Contributor: Juwon Ogungbe
Fraudsters Inc. is a troupe of actors of African origin who came together to create a show which they dubbed It's Good to Talk. They are: Patrice Naimbana, Jude Akuwudike and Femi Elufowoju Jnr. Patrice Naimbana is Sierra-Leonean, a unique performer who came up in the Thespian world the hard way working with such idiosyncratic performers as Yulisa Amadi Maddy (from Sierra Leone) and V. Amani Napthali (formerly of Double Edge Theatre Company UK). He was a star performer in one of Black Britain's most resonant theatre shows - Ragamuffin. His fortunes as an actor have improved somewhat over the last three years. He now works regularly in Cutting Edge theatre, the Royal Court Theatre, Theatre De Complicit? and Wild Iris Theatre Company.
Jude Akuwudike is a Nigerian actor who has lived in the UK since his late childhood. A versatile artiste, he also writes drama and is an accomplished painter. Before studying acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic art, Jude studied architecture. In his chequered career, he has toured the world with the Royal Court Theatre company, played Olunde, the horseman's son in Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman at the Royal Exchange Theatre and has worked for Theatre De Complicit?.
Femi Elufowoju Jnr. is also from Nigeria. After studying law at the University of Ife (Now Obafemi Awolowo University), Nigeria, he studied drama in the UK. Recently, he received plaudits for his performance in Biyi Bandele-Thomas' Resurrections staged by Talawa Theatre Company. He went on to feature in Talawa's Christmas show, Maskarade.
Fraudsters Inc. are a serious, almost scholarly group aiming to help create a stronger impact for African performers in Britain. It's Good to talk was their first attempt to create a form of accessible African-based popular theatre. Commissioned by Philip Hedley of Theatre Royal, Stratford East, It's Good to Talk focused on presenting an African perspective on life in the UK. What sort of friction occurs when Africans stumble upon people from the host community or other ethnic groups? Its Good... uses a pot-pourri of sketches, anecdotes, music (including rap), and the highly developed physical theatre skills of its creators/performers to explore these issues in an irreverent, humorous and entertaining way.
I spoke to Fraudsters Inc. twice over a two-week period. My first meeting was with Patrice and Jude at the BBC studios in Maida Vale. They had just finished recording a radio play by Biyi Bandele-Thomas for Radio 4. We had a chinwag in the canteen. Bandele-Thomas sat in our discussion and sometimes interjected. I wanted to know what kept them from doing a project like this, much earlier.
"Timing and opportunity," replied Naimbana. "We all met on Marching for Fausa (A Bandele-Thomas play staged at the Royal Court Theatre in 1993) and we have been thinking collectively and individually of African characters and material ever since. In my case, I had to test myself as a performer in other contexts when I arrived here, but there always comes a time when your personal crises coincide with larger and wider issues. Some may call that political. When that happens, you start to have dreams and aspirations".
"I think it was important," interjected Jude "that we came across the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, whose sheltering has given us a bit of a parachute. If we didn't have them, we would have to deal with the question of bread - where is your money coming from? It might have been more difficult. They also give us some credibility on the theatre scene."
"But it would have happened sooner or later." added Patrice. "I certainly was getting tired of the few options available to me as a Black actor in the UK."
Jude then went on to describe the African way of regarding life in the UK as a stop-gap on the way back home. "Our business ethics never set root here, unlike some other parts of the UK's alien communities. Self-help and putting down economic roots in this country are really quite important for me. This, in a way, is a self-help project."
In the present climate, many UK Black actors are forming troupes for a popular form of theatre. Some call it variety, others call it comedy. These actors are mainly from a straight drama background. However the dearth of opportunities for them to practise their craft and develop as well as earn a crust for themselves and their families is making them opt for something else. Groups such as The Posse, Bibi Crew and TV programmes such as Get Up Stand Up and The Real McCoy have become the trendsetters for Black Thespians. This newish tendency which could be described as the `291 Club factor', is controlled by a small cabal of producers who seem to be moulding the careers of many of our best straight actors and actresses towards comedy, song, and dance routines. Patrice can be reasonably described as a feral comic talent. I was interested to know what he and Jude had to say about this state of affairs. "I believe that African people have a way of couching serious things - even tragedy - in humorous forms of expression. That's the way we are." was his response. Jude concurred: "The key is to find humour which puzzles, highlighting paradoxes. We have to work hard. It's not laid out on a plate for us."
Bandele-Thomas then spoke of a general growth trend in the UK comedy scene. Jude agreed, citing the rampant presence of comedy acts at last year's Edinburgh festival. Said Patrice: "I know what you mean. A lot of these actors are aware of Serious drama. If it were easier to make a self-generated group successful through drama, they would do it. But comedy seems to the easiest gateway. I also feel that what they are doing now is not the end of their vision. Companies like The Posse have arms spreading out like tentacles. Comedy is a philosophical attitude. You may have the same data as a `serious' artist but you come with a different result."
This is an important point which made sense to me as a reason why performers of Fraudsters Inc.'s calibre would be interested in working in this area of showbusiness. We had a protracted discussion on this issue which came to a farcical end when Jude opined that "Lenny Henry can do straight dramas now", at which everyone else laughed in disagreement.
But Fraudsters Inc. have other agenda. According to Patrice, they aim to have a "performance research centre". "Even if we do not always perform together, we want to produce shows, make films and build a database, monitoring the identity of an African theatre in migration. It is a 10 to 15-year project. If I were a Martian and I arrived in London, and sat in a hotel room watching TV, listening to radio and watching videos for a month, I would have to question whether or not there really is an African continent."
A week later, I visited Fraudsters Inc. in their rehearsal space in Stratford, East London. This time Femi Elufowoju Jnr was in attendance. I asked for the story line - in a nutshell - of It's Good to Talk.
According to Patrice, "Its about these guys who arrive at Heathrow, searching for the `Golden Fleece'. They are asked for their papers and they refuse, saying that they are not aliens. They escape and disperse, having to learn how to function in Britain. When they reunite, much later, they have many tales to tell about their experiences in this country.
"These characters still haven't found the golden fleece and are hoping to win the jackpot prize in a lottery. Hopefully the play will not apply to just these three guys. We want to comment on wider issues such as the National Lottery. It is very much a picture of Britain at the moment where things have to be invented for hope because people have nought."
I asked if they would be dealing with issues such as repatriation. Patrice replied: "We are looking for ways to bring in such issues without preaching or patronising."
Femi Elufowoju has a special interest in films, having worked hard to acquire his own production equipment. With these resources, he recently made a short film. Is he thinking of immortalising Its good to Talk on celluloid? Amidst laughs and shouts of "Its funny you should say that", Femi replied: "Today, we were working on the beginning piece and stumbled upon some images which really did reflect as cinematic."
Could Fraudsters Inc. do well in the local film and video industries in Ghana and Nigeria? They all agreed. According to Jude, "During our research, we saw a documentary on the life of Samuel Coleridge Taylor - an African composer who lived and worked in the UK. It would be quite interesting if we researched that and made a proper film of it."
What does It's Good to talk have to offer Africans? Femi replied: "We aim to explore the various stereotypical images of Africans as perceived by others in the UK today. We also aim to debunk these myths for our own people and for the wider public." Jude hastened to add, "this is an experiment. What we have in our minds as long term aims are not necessarily going to be totally fulfilled in this show. Our task is to find a universal human thing. A Chinese person should be able to come to the show and relate to what's going on."
Fraudsters Inc.'s presented the premi?re of Its good to talk at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, East London on the 26th of February.
The group has indicated that the name Fraudsters Inc. will shortly be changed