On Theatre for Social Development: An Interview with Segun Adefila, Crown Troupe

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Segun Adefila is a performance artist with an undying passion for the theatre.

In 1996, he founded the Crown Troupe of Africa, a dance/drama troupe that has evolved into a platform for awakening people’s consciousness to the social issues that affect them through their live theatre entertainment performances.

Since setting up Crown Troupe of Africa, Adefila has focused on working with young people, helping them discover and develop their creative skills to advance a career in the performing art. While working with those in school, he also engages adolescents on the streets without requiring them to be skilled in the art; Crown Troupe of Africa is established to help youths build their artistic skills.

Raised in Bariga, a local area on the mainland of Lagos, Nigeria, Adefila has supported many young people in his community, training them and then recruiting them to his Troupe- his way of creating employment opportunities in the midst of scarce job offerings in the country. He has trained different generations of young people at Crown Troupe, some of whom have moved on to establish their own groups independent of Crown Troupe.

In this post edited by Adenike Arigbabu, he describes the art as a way of life in an interview with Oluwabusayomi Sotunde. Adefila describes the artist as a mirror though which issues are confronted and the society urged to make corrections.   

Interview:

Crown Troupe members appears to be all young people. Can you talk a little bit about why you choose to work with young people?

I was once young and I know how fertile the minds of young people are. The environment where I grew up is actually where my theatre is based now. And in that area, which is Bariga, when you are young you’ve got to be engaged in something. It is either you are doing this, or doing that. But theatre was what I was involved in and I have been doing art from when I was quite young. I remember how fertile my mind was, how open my mind was in absorbing things and theatre was what got my attention and that is why I decided that that is where my focus will be.

I choose to work with young people because art is consuming; it can take you until it possess you and the vibrant energy that evolves from your body. Art gives you the platform to channel it out and you are never idle because when you are performing, you are not thinking of any other thing because you are in a creative sphere. While others are thinking of how to rob, steal or scam people, you are thinking of your next poetry, painting, sculpture or drama. And that is what art gives you. Theatre is the melting point of all forms of art. When you watch one of our shows, even if you don’t like theatre, there is something you will learn. There is no human being that doesn’t like beauty. So if music doesn’t move you, dance will, and if dance does not, acting will. And because we are Africans, we do not segment art. We put everything together. It is the oyinbo people that have segmented art into music, dance and so on. But for some of us, that is too late.

Crown Troupe

Have you always wanted to be a performing artist from childhood?

I was first and foremost a science student- a failed science student that is, because I don’t like figures or mathematics and I was scared to be a scientist. So all through my secondary school and teenage years, I was studying science but that was not where my heart was. I was more of a literary person. I wanted to act so I faced rejection and some even criticised me for ‘wasting’ my life and this is where wasting my life has taken me.

How would you describe the challenges that Crown Troupe face? And how do you thrive in the midst of these challenges?

We started out in 1996 without any instrument. We had only our bodies. Our first equipment was given to us by a barber opposite where we are rehearsing. He just bought a gong and gave it to us. So we started with our guts, with our passion. And when you are passionate about something, you shouldn’t be asking about the challenges. However as a Nigerian, there are lots of challenges. For us, it is the thought of how we are going to cope and how we are going to make it amidst social challenges. But 19 years after, here I am, and we are still facing the same challenges. So when people ask me what are the challenges? I ask them, what are your challenges?  And if you say you have none, I will ask you to tell me the secret.

There are so many things you have to face but there is space for every one of us to grow. All it takes is to be focused and work hard. And that’s why everything you do, you have to do with passion. If there is no passion, you will give up at the slightest provocation.

So passion has been the driving force for you?

Yes, passion and the grace of God. Passion is like a hot knife passing through the butter. People will feel it in you and it is the grace of God that will give you the passion. However, God has created me and said to me ‘I have given you the power and you can become anything you want to become.’ Nothing has been able to quench this fire because it is about ideas. Of course, there are several challenges like I said, but passion will not let you see them.

Till now, I have not gotten the temptation to quit, maybe if somebody offers me $100million per month to work in an oil company. But still, I don’t know if I will agree to it because I have not seen the money, so I don’t want to say this is it.

That sounds like you’re saying that theatre isn’t as lucrative as working in an oil company…

It is not lucrative because you don’t have to work hard. You just play and make money. It is the only thing I have done since leaving the university in 2002 and I have never applied for any other job. I have never gone into trading or any other job and although we still struggle through the ups and downs, it has all been fine.

Crown Troupe

People have different stories in their career journey. Can you share with us some of those happy moments that have steered Crown Troupe’s journey?

Nigeria has thought us to be tough; there are several happy moments for us because everything that you are passionate about ends in triumph and it is in this triumph that makes you forget all the suffering. There was a time we had nothing and nobody knew us. For example, in 1997 or thereabout, I’d trek from Bariga to Ikeja, Adeniyi Jones, Opebi, Toyin Street. There was no computer to type on, so my friend will help me type the letters that I will give to companies who may be willing to support us. Sometimes I might have 50 NGN with me and I will keep that money and trek back to Bariga from wherever I go to so that I can use the money to buy maybe bread of 30 NGN and beans of 20 NGN. Despite all that, when I get home I wouldn’t give in to resting for the day; I would still go to rehearsals. When we started, we carried our drums and moved around looking for whoever was having one ceremony or the other. We begged people to perform for them. There were days we performed in a proper theatre with no light and we had to put on the candle light. Yet people would say ‘this show is going abroad’. So we have ups and downs.

Your Troupe’s work has been described as social engagement inclining towards creating political awareness. Can you tell us about this and how it relates to national development?

They don’t have time for us. What I am doing is not my decision; it’s all been coming from somewhere. God says go and talk and you talk.

I get my inspiration from God and from the society. God is not going to come down. Some people hear God but I don’t know the language God speaks but I see God in the things I do.  People are suffering, there is no light and the NEPA/Power Holding Company is bringing electricity bills. And so I will get a good story and create a song around it because it is what we face every day. So, if the government listens to it and says ‘we need to change’, fine. Or ‘that boy is making too much noise, go and remove him’, but instead of saying go and remove him, God changes their mind. Because the idea is that we have something lovely- our country is blessed and our government is supposed to be our father and when a child complains to his father, are you going to kill the child? No. But the artist is the mirror and this is what we are doing. We look at issues and urge the society to make corrections.

As a professional artist whose work seeks to create political awareness, can you tell us the role of theatre in social development?

There can’t be development without theatre. Science is the physical manifestation of what you think statistically. So, when you are thinking development, you have to think art too. For instance, if the government were to introduce a policy on the use of seat belt, how can they do this? They can get a musician to put it into a song, or a visual artist to draw something about it in a cartoon, or a good photographer to take pictures and show people what they want them to do and how to do it. So theatre is a vehicle with which you convey all the ideas of development and Crown Troupe is doing this through performance.

Nigeria is one of the most blessed portions of the earth in terms of people, culture, diversity, minerals and natural resources. And I’m not talking about crude oil because that is the smallest thing of what we have. It’s just because of who we are, we are not far thinking. When you have foolish leaders, foolish leadership is reflected in the followership. When you have sensible leaders, you see how they convert the resources of the land into wealth. Nigerians are leading everywhere in the world but when they have taken away your soul, when you have lost the idea of being positively influential, then that is what happen. But we can’t fold our arms and keep complaining. We have to do something and we are not going into revolution to burn some places or kill people. No, it won’t solve anything. But if they say this theatre artists are disturbing us then let them try terrorists. A theatre artist is dangerous to bad leadership and the terrorist is dangerous to peace.

Would you say theatre artists are doing enough to contribute to national development in Nigeria?

It is not the problem of theatre. Nigerian artists are going all over the world to perform. The problem is that the society is not appreciative and balanced enough. If the society is to create an amiable environment, the theatre will strive. Apart from that, people are looking for something to pull them out of their misery but instead of getting drunk on alcohol or drugs, people turn to the artist for entertainment to take their mind off things. So for theatre to thrive and do more in development, we need an enabling environment. 

In a documentary film titled ‘Bariga Boy’ by Femi Odugbemi showcasing your life and work in the local Bariga area of Lagos, the story of how you recruit young people, even those from the streets, was highlighted. Can you tell us about your personal efforts in contributing to community development?

I was a street person too. I am a child too and I won’t want to tow the line of children of nowadays, they don’t want to work. Socrates, one of the philosophers said it over 200 years ago that the youths of today are moving at a very fast pace. I am around because there is essence for my existence and I am giving back to the youth what I didn’t get on time. There is a platform here for them to be transformed; some stay while others leave. You think it’s the end of you because you live in Bariga. No. Let us sing, let us dance and when they are later invited to Victoria Island or abroad to come and perform, then their friends are convinced when they see them. I have never auditioned anybody and I don’t ask if they have prior training. I let them discover themselves and that’s how it has been.  A hundred will come but at the end only twenty might eventually stay. When you keep coming to crown troupe for 2 weeks, I know you have come to stay.

Do the artists in Crown Troupe get paid?

Of course, if I get paid, they get paid. It is when you learn that you earn. A lot of generations of people have left Crown Troupe to start their own organisation. For example, if I have a project that I am doing and I feel that the young people around me can’t handle it, I call on the old guys to come and help. So it’s that way. When you feel you are ok, you move on. So, if God asks me to come home today, what is on ground is enough to sustain itself.

So can we say that Crown Troupe is sustainable without Segun Adefila’s presence?

Yes. When I am not in the country and we have major jobs, they handle it. For example, if a person comes and wants us to do something, I call on them to draw up a plan and then I look at it and make corrections where necessary. Like I said, I spent a year with my first group and I left the following year after which I created Crown Troupe. I started theatre 1995, I started Crown Troupe 1996. So you can spend 6 months and say you are fine.

This year, the Millennium Development Goals will be replaced with Sustainable Development Goals. What do you think of this?

A society that does not think of sustainability needs to check itself. We know about conservatism and our ancestors are not just consumers, they ate some and left some and that’s sustainability. Sustainability is something that’s going to outlive you so that others can benefit from it.

Government can create youth centres, community centres; create spaces where people can explore their talents.

How can people, individuals support your work?

They should patronise us when we have our shows. They can donate; they can buy books and send to us. We have a space that we want to turn into an academy where we can train people and they can get certificates. We have a building in Bariga but we don’t have equipment and materials. We want to train people on fashion, bead making and other creative work, and what we need is not 1/100 of what the country is wasting. It is rare to see an African man whose name will outlive him after 50 years once he is gone.

Tell us about the project Crown Troupe is currently working on. What should we expect from you in the future?

It is the school, especially for young secondary school students who have to wait for the JAMB Examination results and all before gaining admission into the university. They should come and learn something – shoemaking, tie and dye etc. The school is called Crown Troupe Academy.

To any stakeholder in the Nigeria, what does art for development mean?

Cultivate the habit to get the key to the store and stop looking for how to get into the store. When you are passionate about something, get lost in it and use your head because there are wicked people who will want to suck you dry because they know you are doing what you are doing because you have the passion for it. Hardworking people do not get carried away by stupid cliché of work smart, don’t work hard. No. Hard work doesn’t kill anybody. There is nobody up there that is not working hard. When you work hard you are smart because when the smartness leaves you, it is hard work that will sustain you.

If you are to change something about Africa’s prospects toward the attainment of sustainable Development, what would it be?

It would be the African mind-set. This is because we accept things at face value just as we accept religion as if we created it. We never consider that if the Chinese had colonised us, we would have probably been a Buddhist and not even be aware of Jesus Christ. I am a Christian but I believe in godliness than being religious. But we are not godly; you go to the church and the corruption there will nauseate you. You see the way others kill men and women all because they want you to worship the way they worship.

Our fore fathers were tolerant people so we need to change our mind-set and cherish what we have. The Chinese still use their chopstick to date and when you use it, you are considered a civilised person. But what has Africa done? Nothing. In the past we cure our ailments. Our ancestors never study biology yet they knew what tree leaf to mix together to cure whatever ailment. Look at when they came to take our fore fathers as slaves. They fought and cried. Some even jumped into the sea in protest. But today, we are all struggling to travel abroad and slave there. We need to change our mind-set. If Africa is a useless continent, will people come here and trade? All the civilisations you see out there were taken from Africa, yet Africans still look up to the west. If we don’t change our mind-set, our children will end up like us. But it is not too late to change. Anytime you wake up is your good morning.

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