AiW note: In February this year, Volcano Theatre in Toronto reached out to Africa in Words to help publicise the late Binyavanga Wainaina’s play Shine Your Eye. Shine your Eye is a one-act play written by Binyavanga Wainaina. Set in an internet scam office in Lagos, it offers a portrait of an emerging African generation, exploring the notion of territory, and what possible territory might exist for a new generation of Africans now in their twenties.
The main character, Gbene Beka, a young computer hacker in Lagos and daughter of an assassinated political hero, is forced to choose between two possible futures: one Western, one African. She must look forward, into her own future, and make a choice about where she will go and what boundaries she may be willing to cross to get there.
During the pandemic, the theatre streamed the archive video of the world premiere performance of the play, recorded as a part of Volcano Theatre’s The Africa Trilogy, at the 2010 Luminato Festival (co-commissioned by Luminato Festival Toronto & the Stratford Festival, and presented in association with the Harbourfront Centre).
We were excited to talk with the lead actress of Volcano Theatre’s production of Shine Your Eye, Dienye Waboso Amajor, for her Words on the Times – an AiW Q&A series inspired by the spirit of community and resilience, initiated to connect the blog’s communities through their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Shine Your Eye” is a Nigerian expression, meaning “wake up, look at what’s really happening”…
Dora Nominated Nigerian artist Dienye’s Words below offer a rich response to that pithy sentiment. Bringing forward her advocacy, she charts her involvement with Wainaina’s play — from her audition and improv in pidgeon in 2009, through to its most recent showing during the pandemic at the Lagos Theatre Festival this March (2021)….
Could you tell us a bit about your involvement with Shine Your Eye and the ways the pandemic has impacted it?
I walked into the audition for “Shine your eye” in 2009. The work had been in development for a year or so. They needed to find the protagonist, ‘Beka’. I was sort of busy that year; I had just been nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore award, I was doing good but still sort of drifting within my art.
I got a call from my agent, randomly, on a Tuesday and he said “hey, the folks at Volcano would like you to come in to audition tomorrow. I mean you’re Nigerian right? Well they need a Nigerian sound so I think it’ll be good”. The next day I walked into a room filled with extremely successful theatre and art professionals. There were about 15 people in the room gathered to veto the choice of the actor being auditioned for the gig.
Ross [Manson, the director] said “Hi Dienye, we’re looking for a Nigerian actor, we have been for a while. Can you read this monologue for us?” And so I did…. It triggered many childhood memories, good memories of my dad and I; it made me cry and I thought “this is mine”. And then Ross asked “do you speak pidgeon English?” I was like “uhhh yeah”. He said “okay we’re gonna do some improv in pidgeon between you and the guy who will play your boss”. Enter Lucky Onyekachi Ejim (@luckyejim) who is OMO NAIJA. Man we look each oda upandan like “o set igo”. We killed the improv.
Then Ross said “thank you Dienye, we’ll let you know, are you busy in the next couple of months? Ok we’ll be in touch really soon.” The room was silent when I walked out.
What I found out later is that as I exited the room, it exploded with sound and heart and excitement, hugs and handshakes and joy. They had found “Gbenebeka”. The next day I booked the gig.
The performances of Shine Your Eye started out as part of ‘The Africa Trilogy’ in 2010, a series of plays that would examine the relationship between Africa and the West. We premiered at The Luminato Theatre festival (Toronto) and it was great. Ross Manson had assembled some great writers to examine the complex relationships that exist between Africa and the west and they were fantastic but Shine stood out because it was the only play that examined the relationship between Africa and the west through a scenario where Africa came out of the love tussle as the victor. Defining its own terms, taking what it needed, unapologetically. With Binyavanga Wainaina and Ross Manson at the helm it was truly groundbreaking work for a western audience. It didn’t take, the west was not ready, the audience was not ready, the political climate was a stony ground for such a story to thrive. And it didn’t. But here we are more than a decade later with a piece of art that is equally as if not more relevant now than when we made it. This play is even more important now as the cultural climate of the world changes. We need these extraordinary stories of and from Africa to proliferate, so we can see ourselves as African, victorious, challenging, incandescently brilliant and being reborn into a destiny of our own choosing. It’s all about choice.
And so, in 2021, as Lagos Theatre Festival offered to stream Wainaina’s play live from March 18th to 21st, I realise “we’ve come home”. Through no effort of our own, our work has come home, to an audience that will recognize the jams, exult in the jokes and cry at the tragedy of our collective truth as human beings; and I am so glad. To be a daughter of the soil bringing my disruptive art to the soil of my origin — there is no greater feeling as an artist. Greater even than the awards is the knowledge that the work still lives and will forever be relevant. We dreamt of this moment in the rehearsal hall. We always said “wouldn’t it be awesome to take this play to Lagos?” — WE DID! And so I leave you with the words of our dear, funny, much loved, much respected, friend, poet,laureate, artist and writer, Binyavanga Wainaina:
“Although, like many, I go to sleep at night fantasizing about fame, fortune, and credibility, the thing that is most valuable in my trade is to try, all the time, to keep myself loose, independent and creative…..”
In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before the pandemic?
I am now working from a place of power. This past year has helped me understand the power that we each carry. Especially as Africans. It’s a power that transcends colonialism, slavery, hatred, fear and oppression. It’s a power that stems from the knowledge of how Africa supports the world through her resources, her man/woman power, her ideas, her history, her very existence. It’s a knowledge that the west would pocket and lock away if they could and indeed for some centuries they have been successful in defining Africa as the opposite of everything she is and have been even more successful in trapping her sons and daughters into this belief. Limiting the potential of Africans in and out of the diaspora. I have taken this power back for myself. It’s not always loud, it’s not always visible but it exists in my spine and radiates out to my entire body that I am supernatural and have power beyond imagination to define my life. And I believe this is a shift that is needed for Africa to regain control of her destiny. So every medium my art takes now whether big or small, acting, writing, poetry….I fill it with this new knowledge and it is healing, comforting and empowering.
What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
What has really helped me during this time is meditating on my interconnectedness with my roots/heritage and reading the Bible. This is profitable spiritually, yes, but it has also provided me with solid historical context for who I am, where I am from, and from whom I am descended.
Music has also really helped. Not new music i.e. trap etc., even though there is a place for it, but I mean music like Fela, King Sunny Ade, Sir Shina Peters, Gloria Estefan, Janet Jackson, Billie Holliday, Majek Fashek etc music of revolution and love. Very nostalgic, healing, reaffirming and cleansing.
How can our blog communities support you?
In terms of support, this interview is a form of support. Establishing connections and being able to bank on their delivery in terms of exposure and networking, is key. We need to get “our” ideas out and into the world and we can do this by supporting each other, hiring each other, referencing each other and speaking each other’s names in rooms we have access to.
Dienye Waboso Amajor is a Dora Nominated Nigerian Artist who lives and works in Ontario. Dienye currently spends her time as mother to two boys and a wife to a cool dude. In her spare time Dienye is pursuing a Master of Arts in Theatre and Performance studies at York University. Dienye is an advocate for the accurate research, documentation and portrayal of black history, black truths, and black lives in North America.