2018 LSA BEST DOCTORAL THESIS IN LAGOS STUDIES AWARD: YING CHENG (ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, PEKING UNIVERSITY, CHINA)
Title of Thesis: “Is Theatre Dying in Nigeria? Recycling Popular Theatre in Metropolitan Lagos” (Defended at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London)
Examiners: Karin Barber and Sola Adeyemi
Supervisors: Akin Oyètádé and Carli Coetzee
Nomination Submitted By
Journal of African Cultural Studies
Ying Cheng’s thesis, for which she was awarded the degree in 2017, is called “Is Theatre Dying in Nigeria? Recycling Popular Theatre in Metropolitan Lagos”. In it she explores new developments in Nigerian theatre since the demise of Yorùbá popular travelling theatre in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The thesis examines the transformation of popular theatre culture in urban Nigeria (and in particular in Lagos) since the early 1990s, a period when almost all of the more than one hundred Yorùbá travelling theatre troupes seemed to disappear from the public sphere, or switched over to making films. The thesis draws attention to a range of interrelated theatrical and performance initiatives that thrive in contemporary Lagos, and argues that theatre is not dead, but in fact thriving.
Unlike the pessimistic laments of “theatre is dead in Nigeria” among theatre scholars and critics, the argument made in the thesis is to resist the anxiety about the “decline” of theatre in Nigeria. Based on an examination of a younger generation of theatre practitioners, especially a Bariga-based youth theatre troupe called Crown Troupe of Africa, the thesis argues that popular theatre has been transformed into a cultural practice marked by a fantastic entrepreneurial spirit, a strong space-making consciousness and a radical socio-political commitment.
Cheng shows that theatre in Lagos, as a peripheral site of mobility and sociality, has become a platform for opening up critical debates on the uses of public space, and for forging a radical form of politics among young theatre practitioners and their audiences. More specifically, by interpreting theatre as a spatial practice, her thesis suggests a new way of inserting theatre and performance studies into popular culture studies, and into urban studies in Africa. In particular, the Lagos-centredness of her analysis of the significance of Crown Troupe’s work, and the situated nature of their practice, makes this an original and exciting contribution to Lagos studies.
The thesis engages with the complexity of the concepts and theorizations in scholarly literature on Lagos as the exemplary African mega-city, and contributes to debates around the subversive and resistant potential of popular culture and its role in the constitution of urban publics. Aware of the risk of over-celebrating the creative agency of marginal urban youth, Cheng roots her understanding of popular cultural practices in the everyday life and the living reality of these popular culture practitioners. Thus her thesis makes the argument that the contemporary popular theatre’s intervention in the public sphere is grounded in the intimate and mobile geographies of space-making across the megacity Lagos.
With great sensitivity and originality, the thesis explores the way Crown Troupe’s performances emerge from the practices of troupe members’ everyday life in Bariga and greater Lagos. Looking at theatre as an essentially spatial practice, Cheng is able to trace the troupe’s movements through the Lagos conurbation: from the permanent elite venues of Lagos Island and Victoria Island, on the one hand, to the streets, market places and other public spaces in the poorer areas of mainland Lagos. Here, the members of Crown Troupe (who have no permanent theatre building) engage with their audiences in “pop-up” theatre venues.
Intersecting with her incisive analyses of space, Cheng uses a recurrent trope of “recycling” to describe the Troupe’s use of existing forms, themes and materials – both old and new – to create novel cultural interventions. Her innovative theorisation of recycling provides a useful metaphor for understanding the deep embedding of popular culture in urban space. The young ghetto performers recycle their everyday experiences, ordinary objects, daily languages, and their knowledge of other artistic forms, and transform these elements into theatrical works that enable and negotiate a re-appropriation of the city. At the same time, the trope of recycling also reveals that, rather than a radical departure from or a rupture with traditional art forms such as the Yorùbá travelling theatres, Crown Troupe’s transformation of Nigerian popular culture should be interpreted as a process of continuation and regeneration.
The idea of recycling leads seamlessly into a discussion of the linguistic interfaces between the standard English, Yorùbá and Nigerian pidgin that the theatre troupe creatively mixes. What is strikingly different about Crown Troupe, in comparison with the Yorùbá travelling theatre troupes, is their political edge and their avant garde, non-realist style. This was evidenced in their staged invasion of the conference venue during the paper presented by Cheng from her thesis at the 2017 LSA conference.
The thesis is based on first-hand participatory research as well as extensive reading of secondary sources for context, comparison and theoretical inspiration. Cheng includes in her thesis a rich ethnographic analysis not only of Lagosian performance spaces, but also of the rehearsal space of Crown Troupe, showing how this space intersects with the other spaces through which members move in Lagos. Through analysis of her participant observations and “deep hanging out” with the troupe, she explores such questions as how the young generation of performers perceive theatre as something uniquely different from other occupations, and how their everyday life experiences off-stage (in and outside the troupe) inform their expressions and representations on stage.
The thesis includes a rich archive of the working life of Crown Troupe, and of their inspirational rehearsal space in Bariga, not far from the University of Lagos where some members are also registered as students. The rehearsal space is called “The Lab”, a name that is richly evocative for the work that it is possible for us to do in the academy too. In her chapter “Jerrycan, Danfo, and Ghana-must-go Bag: Recycling the Everyday in The Lab” Cheng argues that Crown Troupe performers often confront the political leaders and social elites (even when these figures are actually presence at a performance) with explicit, satirical and trenchant criticism. This is in marked contrast with works by Yorùbá travelling theatre practitioners who never used the word “Nigeria” on stage and hardly ever mentioned the government, let alone criticized its policies or leaders. Here her work makes an original contribution to the literature on youth and performance, and her argument complicates and nuances the sometimes heavy-handed uses of the concept of resistance, as well as dominant ways of always linking youth to resistance.
Her chapter on Freedom Park is an inspired attempt to read the spaces of Lagos in ways that connect up scholarly and activist agendas. Related to this is her engaged analysis of the use of Nigerian pidgin, which she has spent a great deal of time learning during her stays in The Lab, where she rehearsed along with the troupe every morning. The final chapter, “’Futurist Masquerade’: Tradition, Modernity and Theatre as an Art of Recycling” attempts a reading of the much-discussed fuel subsidy protests in Nigeria. Cheng situates Crown Troupe members in the large crowd assembled, and gives a powerful reading of the ways Crown Troupe members Busayo, Taiwo and Rasheed (some of whom performed during Cheng’s innovative presentation at the LSA conference in 2017) interacted with Osagie, the man who appeared as a resurrected Fela. She describes how, during the street demonstrations, Crown Troupe leader Segun and other troupe members walked beside Osagie and spread their arms in order to keep a distance between protesters and the body of the resurrected Fela.
Through her analysis of these situated performances Cheng shows how Crown Troupe’s histories and their contemporary practices stand at the centre of how we are to understand Lagos in all its complexities. Her argument connects the present day in Nigeria to the many ancestor moments that include the Yorùbá popular travelling theatre, the great Nigerian literary and performance tradition, Fela Kuti’s central role, and Occupy Nigeria. Her understanding of Lagos youth culture shows that younger scholars and performers have not turned their backs on their ancestors, but instead are working in innovative and creative ways, remixing and repurposing the Lagosian past.
Through her thesis, Cheng makes an argument for Lagos as the quintessential African city, challenging the many scholarly versions that instead award this place to Johannesburg.