A force in British theatre to be reckoned with Femi Elufowoju jr.’s career has been going from strength to strength over the last 30 plus years. The actor turned director is one of two directors of African descent to have a national touring company in the UK. Educated in both the UK and Nigeria his work has been featured in many of the UK’s top theatres including: Royal Court Theatre, the Royal National Theatre, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Manchester’s Royal Exchange, the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and the Soho Theatre working under theatre directors such as Sir Richard Eyre, Nicholas Hytner, Yvonne Brewster, Kelly and Annie Castledine. Testament to his talent and hard work he has two plays overlapping at the Arcola Theatre in London, Hoard runs until the 8th of June and The Glass Menagerie has just been transferred to the Arcola booking until 13th July. On form Alt A had to speak to Elufowoju jr. about directing, career moves and the surge of African stories on the London stage.
AA: Wow – you just directed Hoard what is it like diving straight into The Glass Menagerie?
I have to say this this was a display of absolute trust by the producers. They had structured rehearsals for both productions back to back in such a seamlessly way it felt like one long immersive exploratory workshop on World theatre.
AA: So how do you navigate between the directing process with a clear head?
The first week is always spent deciphering the text with the acting company. We discuss the world of the play, the writer’s super-objective followed by an intense period of deconstructing the script scenes into mini units.
AA: How do you decide on the projects that you direct what are the key factors?
The script is always the first determining factor. If the project has an engaging pull on me, I then consider the infrastructural support required to enable its overall ambition to be realized.
AA: You started out as an actor so what made you decide to move into directing?
At the time of my formative career as an actor, there were hardly any productions which reflected my culture and heritage on the British stage. I was determined to redress this imbalance. I discussed this with a couple of like-minded colleagues and Philip Hedley, then Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Stratford East. I was very much a younger man with a huge zeal and impulses to lead actors in realizing the ethos and purpose of any specific drama. This led to my formation of my first theatre company tiata fahodzi 23 years ago.
AA: What was your first professional acting job?
1986, Shaw Theatre/Hackney Empire. Playing Martin Luther King in the musical Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame
AA: Why are we seeing a new surge of plays reflecting African stories – and what for example did you like about Hoard?
The renaissance in our stories reflects our culture matching the growing optimism and positivity experienced by the prevailing cross-generational range of voices. The same could be said about multiple genres across the arts. Music is high culture bonding all ages, creed, religion and race. We are living in exciting times. Hoard is my story. I was drawn to it in a bid to use it as a cathartic measure in curing my own habit of preserving valuables.
AA: What attracted you to The Glass Menagerie: how do you relate to Tennessee Williams?
As a director, relating to Tennessee Williams is quite possibly a disingenuous feat. Williams was a genius. The play written in 1944, five years after the end of the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world (and start of World War II) was drawn from the author’s own immediate family. One of the beauties of our work telling stories in theatre is reimaging how the experience of an original story resonates universally. This is the central attraction to this play. How does the narrow focus on the challenges faced by the Wingfield family connect with any other household living under the same conditions, during the same decade, in the same town?
AA: Have you kept the play true to text?
99.9% is true to text. I have adhered to St Louis but given the family a non-traditional new make-up. The 0.01% changes to the text include swapping the D.A.R with the D.O.I. (Daughters of Isis), a distinguished Black woman’s organization more appropriate than the Daughters of the American Revolution, which at the time prohibited Black members for ancestral reasons. Offensive names such as ‘darky’ or ‘negro’ are replaced with ‘maid’ and ‘servant’.
AA: What has been the biggest challenges and learning experiences as a Director?
Taking huge artistic risks with new writing and casting actors who are oblivious to the ensemble spirit.
AA: What can one expect from The Glass Menagerie?
82 years on from the year in which the story is set, audiences will not only be offered the humour and emotional angst within this extraordinary story but also a unique encounter with Tennessee Williams’ wide and wild imagination. A story that will lift, exhilarate and move you all in one moment.
Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie what is the story?
Set in St. Louis in 1937 it follows the aftermath of the 1929 Stock Market Crash. For the African American community in the play, tensions are high as families struggle to cope with The Great Depression. But Amanda Wingfield, rejects the impoverished life and refusing to let her children lead a life of devastation and despair.
Cast: Michael Abubakar as Tom, Lesley Ewen as Amanda. Charlie Maher as Jim and Naima Swaleh as Laura. Book tickets here
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