Seeing culture in stereo, not mono
Colin Murphy speaks to theatre director Bisi Adigun about ‘intercultural Ireland', making Christy Mahon Nigerian and the troubled end to his stint on RTÉ
It is late on a Friday night and, in a room in a Council building off Talbot St, seven Nigerians, one South African, one Cameroonian, one Ghanaian and one American are rehearsing a play.
The director can't sit still. He jumps up from his seat, throws his arms out, interrupts, shouts. “Start again!” he barks at someone. Somebody else does well: “Love the emotion baby!” Someone is leaving early: “Goodnight and God bless,” he roars.
At the back of the room, Segun Akanwo keeps up a steady rhythm on an African drum. The director gives a signal, and he lifts the tempo. A parade starts, and the cast dance around the stage area with understated, shuffling steps, chanting and lilting. It is infectious – literally. Now the director is up too, swinging his hips as he shuffles his feet from side to side, shooting his hands in the air, yelping. Then it calms again, and the stage is left empty, and quiet. A lone actor walks on.
“What a freakin' mess,” she drawls. “Well, I suppose folks must have their customs.”
The play is over 40-years-old, written by one of Ghana's foremost writers, Ama Ata Aidoo, when she was just 23. But the cultural clash it describes, between “Western” and African norms, is probably more acute for an Irish audience today than it would have been in the 1960s.
It tells the story of a newly-arrived immigrant to Ghana – a black American woman who moves to Ghana with her Ghanaian husband. She is like something out of a Rudyard Kipling story: her pet name for her husband is “Native Boy”, and underneath her thrill at being in Africa, she is terrified and intimidated by a culture she sees as unsophisticated and “savage”. The cultural conflict comes to a head when she “fails” to produce a baby a year into the marriage, and his family try to have her “cleansed”. Though the themes are serious, it could be a Ghanaian equivalent of The Importance of Being Earnest: a comedy of manners where cultural and class conflicts come to a head over the issue of childbirth.
The director is Bisi Adigun, a Nigerian who now calls himself Irish, and who is best known for presenting a series on RTÉ television a few years back, Mono. There's a simple reason behind his choosing this play, he says: “to show there's diversity amongst black people”.
“To Irish people, every black person is the same.”
Bisi Adigun has been at the forefront of what many would call “multiculturalism” in Ireland since fronting Mono. Yet he disavows the term now.
“To call Ireland a multicultural society is a waste of time.”
Instead, he speaks of Ireland being “intercultural”.
“What it means in Ireland is that you have one dominant culture. You are better off here if you are white, married, middle-class, settled, Irish. An unequal distribution of power exists and the other cultures, that are minor, are trying to interact with that dominant culture.
“If you realise this, you can do something about it. ‘Multiculturalism' glosses over this.
“Somebody says: ‘Hey, how can I be racist – I went to a multicultural food festival the other day!' That's multiculturalism at work.”
He has another theatre project ongoing: a new version of The Playboy of the Western World, with Christy Mahon and his father as Nigerians arriving in an Irish town.
Christy Mahon, he says, is like an asylum seeker.
“It's not what you are running away from that gets you ‘status' [as a refugee], it's how you tell your story.”
Bisi Adigun co-wrote it with Roddy Doyle, working together two nights a week for eight months.
“That was the first example of intercultural theatre in my life. Every word of it was negotiated. If I died after that, I would die happy.”
Adigun has support from Dublin City Council's arts office for the current production, and is using a rehearsal space in their arts building, The Lab on Foley St. The table in front of him is cluttered with scribbled notes and scripts, and on top is a primary school children's book, with pictures of everyday objects and their words in Yoruba, Adigun's Nigerian tongue.
He bought it for his daughter on a recent trip to Nigeria, and now is using it to show his stage crew – who are all Irish – what props he needs. Where the script calls for a broom, he shows them the picture. “This is a broom.” A broom in rural Africa is a tied bunch of dried grasses, and not something bought in Tesco.
His daughter is three, and “mixed-race”. Adigun's work is all about identity – so what is his daughter's identity?
“It's hard for me to ascertain what her identity is. As time goes on, she will identify it, and the environment will contribute to that also.
“She's in an environment where a lot of people will see her as a bottle half empty, whereas I will see her as a bottle half full. She's a mixture of two things, but in this part of the world, if you are mixed, then you are at a disadvantage. I hope she gets the best from the two cultures because in any culture there's always a good thing. I see it [having two cultures] as two of the best things that can happen to people. If she's lacking something in Ireland, I want her to know she can reach out to something else.”
Bisi Adigun grew up in the Yoruba region of southern Nigeria. He studied dramatic arts, and gradually picked up work in television, before deciding to broaden his horizons and move to London in his late-20s.
Ireland wasn't on those horizons until he needed to leave the UK to have a visa renewed. “A week before I came to this country, if someone said to me, you're going to still be here in 10 years, going to be married here...” He rhapsodises about the Ireland that he found when he came here, 10 years ago.
“Then, you could park on a yellow line! The traffic then was like traffic now on a long bank holiday weekend.”
Dublin then was like a traffic warden, he says, who waves you on with a smile or a wink, “flexible”. London was the opposite, a traffic light. Ireland has lost something since, some of its “humanity”.
“It's when you're stripped of that materialism that you actually know there's more than materialism. It's when you're poor that you actually know who your friends are.”
In Dublin, he got involved in outreach arts work, devising a show, Africa Live, which he brought to schools. “I would say to them, ‘If Bisi is African, what are you?' ‘Irish!' they'd shout. ‘No,' I'd say. ‘You're comparing one of the smallest countries in the world with one of the biggest continents...'”
He already had a degree in dramatic arts, and in Dublin added two MAs, one in drama studies and one in film and television. The usual mixture of luck and contacts led to an audition for a new series on “multicultural issues” being put together by RTÉ, Mono. He got the job, and lasted a couple of seasons before being “kicked out”.
“When we started, it was supposed to be a public broadcasting thing, to educate, inform, entertain. But then they [RTÉ] decided to tender it to an independent production company. Rather than being about the remit, it became about the profit for the company. Our input [as presenters] became less valid than when it was in-house in RTÉ. He became disenchanted, and the nadir was reached when they did an interview with a South African woman in Mountjoy prison who had been convicted of drug smuggling.
“There was a zoom in up close of [the] woman crying, saying, ‘I want you to forgive me; how can I have couriered drugs into Ireland.'”
He thought this was crass, and incompatible with their brief of promoting interculturalism. He didn't walk out then, but found himself in increasing conflict with the producers. Ultimately, he was fired.
“It was a very harrowing experience, one of the darkest periods of my life in this country. But you have to pick yourself up.”
He threw himself into other projects: he had signed up for a PhD, and put together an African variety show for the 2003 St Patrick's Festival. That led to being asked to put on a show for the Dublin Fringe Festival, and that led him to start his theatre company, Arambe, with the aim of giving members of Ireland's African communities the opportunity “to express themselves through the art of theatre”. (The name “Arambe” is coined from the Yoruba saying “ara m be ti mo fe da”, meaning “there are wonders that I want to perform”, and the Swahili word harambee, meaning “work together”.)
He has no plans for further work in television, though it's a medium that continues to interest him. For now, he is mixing his doctoral studies with theatre. It hasn't been easy: there is a Nigerian saying, “a corpse that has been buried for three months is no longer a stranger in the graveyard” – but he has found it does not apply in Ireland.
“People still look at me as if I just arrived yesterday. They say, ‘are you enjoying your stay?' I walk into a pub and they look at me as if to say, ‘how do you get the confidence to walk in here?'” For all that, Ireland is home. “I've achieved my dreams here, for God's sake. I've a beautiful wife, a daughter...”
And he has a mission.
"Ireland is no longer [just] white, Catholic, settled Ireland. It is now diverse. New songs must be written. New dances must be done. New stories must be written, for those who are coming after us. New stories must be created, because it's a story that becomes history.
“New stories must be told, that's all.” The Dilemma of a Ghost has finished its run in the Project Arts Centre, Dublin.
For information on Playboy and other Arambe productions, see www.arambeproductions.com