In Calabar, Cross River State, UK-based dramatist, Moji Kareem, directs James Ene Henshaw’s popular play, This is our Chance. She speaks with AKEEM LASISI
In the past two decades or so, Moji Kareem has participated as a director in the well-structured theatre industry in the United Kingdom. Although she studied at the University of Calabar before she left Nigeria in the 1980s, she soon found a conducive environment to activate her passion for literature when she migrated to the Queen’s land.
After what now seems like an age, she began to explore the possibility of returning to Nigeria. It may not be too much of homesickness, but the thinking became more real when her daughter chose to come to Lagos after graduating in the UK.
A good opportunity to relocate to Nigeria came for Kareem last year when James Henshaw, a son of the late popular playwright, James Ene Henshaw, approached her to direct This is our Chance, to be staged as part of the 2013 edition of the Calabar Carnival. It was a call Kareem was too eager to honour. Interestingly, she had wanted to stage the play in London before. She had actually approached James, who was also teaching in the UK then. But he asked her to hold on as he wanted the debut show in Calabar, where it eventually came alive.
Many people who saw the play say it was very impressive. “Despite some of the challenges we faced, I think we achieved the target beyond my wildest dream,” Kareem enthuses. “I mean the state governor (Liyel Imoke) and his wife (Mrs. Obioma Imoke) got up when I was called on stage. I mean it’s not many times in a life time that something like this happens – where the governor of a state, his wife and members of his cabinet stand up for you when you are called. The play was very well received. The actors were very happy. I don’t know if you have ever had an experience like this where something happens and you want to pinch yourself. If you know what the company had to go through to get to that point, you will not even believe that it is possible.”
On her focus for the performance, she says she wanted the audience to celebrate the culture and tradition of the writer because she appreciates the fact that the play itself was written for a general African audience, which was one of the reasons why he used names like Danba, Bambulu, Ansah and the like. According to her, the names are actually from African countries and that’s why the play was widely received across the African continent.
She adds, “Because the government supported this particular play and being a part of the carnival, I felt there was the need to really capture even the immediate culture of the people. The producer wasn’t in agreement with me about this to start up with. He wanted the play to just follow the line the way the father wrote it, which, in so far as there is African costume and vision, is on the line of celebrating Africa generally. But I felt that we were in Calabar, we were among Efik people who have a very strong and rich culture, let’s celebrate that. So that was the first point for me to start up with. And layered on top of that is the whole idea of African storytelling.
“I am a very big fan of Hubert Ogunde and I like the way he tells stories. It is exactly on that basis where the actors are story tellers. They use all of their body, voice and might to tell the story. So there was a lot of singing, dancing, we experimented with a whole range of things. If you are there, the idea is you will never be bored.”
One thing that made the job tasking for Kareem is that she had to handle about 60 people, including set designers, set makers, costume designers, actors and dancers. And these were people she would be working with for the first time. Besides, most of the people are older than her, including heads of departments, senior lecturers within the university and obviously in the midst of their students. It was also obvious to her that most of them were not used to working with a female director.
She notes that she had to help some of them to overcome some attitudinal issues. She had to drop his first lead actor who got so drunk one day that he could not mount the stage for rehearsal. She also had to go very tough on some who were incurable late comers.
Kareem notes, “The first week when we first started, we had a meeting. I explained how I work, that I cannot tolerate lateness in any way, shape or form. I’m quite obsessed with time-keeping. Most of the people who have worked with me in the past would say if you can just come on time, she will be as sweet as a pie to you. But I can’t tolerate any sort of lateness, any sort of indiscipline. I just feel that for you to achieve something, you have to put everything into it. That whatever you put into it is what you get out of it. And if I’m not late, why would you be late? So that was difficult.
“The first week they sort of came and left as they pleased. Some of them would not come on time. After a while, I had to introduce the fine system where if you are late you are fined N500, which would be deducted off your wage and if you don’t come at all and haven’t given 24 hours notice as to why you wouldn’t turn up, N5,000 would be deducted from your wage. So that in itself means for some people they may end up losing the whole of their wages, obviously if they don’t turn up.
“I remember the first person that lost his N5,000 said to me, ‘Oh madam, I thought you were joking and I was like: Do I look like I am joking? For me, it is good that I have this soft side which people can misinterpret and think she’s just a small girl. I can be very nice but at the same time, where work is concerned, I can be very tough if I have to be.”
At the end of the experience, the James Henshaw Foundation has established a theatre group that will later take the play round the country and beyond. Besides, James and Kareem say there are similar projects the foundation will undertake. This is a development that will not only keep her busy at present, but also making real her dream to be back in the country.
Kareem says she is the first among the 23 children of her father.
Her words, “So, in a way I will say that my growing up has bred me for this profession because when you think of it directing is really people management. The artistic side of, it if you have it; you have it. If you don’t have it, you can learn it.”