This article originally appeared in Exeunt Magazine in April 2017.
‘To call me a sexist… for me it’s still not a negative name. If I’m a sexist, it’s a gift. Not everybody can fuck two women every day. So if I can fuck two women every day and they don’t like it, I’m sorry for them. I just like it.’
‘I want tell you about lady / She go say him equal to man / She go say him get power like man … She go want make you open door for am / She go want make man wash plate / For am, for kitchen’
Both these quotes – one a rebarbative interview retort, the other a lyric from the 1972 hit “Lady”, both inveterately sexist – were spoken by legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. His defiant spirit is filtered through the feminist sensibilities of Adura Onashile’s play Expensive Shit. As writer and director, Onashile knows what she wants to achieve in 65 minutes: to project Fela as not just a nationalist icon, not just a great musician, but as a quasi-paternalistic figure of inspiration to women who want their physicality and identity as individuals to be recognised.
It’s a doomed quest. The play alternates between the toilets of Lagos’s legendary Shrine nightclub in the ’80s and the toilets of a Glasgow nightclub several decades later. Kiza Deen plays Tolu, the link between the two. In the Shrine-set flashbacks, she coralls three friends into a dance troupe that practises in the loo with fierce determination, hoping that Fela will validate their existence by asking them to join his backing group. In the Glasgow scenes, she’s a jaded toilet attendant whose wares make it a little easier for nightclubbing males to prey on unsuspecting females. Her dreams have almost literally turned to shit.
Shit’s proximity to dreams is repeatedly made stark by Onashile, who also directs. The dialectic is noticeable in the music. Fela’s oneiric polyrhythmic grooves churn piston-like behind the Shrine loo doors, while the Glasgow scenes are set to modern hits like “Blurred Lines” and “I Gotta Feeling”. Simon Hayes’s lighting is consistent in both settings: that the Shrine toilets are no brighter suggests that the dreams’ failure may have been a forgone conclusion.
The acting is spirited if not stand-out. Deen is evocative, though she might have made stronger use of her physicality in the non-dance scenes, or conveyed the effects of age and failure on her body in the Glasgow scenes. Veronica Lewis, Jamie Marie Leary and Maria Yarjah play the Lagos wannabes in Nigerian accents and the Glasgow club patrons in a variety of British ones, a sensible and convenient way for Onashile to signal setting. Every so often in the Lagos scenes, the four women dance to Fela cassettes – “Lady”, the incandescent “Roforofo Fight”, the undeniable “Expensive Shit” itself. Lucy Wild’s choreography brings out the unity among the four friends as well as their fighting spirit – it’s sadly futile, since Fela never gave his backing dancers all that much to do.
Onashile is uninterested in making a straightforwardly “feminist” piece of theatre, unless feminism is defined as promoting the perspective of women, especially subaltern ones, regardless of whether they mind being subservient to a man. The political change for which Fela repeatedly risked his life does not interest the dancers. In one funny scene, two of them roleplay a corrupt oil tycoon and his more-than-willing inamorata, afterwards scoffing at the idea of changing the status quo. Even in the Glasgow scenes, female solidarity is betrayed: Tolu supplies the women with spiked water and neglects to tell them that the mirrors they’re looking at are two-way. (The mirrors in Karen Tennent’s simple, effective set design are simply rectangles of air framed by thin metal shafts; looking through the rectangles, the audience become voyeurs.)
The play more or less ends with Tolu delivering the lyrics to Fela Kuti’s Shuffering and Shmiling as a speech. Straddling the two settings, she decries a lack of freedom, investment and compassion, criticisms that could be levelled (with qualifications, of course) at the UK Conservative government as well as at Nigeria’s authoritarian state. Fela’s original song “Expensive Shit” was a triumphalist reference to cheating the Nigerian police. When they planted a joint on him as an excuse to lock him up, the story goes, he swallowed the joint in front of them, and before they could test his faeces the next day he managed to swap his sample with another inmate’s. The title of Onashile’s play interprets the phrase differently. Shit is expensive indeed when it comes at the cost of dreams.