“You don’t have to be Black, African or Nigerian to get it. It’s a play about resistance, solidarity and joy.”
The joy of activism and sisterly solidarity are centre stage in a play about African women taking a stand.
Nigerian playwright lanaire aderemi is telling a story that has remained at the margins of history in ‘protests, hymns and caskets’, part of Coventry’s biennial Shoot Festival.
Set in the 1940s, the play tells the story of the Abeokuta Women’s Revolt, also known as the Egba Women’s Tax Riot, when how thousands of women formed a union to take a stand against the oppressive policies of the British colonial powers.
Aderemi, 22, whose grandmother witnessed the women’s revolt when she was young, will be staging the play at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre on Thursday 28 and Friday 29 April.
She says: “I was attracted by the fearless activism of the women. A lot of the discourse in the African political movement is very male-centred and post 1960s, after independence. The ways women shaped spaces during the colonial era are often lost in time.”
When two World Wars caused food shortages and economic hardship in Britain, the Colonial Office instructed their officials in Nigeria to seize food, to impose price controls and food quotas, and to increase tax so that Britain could recover.
Women, who were excluded from positions of power, were hit hard by the taxes. In response, they formed the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU), bringing market women and educated women together and marking a turning point in history.
“These women were super organised and so creative with their resistance,” says Aderemi. “They started by using petitions, but they soon realised that wasn’t going to be effective.
“So they began to implement radical ways of bargaining, including strikes and protests. Women began withdrawing their labour to affect the revenue of the British and to show how exploited they felt as a people.”
The uprising culminated in upward of 10,000 women descending on the King’s palace, bravely protesting in what was considered to be a sacred space. In her work, and in her ideas about protest, Aderemi says playfulness is key.
“I think of protest as a playground, and theatre is a good space for protest and exploring play,” she says. “Protest requires a repertoire including song, chants, and mutual support. These are things children also use in the playground, singing, chanting, asking each other for help or a push on the swings or down the slide. We see similar interactions in protest.
“I try to make my work playful, using a lot of improvisation and encouraging the actors to be free and collaborative and to explore this form of storytelling. And play isn’t always peaceful!”
While a local headteacher, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (mother of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti), is credited for leading the formation of the Abeokuta Women’s Union, Aderemi takes a non-hierarchical approach in her storytelling.
She says: “There’s power in the collective. There’s no one main character in the play because, for me, those women are one. That’s drawn from African theatrical techniques, where drama is used for debate.
“I am less interested in the audience remembering a character. I want them to remember the ideas the characters are bringing to the stage.
“The message for today’s audiences is that there’s power in unity. These women united and, even in their manifesto, we see every member as equal. Even though you might have differences, you are all focused on the same goal – removing the taxation. They had a clear vision and that’s something that could inspire people today.”
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Aderemi, a PhD researcher in literary practice at the University of Warwick, draws inspiration from Bertolt Brecht, Ntozake Shange, Wole Soyinka and William Shakespeare. Influenced by the idea of “total theatre”, the play combines music, voice, dance, art and drama. And instead of following a linear timeline, there are flashbacks and flashforwards.
A central theme of ‘protests, hymns and caskets’ is the impact of colonialism and its long-lasting legacy.
Aderemi says: “This play is set in the 1940s and someone might say these characters are no longer in slavery, but this taxation was an economic form of slavery. Women couldn’t take care of their children. They couldn’t plan for their future because of this direct taxation. Policies like that have huge impacts on ordinary people’s lives.”
She adds: “The legacy we see today is in policing and police brutality which has grown out of the colonial machinery. Different times require different methods of protest but one thing these women had was an anti-imperialist stance. They knew that imperialism, colonialism and gender go hand-in-hand and they adopted a very intersectional approach and response.
“Their use of strikes was clever because they recognised their labour was instrumental in the economy. It’s the idea of the union – being part of a collective. You can never achieve your goal alone – you need to unite with other people.”
She adds: “You don’t have to be Black, African or Nigerian to get it. It’s a play about resistance, solidarity and joy. There is so much joy in activism and knowing that someone has your back. The play is about the reclamation of joy by women who wouldn’t let it be stolen.”
The 45-minute play is the first in a double-bill playing at The Belgrade Theatre on Thursday 28 and Friday 19 April. Performance: In Bloom is part of the biennial Shoot Festival, which runs until May 7 and is being presented as part of Coventry’s year as UK City of Culture. Find tickets here.
All Images by Thom Bartley