To understand the tragedy that befell Nigeria when the eastern part of the country tried unsuccessfully to secede in the 1960s, the starting point could be the musical Kakadu, which is running in Johannesburg.
With energetic dance routines, soulful singing, and above-average acting skills on display, this journey into the Biafran uprising in Nigeria in 1967 leaves a lingering message in audiences’ hearts and minds.
The attempt by the Igbos, one of the major ethnic groups in Nigeria, to secede came within five years of the country’s independence.
At the time, Nigeria was afflicted by regional and ethnic chauvinism, political intolerance, victimisation, lawlessness, government ineptitude, corruption and nepotism. The army swiftly and brutally quelled the insurrection, leaving corpses on the streets and the population, especially those belonging to the insurrectionist Igbo ethnic group, traumatised and cowed into submission.
Written by Lagos lawyer Uche Nwokedi, Kakadu, which means “a place to belong to”, is sympathetic to the Igbos.
The sentiment is hardly surprising, given that when the civil war broke out it divided many people within and without Nigeria, between those who sympathised with the Igbos and those who felt that Nigeria was better off united. Two prominent personalities — the late Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, who pioneered the Afrobeat sound, which forms part of this musical’s repertoire, and Kenyan-born and world-renowned public intellectual the late Ali Mazrui — are good examples of how opinion worldwide is divided on the Biafran issue.
In the novel, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, Mazrui’s only work of fiction out of the more than 35 books he wrote, he controversially recreates the poet who died in the conflict and tries him posthumously, finding him guilty of choosing narrow nationalism over his artistic calling as a poet.
Okigbo, a friend of Mazrui, was a prominent poet in Nigeria in the 1960s who was killed in the Biafran civil war. He was fighting on Biafra’s side. Many Nigerians have not forgiven Mazrui for writing the novel, and especially for condemning Okigbo for choosing to fight in the war instead of pursuing poetry.
Kuti admitted to supporting Biafra, despite writing a pro-government song. His friend, a Ghanaian called Duke Lumumba, persuaded him to record the song to attract funding for his band from the federal government.
“So, we made this tune. It was bull****. It was called Viva Nigeria. I feel so bad about that record. I was on Biafra’s side,” Kuti says in the biography Fela: This Bitch of A Life.
In Kakadu, the playwright has managed to weave into the musical an interesting story that lays bare the trauma of those affected by the civil war.
It is told through the accounts of people who were part of the hip crowd that frequented the Kakadu Night Club in Lagos.
The first musical stage production from Nigeria debuted in Lagos to critical acclaim, and had a three-year run in Nigeria and Switzerland before arriving at the Joburg Theatre in Johannesburg.
The award-winning production is infused with an eclectic blend of music ranging from pop, soul, Afrobeat and traditional Igbo and Yoruba folk and Juju music.
It is the first Nigerian production to be staged in SA.
“Kakadu is a highly creative, original production that which has been internationally acclaimed as the first-ever musical from Nigeria,” says Joburg City Theatre’s executive producer, Claire Pacariz.
The musical starts with Nigeria gaining independence from British colonial rule. It showcases Lagos at its most hedonistic, just like the European cities, in the sixties.
Nwokedi, who is also Kakadu’s executive producer, believes the project can help bridge the gap between Nigeria and SA, “exporting the distinctive South African distinctive cultural values and as a further denunciation of xenophobia through beautiful music and enthralling drama”.
Kakadu runs from Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8pm, and 2pm on Sundays. Tickets are R180-R350.