Donna Ogunnaike’s unconventional poetry, dance and art installation project, Strelitzia, made a big splash at the Lagos Theatre Festival when it debuted last year.
Since then, Ogunnaike has performed Strelitzia at the World Cultures Festival in Hong Kong as Nigeria’s sole theatre entry. Strelitzia is back to the Lagos Theatre Festival this year (27, February to 4, March) as one of the curated shows.
The title is taken from a plant of South African origin. After blossoming from their buds the bright colors, and shape of the petals of the Strelitia, resemble the plumage of a beautiful bird.
In the same spirit, Ogunnaike with Strelitzia, asks her audience, called ‘’story bearers’’ at the end of the installation, to unburden themselves, leave behind some of the hurt, pen something on a wall of thoughts and exit through a separate door than the one they came in from. That way, they go into the outside world ready to blossom. Hopefully.
It is a lot to ask, or even to expect from any one person or show, but Strelitzia at least puts in the work that leads to the making of such a request in the end. Strelitzia is a maze of memories, each one housing human emotions that anyone who has ever lived in Nigeria- or lived at all- is sure to relate to.
The booming male voice of the guide welcomes story bearers into the maze, first into a room that is essentially a pictorial history of Nigeria. Old newspaper clippings and pictures of political figures like Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Obafemi Awolowo and Fela Kuti take pride of place on the walls. Food items, music appliances and jingles from ancient adverts, once as popular as the national anthem conspire to invoke the spirit of nostalgia.
Under the timely guidance of the light bearer, Strelitzia uncovers a wide range of memories, many of which may have been conveniently forgotten. A young man has to deal with the loss of his mother, another wants desperately to wake up from a night mare. The latter performance features a young semi-nude man writhing in agony and urging story bearers in a tear streaked voice, to get on with their journey.
Out of the blue, comes the sensual memory, featuring a female dancer moving sensuously and energetically behind a transparent sheet to Zayn Malik’s Pillow Talk. According to Ogunnaike, the position of this particular memory is quite deliberate as the idea is to replicate how sexual thoughts just pop out of the human mind, seemingly of their own volition.
Haunting, melodious live music is supplied by a guitarist/vocalist who ushers story bearers gently into the pages of a diary as assembled by the poet, Ogunnaike. Within these pages, Ogunnaike makes effective use of spoken word to narrate stories of love and loss, war and redemption. A cocksure young man learns for the first time, the bitterness of heartbreak. A beautiful intern is betrayed by a friend she holds in high esteem. None of these monologues are subtle, all are meant to take advantage of the pliant story bearers- because who wouldn’t be after going through the previous rooms within the maze?- and badger them into submission.
The purpose however isn’t to break but bend, as Ogunnaike soon assures her captive audience of the beauty in their individuality. By the time she points to the wall, she has arrived at a post-cathartic moment and only the hardest of hearts can resist the chance to symbolically lay off some of their burden.
The experience of Strelitzia is at once singular, yet collective. It aims for a higher level of artistry and seeks to heal, even if for the briefest of moments.
Whether it succeeds in doing so is a personal journey into person, place and time that story bearers have to come to on their own. Some may arrive at the common destination, many won’t but if there is one thing Strelitzia teaches, it is that the journey is more important than the destination.