East Anglia: Playwrite’s voyage of discovery, the story behind Eastern Angles’ Palm Wine and Stout.
- Credit: Archant
There were no tears, no anger, when Segun Lee-French touched down in Nigeria, seeing his father for the first time in 20 years - but there were surprises and, sadly, missed opportunities.
“We arrived at night, just said ‘hello’, gave each other a hug and that was about it. It didn’t feel like anything spectacular,” says the writer, who has turned his experiences into the Eastern Angles produced play Palm Wine and Stout, a revised version of which is currently touring the region.
“He told quite a few stories about the family, we’d talk about politics and philosophy. The only things I remember him doing that were fatherly to me,” he laughs, “was showing me a shaving trick for when you cut yourself I hadn’t seen before and saying if anything happened to him it would be up to me as the oldest son to make sure the rest of the family were okay.”
His father wasn’t somebody who talked much about emotions adds Lee-French, likening African fathers to English fathers 50 years ago when it comes to talking to their sons or even daughters about their feelings. Authority and guiding your children being more the thing. His parents met when his father was a student at Leeds University, where his mother was working as a teacher. He was very young when his father returned to Nigeria. They met just twice more - when Lee-French spent a holiday there when he was six and another when his father visited them in England when he was eight or nine.
Full of emotions and questions, the poet and composer was surprised how relaxed the reunion was.
“I’d been brought up in modern England, where people tend to perhaps over-emote, over-analyse and rehash things,” he laughs.
“There were definitely missed opportunities, not to give the plot of the play away, for us to communicate. I think, sometimes, just by spending time with somebody without talking about things you can actually communicate just as much. I think it might be a man thing... to be frank, I probably feel more comfortable with my mates doing things rather than talking about our emotions,” he laughs.
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It wasn’t the only surprise.
“My mother (who he urged to join him on the trip in 1999) got together with my father again, rekindling their relationship as it were. He (had) invited her to live in Nigeria after he’d been back there about four years and marry him but she wasn’t keen on going over there.”
“She came back with me... she’s quite an independent person,” he laughs, “so she wasn’t keen to stay in Nigeria.”
Lee-French was spurred to travel to Nigeria after having shamanistic hypnotherapy to help him improve his singing. When she asked him if he had any voices that wanted to speak during the sessions, the spirit of his twin brother, who died when he was just three-weeks-old, took over.
“He wasn’t happy where he was buried. When he was born my mum didn’t have much money, he’s buried in a communal grave in Leeds with about six other people of varying ages.”
Twins are very significant in Nigerian culture, believed to bring good luck but also bad luck if not handled properly. A ceremony needed to be performed to, in a sense, appease his spirit. His half-brother, who features quite strongly in the play under a different name, had also started writing to him, urging him to visit.
Lee-French didn’t put pen to paper until spotting Ipswich-based Eastern Angles’ open call for writers of black and Asian origin interested in rural touring.
“There are quite a lot of music and dance productions from people of Africa and Asian origin, but there are very few theatre shows that tour rurally so it was really to encourage more culturally diverse work in rural regions in terms of theatre. I entered my proposal and got through... I don’t know how many people applied, there may might only have been two,” laughs the Arts Council relationship manager for music.
Palm Wine and Stout focuses on young British man Taiye’s quest to find out more about his African heritage. Along the way he experiences the vibrant bustle of modern Nigerian city life and the mysterious rituals of rural African villagers. With half-brother Femi as his guide, Taiye’s journey becomes a challenging culture clash incorporating music, dance and host of spiritual ancestors.
“It’s a piece primarily about family and conflict between people brought up in a village and people brought up in the city, which is what appealed to Eastern Angles. The fact it’s in Nigeria and there’s a lot of stuff about Nigerian culture in it... a lot of that is just the dressing for a basic tale of a kind of family melodrama (with) universal themes.”
It’s not totally autobiographical; some people were deleted, some merged for the story to make sense, the ending changed.
“The plot is more or less as it happened; the only major difference is I changed some of the [characters’] backstory. One of my father’s other wives, her backstory I changed completely. I’m hoping she doesn’t get to see it,” laughs the 47-year-old, who’s written two full-length plays, once of which is a musical; and four one-act plays. “She’ll probably be pretty angry if she realises it was based on her.”
A deeply personal story, Lee-French says it was one of the easiest plays he’s written thanks to having kept a very detailed diary of both trips to Nigeria. Reading like a travelogue and the first part a road-trip also gave the play a clear structure.
Typing the diary out, he then changed the names of everybody in it which made it easier to cut things out and change characters around.
“You have to write what makes sense for the characers’ story as opposed to your’s. It’s very difficult to write about your own life... for me the problem was I wouldn’t like to dramatise myself, making yourself into a hero or something seems a bit big-headed - that might be the English side of me coming out there,” he laughs.
n Palm Wine and Stout visits Dedham Assembly Rooms, April 25; Orford Town Hall, April 26; Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich, April 29-May 3; Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft, May 6; Aylsham Town Hall, May 7; Brandeston Village Hall, May 8; Walsham-le-Willows Village Hall, May 9; Wetheringsett Village Hall, May 10; Brightlingsea Community Centre, May 13; St Edmund’s Hall, Southwold, May 14; Assington Village Hall, May 15; Community Hall, Woodbridge, May 16-17; Margaretting Village Hall, May 20; John Peel Centre, Stowmarket, May 21; Mumford Theatre, Cambridge, May 22; Witham Public Hall, May 23 and Hindolveston Village Hall, May 24.