, edited my works, and gave me a platform to present my works to be critiqued and improved, and after that, he made sure I was grounded in the community of writers so that I could continuously learn and unlearn. Thanks to him, I am where I am today. The importance of community to a new writer can never be overemphasized, even if that community is just one other person.  So, a shout-out to all creative mentors out there!

Tell me, why was it important for you to write this drama, ‘Who knows Amanda?’

Akayi: Sometimes as a writer, you just start writing, and it’s either making sense or not. I was actually under a little pressure when writing this because I wrote it as a final year student, as my final exam for playwriting class. There was a timeline of when to hand it in, but thankfully what I was writing was making sense. I was flowing with it. I created characters first; I actually didn’t even have the storyline, but I had the theme because the division caused by tribalism and religious bigotry had been a bother to me. The characters therefore built the story for me. I wrote this story in the hostel on my bunk bed. And despite all the disturbances around, I was just there with my laptop, writing in the moment. I honestly don’t know what motivated this story, it just came.  

Edith: Interesting. Did you write it in one sitting on the bunk bed? 

Akayi: It was a period of days; I remember how some fractions of dialogue would come to me while walking or doing other activities, then I’d rush back to the hostel to copy things down. And this still happens a lot (laughs). Sometimes I’ll be in a serious meeting and characters are just playing in my head, and I’ll have to write it down immediately or risk it going away. 

Edith: I envy you! Another writer friend was also saying the same thing recently. How words come to them in random places. That never happens to me; makes me feel like I’m an imposter writer (laughs). I literally have to sit down, and clear my head, and serenade the muse to show its glory before anything meaningful comes out. But maybe the end justifies the means in writing. Which actually is a big theme in the drama. 

All the characters are trying to gain Amanda’s inheritance by whatever means possible. To them, the end goal of material wealth is more important than the death of Amanda. The greed that rears its ugly head in families after the death of a loved one is an issue that is hardly talked about. Why did you decide to tackle this?

Akayi: Yes, greed is a huge factor in this story, which is fuelled by the sub-themes of religious bigotry and tribalism, which have caused nepotism in our societies. All these boils down to greed. People are out there for themselves, and they have formed socio-cultural and socio-political groups that they belong in, and it’s ‘I want to get this thing because I’m from the north, and you are from the south so you don’t deserve it.’ Or, ‘If there is an opportunity, I would rather give it to someone from the south where I am from, than to someone from the north’. Even in politics, we have divisions caused by hunger for power, and all these things boil down to greed. When people are deserving of something but you think they shouldn’t have it because of your selfish interest, that’s greed; whether struggling for political, social or economic power, it’s greed. This was done against the backdrop of inheritance in the play, which was a metaphor that basically represents the national cake.

We should put all cultural and religious sentiments and biases behind in order to move forward in unity. You were born human before you were told which culture or religion you belonged to. We cannot be the same, but we are the same.

Edith: You speak about Nigeria, but let me tell you, I am Kenyan yet this is very familiar to me. I think most, if not all, of our countries in Africa face the same issues; both political and social. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to read how you reversed gender experiences in the drama. At the beginning, we are introduced to Udoh as a ‘widower.’ We see him carrying the baby, singing to him, feeding him the bottle, he sings to the baby, and he looks rather miserable after losing his wife. We then see his mother-in-law pressuring him to immediately marry his late wife’s sister. I found this interesting because we mostly talk about widows and wife inheritance; which is common. But you show us how widowers also suffer when their wives pass away, and there’s even pressure for them to immediately remarry back into this family lest the ‘wealth go somewhere else.’ 

Akayi: Many tribes also practise wife inheritance here. It’s one of the reasons we have the feminist struggle in Nigeria, because women have been marginalised, and oppressed and have been seen as objects. A bride price is first paid for the woman, and when your husband dies, his brother comes to inherit you and they come with conditions—basically, it’s mostly females who get the short end of the stick. What I did therefore was gender role reversal. I intentionally made the man be the person to be inherited. It was an intentional tactic to give women a little upper hand. Because it’s usually the women at this end. I wanted to have the thinking of ‘what if it was the man who was to take care of the child? What if it was the man to be inherited?’ 

Edith: Oh yes, that was brilliant! But despite all this, Udoh is a liar. In fact, he’s not even Amanda’s husband but a housekeeper! I was shocked and angry to find that out at the end because I already was invested in him and feeling sorry for him. Why did you use this angle?

Akayi: When people are greedy, their lives are full of lies. They use lies to cover lies, because they are after something. A greedy man cannot be honest. For your own selfish interest, you have to fabricate lies to get what you want. 

From the beginning, the reader will not know what is going on until the story builds up. Then later, they find out that everyone in the play is being false. It starts with Mama, when Papa comes in and exposes that she’s not Amanda’s real mother, the lies then start uncovering. Everyone thinks ‘oh maybe I will be the last man standing’, not knowing that they all are going to be exposed soon. It’s the same thing with Udoh, he doesn’t see it coming. Amanda has been a single mother and there is no one to claim the kid, no family; but because he has been the nanny, he wants to try his luck by posing as her husband. It was to make the reader wonder ‘who is who? who is telling truth and who is lying?’

Edith: ‘A greedy man cannot be honest.’ What a profound line!

Akayi: (Laughs). It just came; you know we writers are philosophers. Your question led me to thinking, if they are after something, they cannot be honest. Quote me and put 2020 there (laughs). 

Edith: Definitely, the greatest quote of 2020! 

In the drama we also see Beauty and Bisola, whom I thought were stereotyped based on their appearances. Beauty is constantly referred to as ugly, while Bisola is described as looking like a tiger.  Why did you go this direction with the characters? Choosing to focus on their physical features?

Akayi: For Beauty, the physical appearance was a touch of comedy. It’s an irony to see someone who is not beautiful, being called Beauty. That’s why I wrote in the beginning ‘this character is best played by a male actor.’ Yet, this is someone who is throwing herself at Udoh, like ‘Hey, I am beautiful’; all that was to add comedy. As for her behaviour, we see her as someone who is not strong-willed, but dances to the tune of her mother, and that is common in Nigeria. Mothers have a strong hold on their daughters, because of the ‘I gave birth to you’ mentality and ‘I’ll tell you what to do.’ African mothers are like that; even when you are married, they come to your house and want to tell you what to do and how to do it. So, there is pressure from her mother. And that pressure is real in this part of the world, once you are in your twenties, everyone is on your case, expecting you to get married. Some of the words her mother says in her dialogue are you are even older than Amanda, yet she was able to get married and so, we see Beauty under pain and pressure. 

As for Bisola’s appearance, it was to throw light on tribalism. Traditionally, there are some tribes in Africa that gave facial marks for identification or other reasons. Although in this modern age, those reasons are defeated. But there are still people who have those marks and they get shamed for it. This shaming is a part of tribalism; because you don’t belong to this tribe and they have these marks, you then make jest of them- characters in the play made fun of Bisola over and over because of her appearance. It was to show how people make jest of other tribes because they have peculiar cultures. That’s why I purposely created Bisola with such looks so that it could shed some light on actions which we may not have realized are traits of tribalism. I also had to make the characters interesting and in doing that, I could not have made them to be perfect; they certainly must have flaws.

Edith: And yet Bisola was also an international hooker from Paris, yet she has tribal marks. I thought that was an interesting juxtaposition.

Akayi
Akayi

Akayi: One of the reasons why Bisola had to come from diaspora was to show that Nigerians in Diaspora are not in conflict like when they are at home. When you see an African abroad, you see a brother first, before they are from Kenya, or Nigeria, or Rwanda. Not to talk of when you are from the same nation; you think you are brothers first before you know you are Igbo, or Yoruba or Hausa. But over here, we think we are our tribes first, before considering ourselves to be brothers. Bisola’s role was to make it known that things are not like this in the diaspora. Also, the reason for her to be a hooker was to add a flaw to her character. There had to be a reason for Amanda to say, ‘This one, no, I don’t trust her to take care of my child’.

Edith: In the play Bisola says ‘the time I spent with Amanda in Paris, we were Nigerians, nothing more. Nigerians in diaspora care not whether someone is from North or southern Nigeria’ Makes me wonder what happens when we get back to our countries? Because out there you are just happy to see someone having the same colour of your skin? What is different then? Why are we different abroad than at home?

Akayi: I have an idea, though it may not be the only reason, there are other points to it. But the one point I’d like to make is that when you go abroad, you go to make a better living, and out there, you only think of survival and to make money or even to send money back home for family support; it is mostly about struggles. Hence, you tend to support each other through these struggles in a foreign land. But when you come back home, there is the ‘national cake’ thing going on, and it’s now ‘who has the knife? who will eat? who will not eat?’ Things then change because now there is a struggle (power-struggle), everyone wants to be given the knife to cut the cake and all they want is to ensure that their families or community members are the ones to eat the cake.  It gets even more distorted by the groups we create based on tribe or religion. Imagine the same people who were brothers abroad are now back home saying, ‘I am Yoruba, you are Hausa, we cannot be brothers because we are after the same thing, and my family and tribe comes first.’

Edith: Yes, this makes sense and I agree with you. We try and leverage off our religion, or our tribes, thinking we are superior than others and deserve better than other groups. And Amanda tries to do away with that by naming her child in a very unique way. Because she was dating many men from different tribes at the same time, she didn’t know who her baby’s father was. So, her son has names from all the tribes. What was the purpose of Amanda dating all these men?

Akayi: Amanda’s dating of many men was a metaphor for how we are connected regardless of our differences in tribe, culture or religion. She was the connection, it’s just like a plug that has many wires. Also, in building the character of Amanda, I added that as flaw. I believe every character should have at least one flaw. A mistake some writers make is to idolize central characters; to make them perfect. These characters don’t get angry or have normal human emotions, and it makes them fake. So, Amanda was not perfect. Another reason is, I believe as humans we like freedom and are naturally polygamous, but somehow society and religion has tamed us to stick to one man, one woman. We find out that people get expressive sometimes, though most times they do it on the sly and keep secret relationships. But Amanda is an independent woman with freedom, and she’s dating all these men. And we shouldn’t hide or deny that women are also polygamous; they have the tendency to have more than one partner. Also, women have the same sexual rights as men. It does not mean go out there and be loose, but we have to stop stigmatizing women for having more than one partner, many people do it. Women are usually shamed for having more than one boyfriend, whereas, when men do it, they say ‘boys will be boys.’

Edith: (Laughs). This is all about tradition and sometimes religion. We have set pretentious standards for women. Even in marriage, a cheating man is supposed to be forgiven, prayed for, and accepted back with loving arms and a bowl full of chicken soup. And the ‘Jezebel’ who lured him is to be cursed into the pits of hell. As if the man didn’t have a say in this. But woe unto the woman who cheats. Society will want to throw her in the lake and bind her neck so that she stays sunken. And that’s why I really like what you did with the whole of this play; you reversed all the stereotypes. 

Akayi: I knew I wanted to do a gender role reversal with the play, but when it was done, I was like ‘What, how did I write this, did I really achieve this?’ It was purely artistic motivation that led to that. And we even see the boyfriends scrambling for the child she left behind and by extension, her wealth. It’s hardly heard of. So yes, all this was purposeful. 

Edith: Yes, it’s very rare, and almost unheard of to see men coming back to claim their children after their partner has passed away, especially if they were not married or living together, and the other family members didn’t know them. But tell me, Amanda’s son is named Aminugochifefeleojo from all the men she dated from different tribes because she wants the child to be raised as a Nigerian. It makes sense to me on paper but not theory. Is it possible to be culture-blind? Should we be culture-blind? And say I don’t care whether you are a Muslim or Igbo, I see you as a Nigerian. I think it should be ‘Yes you are a Muslim, yes you are Yoruba, I see that, and I respect that.’ I think it’s important to see and acknowledge our diversity and respect that.

Akayi: As a social realist, I can’t say the drama is telling people to be culture-blind. Your tribe, or religion, doesn’t come first, being human comes first. In this case, being Nigerian comes first. We should put all cultural and religious sentiments and biases behind in order to move forward in unity. You were born human before you were told which culture or religion you belonged to. We cannot be the same, but we are the same. We have to respect that, and not undermine the other.

Our diversity should be a cause for celebration. I love travelling; and when I do that, I like to learn the language, eat the food, and learn the culture of the people in the places I go. Nigeria has over 300 tribes and over 500 languages, that should not be something that causes division, but should bring unity. When you go and greet your neighbour in their language, it’s something that gives them joy, to see that ‘this person is interested in my language.’ Hence, ‘Who Knows Amanda?’ is not turning a blind eye to culture and that is why I used multiple languages and cultural attributes in the play. 

It is a form of advocacy and that’s why art and entertainment is a vital tool in advocacy, because if you just write an article or make a paper presentation, how many people will understand what you are saying? But when you enact it through entertainment, you catch people’s attentions, and could possibly change their line of thoughts. So, this play is a form of advocacy to reach Nigerians and ask them ‘what are you fighting for?’ Our struggle should be collective, it doesn’t matter if the president of Nigeria is from the north or the south. What matters is whether he is doing the needful for the betterment of the nation. It shouldn’t be a case of ‘my brother must be the president’ because the people who agitate for such typically think ‘once my community member is the president, I will be the vice, or I’ll be the local government chairman’, but if we can toss this greed aside and look for an eligible candidate who has the good of the nation at heart, then we will be able to transcend beyond our tribal and religious biases.

Edith: This is deep. And I am glad you are talking about this because there are artists/writers who think that they shouldn’t involve themselves in the politics of their country. What do you think about that?

Akayi: There is an academician in Nigeria, Professor Saint Gbilekaa, who wrote a book called ‘Radical Theatre in Nigeria’—it’s an old book, and he identified some classes of writers including the “Art for Art’s Sake” writers, who write just for the beauty of it. Then you have others as well as the social realists, where I fall under- those who see societal problems and try to address them in their works. As Akayi, I usually say there are two types of writers; those who allow society to shape their writings, and those who shape society with their writings. We can’t always imitate what people do and have done; we have the power to write things into existence. Writers should be critical and logical when they write to make a difference in society. I consciously make sure my writings are saying something to society, sometimes they come as metaphors, but every reader should be able to read beyond the lines. Even when I write poems, they are not just for the sake of being in existence, but to make people think and act.

Edith: I am truly impressed by you! Yes, we have the power to write things into existence. And as we come to an end, there was something else in the play that fascinated me, and that was the extensive music, almost all the characters sang songs. Why was this?

Akayi: In drama, every element assists in telling the story. Music is an element of drama. And I thought ‘why not have songs tell the story, and establish what the characters stand for?’ The music also engages the audience, so that it’s not dialogues from the beginning to end. Some of the things to be said, can be sung.

I made every character sing because I needed to break away from the conventional method of writing drama, where even if there’s music, it’s just the director who says ‘let’s add music’ and even then, it’s the orchestra that sings. But when you have characters sing, it’s almost like a musical, and the people can take home these songs after the production. 

Edith: Oh yeah, I thought it was a bold brilliant experimentation, and it came out so beautifully. I’d really love to see this live on stage. And speaking of stages? How is the theatre industry in Nigeria right now?

Akayi: I tell you; I speak for Nigeria and it could also relate to the world, and to be honest, theatre is suffering because people now have media. Where we have a fair attendance in theatre is mostly in academic settings, in the university space. And sometimes, even the students in that study field (theatre) have to be forced to attend productions. And on the professional level, well, I’ve been to some productions that were supposed to be massive but the turnout was so little. If you are to look at the entire population, people are not aware of theatre performances, and there is not a lot being done to promote the theatre-going culture. The theatre productions themselves, are documented or filmed, and are put online or on TV, which is good because the world is now digital and people can watch from home. But that, of course affects the theatre-going culture. The live experience is different from watching it on TV, hence, we should appreciate and promote theatre-going. 

Edith: Thank you so much Akayi for these great thoughts and for taking the time to speak with me. As I let you go, what are you currently working on? 

Akayi: I am so excited about my next work. It is almost done. I have a new drama that I plan to release next year; I’m still adding finishing touches to it. But apart from drama, there is also my collection of poetry, that centres around life and death, the philosophy of life that is. I can’t wait to put it out there.  

Thank you too for having this conversation with me. 

Edith Knight Magak

Edith Knight Magak is a creative writer and a 2020 Writing Fellow at African Liberty. Prior publication credits include Brittle PaperJalada AfricaMeeting of Minds UKJellyfish Review, among others. She lives and writes in Nairobi, Kenya. Find her on Twitter @oedithknight

EDITH KNIGHT MAGAK

INTERVIEWER

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