Donna Ogunnaike: Where Law and Poetry Meet
Donna Ogunnaike is an accomplished Nigerian poet and writer. She is also an expert on energy law. One of the most compelling voices on the performance poetry scene in Nigeria, she has been praised as the “Queen of Spoken Word Poetry in Nigeria” (2013) by the respected EGC Platform.
Ogunnaike is a partner in the law firm Adepetun, Caxton-Martins, Agbor & Segun, and has earned the prized ranking of Rising Star in 2014 and 2015 from IFLR 1000 for the world’s leading lawyers and financial firms. When she is not providing expert advice, Ogunnaike invests her energy in performed poetry. She has been a judge of several poetry slams and was formerly a co-coordinator of the well-established Nigerian platform for expression, Freedom Hall, where she is also a regular act. She also performs regularly on other platforms like Taruwa and Word Up, and was a facilitator at their event The Business of Spoken Word in Nigeria in 2014.
In addition, Ogunnaike has performed at such significant events as Nigeria’s 1st Cultural Trade Show (2014) tagged Business Meets Culture and hosted by the Nigerian-German Business Association, as well as the Lagos Black Heritage Festival, WS 80 (celebrating Professor Wole Soyinka) and more recently, The Lagos Theatre Festival.
In 2014, she featured in the National Month of Poetry: Uplifting Verses from 11 Strong Female Poets, organised by ONE.ORG. Here, she was the only Nigerian, and elected alongside greats like Maya Angelou and Naomi Shihab Nye.
In this interview with Omenka, she discusses her play Strelitzia, her participation at this year’s edition of the Lagos Theatre Festival and future plans.
As a lawyer, you have achieved international recognition for your outstanding work in the energy and banking sectors of the Nigerian economy. How did your interest in poetry and theatre begin?
My interest in poetry began long before I thought of becoming a lawyer. My English teacher, Mrs Emily Duncan, who identified my gift in my writings inspired me to study literature by. At the time, I wrote personal philosophies – I had been writing from when I was 13 or 14 years old.
When I was 11 or 12 years old, students from my school (Atlantic Hall Co-Ed Secondary School) were taken to watch Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka at the National Theatre, Iganmu. I remember how transfixed and breathless it left me. The play featured Taiwo Ajayi-Lycett, Toyin Osinaike, I think Joke Silva and a host of other marvellous performers (I later found out that a young Yinka Davies was also on stage at the event). I could not take my eyes off the stage and followed the story closely till the very end. It was from that day I knew the love of theatre was deeply rooted within me. I daydreamed about stage performances for over 2 decades before I finally got the chance to perform in a theatrical production, although I had done some drama in secondary school and in The National Youth Service Corps camp.
Queen of Spoken Word Poetry in Nigeria”, is one of many accolades you have garnered in your career as a poet. How have you managed to achieve such recognition in a field only recently exclusively dominated in Nigeria by men, considering your day job as a lawyer?
I am mostly gender-blind, perhaps even to my detriment sometimes. I don’t see myself as a woman in a man’s world; I see myself as a spirit being inhabiting a body in a world with other spirit beings. And if what is said is true, in spirit form, we have no gender.
This makes me open with a bang every door that needs to be moved regardless of who is standing on the other side. Life is too short to be overly conscious of the gender of anyone standing in your way – if you need to move, then, by all means, do so.
I am happy to share these words I caution myself with; keep the fight burning, make the sacrifices necessary and be determined to succeed – be cautious not to do anything that contravenes your personal philosophies, moralities, the name you have been given and if you are religious, the God that you serve, however, you serve Him. Beyond this, it is all fair game, so fight the war that wins you a victorious future.
Your poetry, dance and art installation project Strelitzia…An Experiential Journey to Self received a warm reception at the recently concluded Lagos Theatre Festival. What personal and perhaps painful or traumatic experiences inspired it, and how successfully has the project impacted on your immediate and perhaps the wider community?
Strelitzia did not come from a personal or traumatic experience; it was birthed purely by another artist’s work of art.
My friend Sadiq Williams had called on me to participate in an art project he was submitting for an art competition. The idea he had was for me to recite Black history and quotes from famous Black leaders inside what he called ‘The Black Box Diaries’, an installation he would build specifically for the entry. During our phone conversation, I began picturing Strelitzia. I told him about the idea; he was surprised and encouraged me to follow through, as it was different from his concept.
I am grateful for that conversation because it birthed Strelitzia. It later expanded in my mind to become what people experienced as they walked from room to room. This was also the first time I would not only be producing and writing (largely devised) a theatrical piece but directing as well in areas of film, contemporary and traditional dance, music, poetry and storytelling. It was a huge and daunting task and I almost gave up on it, but my partner and sister-friend Bianca Odiete held me steady through the process. I am grateful to her.
The impact of Strelitzia has been deeper and wider reaching than I could have ever imagined. As part of the journey, the attendees, who we call ‘Story Bearers’, are invited to write on a wall, what memories they would like to lay down; this part of the show is always heavily emotional.
People often speak to me after the show (sometimes I have to go back into character as I realise they are speaking to me as the page and not as Donna) and share tales of rape, anger, betrayal (some are the ones who have betrayed people and regretted it), sadness, grief and guilt among many others. At the end of the show, there is a universal feeling of relief as burdens are either shared or laid to rest completely. Some people have walked through the Strelitzia journey more than twice – and I say to people take as many journeys as you need.
In almost all the shows (we have had 23 showings in the last year), we have found that towards the end, there is almost no space left to write on the wall. This is a great thing – it means the purpose of Strelitzia, which is for people to unburden, has been achieved as they experience memories of the past and performances, which echo human nature.
This makes me deeply grateful and satisfied.
Also, Strelitzia has inspired a myriad of experiential theatre producers, some of whom have reached out to me for advice and direction. I have been so happy and honoured in each case. I have also lent support and counsel as best as I can and cannot wait for even more unique productions to be birthed in Nigeria in the near future.
Strelitzia is one of the 15 plays from around the world that featured at the Hong Kong Theatre Festival in November of 2017. Please tell us about the experience.
Prof. Dandaura, the president of the Nigerian Chapter of the International Association of Theatre Critics, recommended us. I was called about 3 weeks after the 2017 Lagos Theatre Festival (LTF) showing of Strelitzia and I thought I was hearing things. I was stunned and just stood by my office for a while after the telephone conversation where he told me my event had been approved after his recommendations; apparently, he submitted reviews and so on in pitching for the show. I think I may have even cried at some point. I was so elated.
We had a great time in Hong Kong; we had 4 fully subscribed shows in the world famous Kwai Tsing Theatre and in 2 shows, we were over-subscribed. The feedback was amazing. We were described as putting up the “most memorable show of the festival” I certainly cried after this was said, especially considering that there were marvellous shows aired, like the Soweto Gospel Choir, Youssou N’dour, Angela Kidjoe, and the Mandela Show. It was such an honour.
Many of the attendees, a few of whom were participants in other shows, also spoke of the uniqueness of Strelitzia and how they had not experienced theatre in the way it had been presented to them; hearing this from nationals of so many different countries was extremely encouraging.
You made your debut as producer and playwright for a stage show in 2016, in Love Like Slave. What inspired this change and is it short-lived?
I certainly hope it is not short-lived. That would be terrifying. Since the year 2012 when I entered for the Nigeria 30 Competition hosted by the Nigeria House as part of the events of the 2012 London Olympics, I toyed with the idea of producing a theatre piece premised on poetry. For this, I submitted a proposal for a drama production where the dialogue leans heavily on performed poetry, using 10 of my poems as the basis for the narrative. I did not make the cut because my work did not include visuals or how it can add significant value to the arts. I would later meet one of the judges in 2014 who not only remembered my entry and commended the idea but emphasised on the need to put up a performance. I embraced all this positive criticism and hoped for an opportunity to put up a show.
A chance introduction at Terra Kulture, where I was having lunch with my dramaturg, Olusola Oyeleye, led to discussions with Brenda Uphopho who unbeknownst to me had been the producer of the Lagos Theatre Festival. Afterwards, she listened to my first poetry album, ‘Water for Roses’, and reached out, encouraging me to apply to the LTF to put up my show. From what she heard, she was convinced that I would do something good.
I proposed Love Like Slave; we had 2 shows and over 400 people in attendance. My mind was irreversibly blown and I was encouraged to dig deeper and produce more, in spite of any self-doubt, funding concerns or fears I encounter along the way.
In short, I am here to stay.
I am also grateful for the ripple effect. There have been many poetry premised theatre productions that have been birthed as a result of Love Like Slave. I was not the first to do this. I remember seeing a poetry-based drama production put up in honour of my late friend, Abioye Taiwo, whose collection of poetry was dramatised (I believe Tosin Otudeko was a part of the production team). This was almost 10 years ago and I understand that there may even have been such productions in the 1970’s, somewhere in Ibadan. There is nothing new under the sun, they say.
So although I was not the first to put up a poetry-based theatrical production, I am fully aware that at least 5 shows have been inspired by Love Like Slave and have poets at the helm of productions. Again, I have encouraged from the background but remain ever thankful to be the one who gives others permission to shine, because I dared to say yes to a dream I had.
What trends do you see in theatre production in Nigeria over the next few years and how involved do you think women would be?
I will respond on the women front; if one attended the 2018 Lagos Theatre Festival and any of the theatrical productions of the last 5 years, it would be hard to miss the fact that women are here, voiced and unapologetic!
From Ifeoma Fanfuwa’s Hear Word to Bolanle Austen-Peters’ Fela and the Kalakuta Queens, to Brenda Uphopho’s Bridezilla to Lola Shoneyin’s Baba Segi’s Wives, Christina Oshunniyi’s The Cut, Bikiya Graham-Douglas’ Wait and Kemi Lala Akindoju’s Naked, there is more than enough to keep a theatre enthusiast engaged – and all from the dangerous dreams of daring women!
I think more women should get involved in directing theatre productions. It is as simple as – on this one, I am gender biased, unashamedly so. I believe there are nuances, which women can bring to the table in an oversubscribed direction that has not yet been fully explored. There are many female producers of theatre but I am not certain that many take the route of directing.
I also would love to see more business-focused artistes in the industry. Theatre craft is a business even as it may be art, and as such should be allowed to be untamed by the requirements of business. It is a discipline I believe is needed if we are going to take theatre to the next level in Nigeria.
What upcoming projects would you like to share with us?
I have come out with a second poetry album called ‘Cessy’s Daughter’. It contains original poems and songs I wrote. I perform all the poems but invite my friends IBK SpaceshipBoi and Jennifer Ohia to do the singing – I know my limitations.
It is an experiential poetry album that speaks to womanhood and takes a journey from the perspective of a heartbroken woman to one who questions life and then finds hope to not only speak to the upcoming generations but also to her future. The album will be available for purchase online and in stores very soon – please follow @donnaogunnaike on Instagram for updates.
September 03, 2021
March 03, 2021