WITH a good education, employment and promising career in the UK Theatre, Bikiya Graham-Douglas had everything going for her. Despite these perks, however, her determination to use her passion to make a difference in her country’s art and culture scene was compelling.
Coming home, the amiable, young daughter of former Culture and Tourism Minister, Alabo Graham-Douglas, featured in a few productions; and soon, she felt the need to set up Beeta Universal Arts Foundation (BUAF) as a platform to rejig theatrical performances in the country.
She says, “on returning home, I starred in a few productions from where I discovered the need to put theatre in the forefront. I also discovered that there was limited platform apart from the National Theatre and the National Troupe that could make theatre thrive in the country, so, I began to talk to people of like minds — young and old — and the result is Beeta Universal Arts Foundation (BUAF).”
She adds, “at BUAF, we are focusing on the revival of theatre in Nigeria, by providing opportunities for people to access performance. We believe that theatre is an integral part of our culture and, as a very expressive people, we must not lose it.”
The lady, whose performance in the Calabar Carnival in 2009 earned her Honorary Indigene of Cross Rivers State and the accolade Odi Ere (Odi woman) in Bayelsa State, is also focused on creating new talents for the theatre.
“My organisation is not just about performance. We train people; equip upcoming act with skills for their advancement, hold educational workshops, organise competitions where playwrights submit in their works, we assess them and if worthy for production, put them on stage. We also use the platform to celebrate our unsung playwrights by staging their plays and as well presenting the nation’s history to the public through storytelling.”
To achieve her dream, the Rivers and Bayelsa states-native expects art aficionado, corporate bodies and other stakeholders to partner with her in the quest to revive live theatre in Nigeria, she says: “theatre is a very important part of our history and culture; entertainment in this country started with it, yet nobody really takes it seriously anymore. Theatre could be a major industry if it gets the right support and platform. And it is on this ground that, I'm appealing to our president to declare the National Theatre, a national monument as this would attract funding from foreign organisations, promote theatre culture and preserve our beloved theatre, which is the hub of artistry.”
Why show so much love for the theatre?
“Why not?” Bikiya asks, as she looks into the thin air, as if on stage and with a broad smile, adds, “while growing up in Port Harcourt, my father and my mother were promoting arts and supporting people; through these efforts, I was exposed to the theatre; it is something I grew up with and anytime I watch people on stage, I often wonder ‘oh my God, how do they do this’, and it always feel more real to me; I feel I could connect with them more than watching a movie.”
GROWING up in a home that promoted the arts, Bikiya, chief operating officer of BUAF went to the UK to study Business Economics and Law, but had to do Drama and Music as electives courses.
She narrates: “while doing some electives as part of my degree course, I picked Drama and Music. I was endeared to the stage that I was awarded a scholarship by the Queen to go to London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts to study Style Acting. After that, I moved on to Oxford School of Drama for a foundation course in Acting. Graduating from these schools, I got a place at the Bridge Theatre Training Company. I left the company after two years to work elsewhere in the UK.
“I never taught of picking up acting as a career, while growing up, but as I got older, I learnt I have to make my own decisions and I started reading and understanding the dynamism of the art; from there, I became endeared to the theatre that I just had to be on stage.”
Taking part in classics such as Macbeth, Electra, The Importance of Being Earnest and some other works in England, where there are adequate structures for the theatre, Bikiya was pulled home by her passionate mission.
“ While in the UK, I made it a point of duty to come home because I wanted to be part of something more meaningful and bigger in the country. Though there were few people doing some stuff, there was still a strong need for more stage productions, so, as a theatre performer, I thought the only way I could make an impact was to start productions, create opportunities for people like myself and artistes who want to do stage, but do not have a platform.”
According to Bikiya, “theatre is my focus. In fact, the more I get to know it, the more I love it and the more quests for it. My love for the theatre is growing from strength to strength and anytime I discovered a new play or a new playwright, I just feel excited; it makes me happy being involved.”
COMPARING the theatre in UK and Nigeria, she says, “in the UK, they have such a rich history of theatre. I mean you can use the theatre to find out what happened in the 13th century in that country. They have funds for the theatre and the preservation of their National Theatre. They also do not see Theatre as part of entertainment, but entertainment in entirety. There are a lot of people who are committed to it and as well, a lot of private organisations who support to make it vibrant. In the UK, you do not have to go far to identify the National Theatre or recognise playwrights, but in Nigeria, the reverse is the case.
“When you talk of the theatre, some people in this part of the world would ask if there is anything happening there. This set of Nigerians cannot be blamed because of what happened in the past with the military, which created fear and so much insecurity in the society. We allowed theatre to die in this country; over there they did not allow their theatre to die; they preserved it and that is why, generation to come would still refer to it as a hub of artistry. In Nigeria, we have just very few people who are committed to it.”
Bikiya adds, “another thing is that, they looked at the long term and sustainability that theatre has created for their economy and citizens; in Nigeria, we have not addressed that. A lot of time you talk about theatre in the country people see actors as people going on stage to make some noises for a couple of hours. They have failed to look at the channeling that comes with it. They have not realised that theatre production goes beyond the actors, directors, stage manager and others; they do not know that each performance involves building the set, buying materials and engaging people. All these mean putting food on people’s table. People in Nigeria, do not see theatre practitioners as contributing to the economy, but abroad, these channels are given serious considerations, in fact, they see theatre as a means of preserving their past, learning from it, too, and building the future.”
According to the lady, one thing she has noticed looking at both theatre traditions, which she has played active part in is that people who love theatre in both climes are driven the same way and, the theatre uses the same technique and the same commitment; the only difference between us and them is, they have support and we don’t.
Despite the myriads of problems facing entertainment sector, Bikiya believes that there is a great future for the industry, “so far people like me are around to make things work and also, there are people to give the scene the push it needs in terms of sponsorship and other supports. Besides, with the feedbacks I get from my productions, I am convinced that people are still interested in the theatre.”
TO what extent has your dad been of help to your vision?
“Dad and mom have been very supportive; however, when people hear my surname, they expect I would have everything. A lot of people just assume I have all the money and do not need any help. They even think I’m greedy for asking for help, but one thing they do not know is that my parents are different, they have their destiny and I have mine to deal with as me. I am opportune to have them, but to an extent, it has not really worked in my favour when it comes to sponsors because people believe I have everything I need. I’m generally grateful that my parents have been very supportive and always encourage me, whenever I’m down. I must point out that I have been overwhelmed by the goodwill of many Nigerians and where I have not been able to get sponsors, individuals that believe in what I am doing have been very supportive. Some I know and many I do not know have been encouraging me to make the theatre what it used to be in their youthful days.”
Not relenting in her efforts to keep the stage busy, the CEO of BUAF recently produced for stage, Castle In The Air, a play, which centres on greed, religious diversity and ethnic bigotry, written by Barclays Ayakoroma.
On the reason for the play, she says, “I chose the play to address a lot of problems we are currently facing as a country. Most people are aware of the bombings, ethnic and religious crises as well as other issues that make up the daily topic of discourse, so, I staged the play to remind Nigerians that our diversities should be our strength rather than our weakness; we should accommodate one another and live like brothers and sisters — one united entity.”
“People in Nigeria, do not see theatre practitioners as contributing to the economy, but abroad, these channels are given serious considerations, in fact, they see theatre as a means of preserving their past, learning from it, too, and building the future”
TO make theatre more accessible, Bikiya held an Open Air Theatre tagged Cakes and Theatre last week in Abuja. The event marked the launch of her outfit in the Northern region of the country. The one-day show, which included dance, music, poems and others, showcased diverse talents.
“Cakes and Theatre served as a launch pad to my future performance in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). The one-night event was opened for all; in fact, it was different from the expected stage performances because the stage was thrown open for anyone that had something to present to the public. It was like a freedom hall event, where different people come to air their views. It was just a-one night of music, theatre and the art.
“There was no special play, but there were a lot of cakes and drinks to savour. Open Air created opportunity for practitioners, stakeholders and theatre lovers to mingle and chart a path for the entertainment industry in the country. It was a night of theatre,”Bikiya reminisces.
Coming back to Lagos, Odi Ere has gone to work for yet another play titled A Man Of Character by James Ene Henshaw for December period.
She informs, “we have started work on our next production, A Man Of Character, showing at Terra Kulture in December. James Ene Henshaw, another notable playwright, wrote the play. We hope to use it to thrill Lagosians during the Yuletide season and keep the theatre culture aflame. We hope to see families live in unity and parents come to watch plays with their children as it was in the past.”