Akolo James Anthony is a playwright, theatre director, songwriter and educationist with the Jos Repertory Theatre Company. Incidentally, he just debuted his first musical, Brother Jonah’s Vocation at the JRT’s 1Festival of Theatre. The Education Graduate speaks with LEADERSHIP Books & Arts on the technical challenges of producing a musical in Nigeria, and how the creative industry’s engagement with scientists, technologists can innovate locally, the needs of the sector.
Before debuting into musical theatre with “Brother Jonah’s Vocation”, you have been writing plays and songs for JRT’s performances. How and when did your interests divert to the musical theatre?
Musical theatre has always been there. As a matter of fact, I have always wanted to do musicals. However, I believe there has to be a starting point for everything. As I was just new into theatre (he studied Religion Education), and I wasn’t so sure of my songs, in terms of compositions and my earlier plays didn’t seem right for musical. How did you know ‘Brother Jonah’s Vocation’ is meant to be a musical production? When I wrote Brother Jonah’s Vocation, the first draft was a play. It was a bare play, along the line the story told of a musician, who lacked a viable means of living. A producer, Brother Jonah had a girlfriend who often sings the lead in his productions. Quite often, during their arguments, she tried to persuade him to migrate to Lagos, the city more favourable to creatives. When I looked at the plot, I realised it centered on characters who are musicians. So, I thought to myself, why not make it a musical theatre? And so, I did.
How did you go about the different elements that makes it a musical? I mean the technical aspect, dances and songs. You wrote and composed the songs, right?
It is a very long process. We had 13 songs in Brother Jonah’s Vocation. It is not a Broadway kind of musical. We tried to make it as Nigerian as possible. While I kept musing on the story after the play draft, somehow, the songs kept coming to me. At some point, a song comes even when I am off that particular script, but it fit in; so, I put that in. The technical aspect was quite a challenge as I had to work with a local band that caters to the conventional kind of musical performances like highlife, Afro pop songs which they play at parties, birthdays and naming ceremonies. But, they were wonderful, and willing to venture into the unfamiliar and the new. It became something of an adventure for us all.
I had two other songwriters working with me, Elijah James, my younger brother, who wrote the song ‘Saviour’ in the musical, but it was cutoff the production since we had just an hour and thirty minutes time limit for plays at the festival. Emmanuel Inyang Ekpe, songwriter, guitarist and the main character in the production composed the introductory number to the musical, ‘My Dream’. I wrote the other 11 songs. Both were able to buy into the dream of this musical that, they helped flesh out some of my half-composed songs with their song writing, piano and guitar skills. We worked as a team to develop the songs. We brought in a choreographer, director, OsasogieGuobadia. She oversaw the movements in the play. The rap song in the play, was written by Sunny Adahson. I wrote the song and the beat, but had Adahson write the rap verse in the song. The sound technics in the play was particularly challenging because it is new, and it is an open-air production; the actors must use certain technologies like the lapel mics, those were the technical challenges we had to work around.
How did the peculiar problems in the environment affect or influence your production?
It did in the sense that the ear-microphones and lapel mics fluctuated when picking sounds during performance, when the performers were singing. That was heartbreaking for me, and threw the performers a little off-balance, but their professionalism maintained the rhythm of the performance. It affected their lines in some way, thinking as they are, “Are people listening?” “Can they hear me?” as the sounds fluctuated. Although, we had positive reviews from the audience. It affected the outcome of the production. if I had to do this again, I would go the extra-mile to ensure the technicalities are onpoint.
Are there other ways you think we can make our musicals work hand-in-hand with the situation on-hand or our environment, rather than aim for a Broadway-type musical?
Usually, people say ‘make do with what you have’. I agree, but I also believe that shouldn’t be enough. I believe also that while making do with what you have, are you aiming higher? To illustrate, as an employee, you kept keep toiling at your job just to feed. You aim higher to build a house or buy a car. So, while I make do with what’s on ground for my production, you can see that we are aiming for a certain excellence. I don’t believe we should get stuck in the nomenclature, ‘third world’. If China can become so advanced in technology today, we can do so in Africa. The art helps to motivate inventions.
While the movie industries around the world aim higher, scientists are inventing sophisticated cameras to make filming better. That’s how art unites and connects with science. When professionals realise the run-of-the-mill-cameras they use cannot meet our production’s needs, some scientists go to work to solve that problem. I think it is high time, we involved the technologists and scientists in Nigeria, to locally produce lapel mics, or craft local and cheaper technologies that can solve our production needs. I am not the type that will give up if I don’t have all I want, neither would I stop with just what’s available.
Musicals often demand that performers be a triple threat – dance, sing and act. How did you balance the singing, dancing and acting rhythm of the performance and of the actors, did this happen to be their debut in musical as well?
This was a challenge. The lead actress in the production, is a dancer who I brought in for the performance. The major challenge was in keeping up the energy/stamina of the cast. You can hear them panting out their lines after a long dance and song to catch their breath. For a reproduction, I will start physical exercises with the actors. We will go hiking, jogging, road walks to develop stamina. We didn’t have time to do the physical exercises for this premiere production.
Having written most of the songs in this production, how does that compare with adapting songs like you did with the company’s production of Kytice last year?
Composing new songs and adapting songs are exciting activities for me. Also, for me, it is much easier to compose than adapt songs. With adaption, you are sort of getting into the soul of the original composer to voice and merge it with your own soul. But in composing your own songs, you simply delve deep within yourself. There are a few musicals, even a recent cartoon that I saw which adapted a lot of John Legend’s songs and a few hip-hop numbers; but to do such successfully, you have to ensure it fits into the story.
With song adaptations, one runs the risk of being cheesy and out-of-sync, which was my experience of Kytice. The timing of the song with the scenes was just too contrived, and the adaptation of gospel choruses into songs used to fade, open scenes and end acts were just too poor. What happened there?
In that production, the actors we worked with were not professional singers. They act, but they were not excellent musicians. Hmm, it isn’t just about the way the songs were performed, it is the songs themselves, their arrangement that screams they were simply adapted to fit into, rather than building the mood or advancing a scene. You can chuck that as part of my apprenticeship period or the experimental stage with musical. I noticed that too.
You do Radio scripting, with two radio scripts to your belt, Common Ground, and Our Children Are Talking. What peaked your interest in Radio Drama?
To pay the bills. I have not been too keen on radio though, it is something I can do. I heard of the job, there were bills to pay, so I took it up. However, it turned out quite exciting and educational, because with the radio drama, Our Children Are Talking, I realised it is more difficult to script for children.
What were the challenges?
Sometimes, you are struggling to get their diction, vocabulary, to get into their psyche, the way they think and speak. In addition, it is a radio drama to be acted by children, not adults mimicking children’s voices. Sometimes, I had to revert to my childhood memories to figure out how I felt or reacted to similar situations as in the script. Sometimes, after a script reading, you realise certain vocabularies are above their heads, other times scripting scenes that excite children’s imagination and reactions are quite hard. With the kids you have to roll with the comedic, or at least not so serious scenarios. I assume at some point you had to work with the children to interpret their lines and delivery. What is it like working with the children? We (the scriptwriter and the playwright) had to be with the director and the producer at the studios.
We are often asked to work with the kids, keep on explaining and turn yourself into a child, to get them to loosen up and feel at ease with you to deliver. And these kids have no experience in acting? Most of them. A popular Nollywood actor had lamented the lack of child actors in Nigeria. In your opinion, why is that? It is the culture. We still have this reservation about acting in our society. If a child shows interest in Law, Medical Sciences, Engineering, it is greatly encouraged, even thrust on the child. Acting is a no, no. For some parents, acting is immoral. In a world, where we want our children to pursue professional vocations as mentioned above, it is hard. Football, was once like that. Parents didn’t like their children choosing football as a career path in the past; but today, with the likes of Mikel Obi, KanuNwankwo making a good living off the sports, parents are open to their children playing ball as a job. We will get to this point with acting as well. Once, those of us who faced similar challenges of being forced into the wrong field, are seen successful and accomplished, not necessarily in finances, but in works that make our people proud, they will let their children act.
Do you think that despite parents’ understandable over-protectiveness of their children, seeing the way most child actors around the globe turn out, that we should concentrate on the aspect of acting as a paying job?
To focus on children from the not-so-wellto-do parts of our society, and persuade them to support acting careers for their kids, by assuring them via working with and paying their children, that the profession pays? That would be a good move. Last year, I assisted in the faculty of education to teach drama in early childhood education. We are embarking on a research, using some children’s stories I have written to be published soon, which will be adapted by a professor on early childhood education into theatric performances.
The research will look at the aforementioned avenues, whereby we visit some of the less privileged school to enact theatre works, teach them to act and to learn through acting. The suggestion is a good one. It is similar to what the Igbos did in the initial days of the colonial era, where the elites sent off the children of the less privileged and slaves in their society to stay and receive ‘Whiteman’s education’, as a sort of experimentation project to judge the outcome of that scenario. What happened was that before they realised it, the children of the slaves had caught-up, even surpassing theirs at the time.