It’s big, it’s bold and it’s politically charged. Brace yourselves: “Wakaa! The Musical” is coming.
The hit Nigerian show by Bolanle Austen-Peters is due to transfer to London’s West End in July, making it the first Nigerian musical to make it to the British capital.
It’s no small feat to land a slot in London’s world-class theater district, but the sell-out musical by Terra Kulture has pedigree, playing to 10,000 people over twelve shows in Lagos earlier this year. The show was so popular during its first stint, people were offering to pay to stand in the aisles, according to Austen-Peters.
That wasn’t permitted of course, nor will it be at the Shaw Theater on July 22, when it opens its doors once more. So what can the theater-goers of London expect?
Describing itself as “a play about the trials, successes and experiences of young graduates from varied backgrounds,” “Wakaa! The Musical” follows the fate of a group of friends after a wager is struck at graduation. Set to popular music, it’s part social commentary, part satire, but all singing and dancing.
Austen-Peters turned to musicals just two years ago. The trained lawyer and businesswoman had been in the theater industry for 12 years, but a trip to Broadway turned her attention to the stage’s most flamboyant genre.
“I was inspired by watching ‘Fela!’,” she says. “I thought: these are Nigerian stories, we should be telling them.”
“Saro: The Musical” was Austen-Peter’s first musical venture, priming Nigerian audiences for “Wakaa!”, her second genre piece to take to the stage.
“Big musicals in Lagos — it’s something that’s never been done before,” she says. “We’re opening up a landscape,” and aiding artists “who have never had a platform before.”
Like Rex, one of the characters in her play, Austen-Peter says that Nigerian performers who have trained abroad often struggle to find success away from home. Now she’s proving they can have success on home soil and take it abroad.
“We should start exporting products, especially culture, from Nigeria,” she argues, adding that the Nigerian Ministry of Culture has been one of her supporters in the transition to the English stage.
Even the president is a fan
Political satire is never far from sight in “Wakaa!”, and Austen-Peters reveals that four of the musical’s characters are based in part on prominent figures from within the Nigerian political sphere. She won’t reveal all the names, but admits a character “very influential, but not particularly educated” was inspired by Patience Jonathan, the wife of former president Goodluck Jonathan.
“It’s very critical — it’s a social commentary,” she says, although argues that it is “not confrontational” in its tone. It’s an approach that’s won her many fans, including current president Muhammed Buhari, who caught a performance earlier this year.
Austen-Peters sees the burgeoning genre of Nigerian musicals as an opportunity, and says that central to her motivation is that “we’re creating lots of jobs … something I’ve always wanted to do.” Previously outsourced cottage industries such as costume designing are now being done in-house, as well as training for technical roles.
“We can rival any of the big institutions in the world,” she argues. “I believe we can do exactly what is being done in England and America.”