There weren’t enough black roles; everybody had to go up for the same characters. I didn’t want to be in a crab-in-the-bucket situation, so I decided to create my own characters.
These are the words of British-Nigerian playwright Bola Agbaje, a 21st century Alaroye. For many, the change from actress to playwright may seem daunting, but for Bola it was a natural transition. In Yoruba culture the alaroye, or storyteller, has always existed and played an important part in recording and relaying the Yoruba experience. Telling stories is in her blood. Bola just had to find a way to do it.
Despite being the new kid on the block, the 26 year-old has already begun leaving her mark in the theatre world. Her prize for winning the Royal Court Young Writers Festival, in 2006, was having her first play Gone Too Far commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre, which premiered in February 2007. The play was such a success it went on to win a Laurence Olivier Award in theatres – the equivalent of an Oscar.
Speaking of her award, Bola says: ‘I’m still shocked. Gone Too Far exceeded everyone’s expectations. You don’t expect to win an award of that magnitude for your very first play.’ Gone Too Far explores the cultural and racial tensions through a day in the life of two brothers and the people they meet. The success of the play is a combination of Bola’s ability to tell a good story and the visual artistry of director Bijan Shebani, who Bola speaks highly of. ‘He knew what the play was about and he had his own creative ideas that he put into it which made it work even better.’
For her audience to enjoy the play and relate to the subject matter, it was important that she had full support from the Royal Court. ‘When a theatre commissions a play, they become the producers and Dominic Cooke, the artistic director for the Royal Court, was very interested in new ideas.
With public works of art comes criticism. With one critic stating that Gone Too Far needed ‘more action and less talk’ it becomes clear that not everyone recognises the strengths of the oral tradition of storytelling. Conscious of the criticism that have followed her success, the British-Nigerian beauty is philosophical. ‘Absord the good points and the criticism, then disregard the rest – or you’ll be writing for reviewers, instead of your audience,’ she says.
Not content with filling seats in the UK, Bola Agbaje’s sights are set on Nigeria; her ambitions are tied in with her passion for going back to her roots and the huge potential she sees there. Wanting to try her hand at scriptwriting, Bola enthuses about Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry. ‘I want to write some good Nollywood films. There are a lot of young black directors that want to get into Nollywood; they have the skills to take over. Nollywood will beat Hollywood one day – trust me.
Gone Too Far is making a comeback this summer. Bola remains excited. ‘I’m not interested in starting at the top and then making my way down. I’m not a one-hit wonder. Usher said it best when he said he wants to keep on doing what he does and doing it so well that you won’t forget him. This isn’t the peak for me.’