Gbenga Yusuf and The Perfect Dance

Gbenga and Andrea, Lagos 2008

In the most recent blog about my Houston expat life, Long Distance Staff Writer, Gbenga and I had a week to write, cast and rehearse a play for two performances at Terra Kulture in Lagos. This was the first time any of my shows would be performed more than once.

A week was a big ask, but was it impossible? Not for a director who pitched for three years to secure the opportunity to produce a show. And not for a writer with a script in the wings that she was longing to push onto stage.

I wrote Faint of Heart to perform in Houston, but had never produced it. Buddy didn’t like the original story, so I slashed half of it and added a new thread about gambling. This became A Dangerous Game, which we performed for ExxonMobil in 2011. The deleted sections of the script lay lifeless in my computer waiting for someone to breathe life into it.

When Gbegna said he needed a show, I pulled out my editing tools and stiched the leftover scenes into The Perfect Dance – a romantic thriller which included, undercover agents, drugs and all sorts of wild choreography.

Cynthia and Thomas fall in love while trying to create the perfect dance, but their love affair turns into a roller-coaster of distrust, betrayal and misunderstanding.

When they meet again a decade after their breakup, can they start again?

While I was crafting the story, Gbenga recruited performers and printed flyers – our payment was purely through tickets sales, so PR was paramount. We’d be lucky to cover our costs, but if Gbenga impressed the theatre manager, he might be assigned a more lucrative opportunity.

Rehearsals began as soon as I handed over the script. I could do nothing more but wait.

The day of the performance, I checked my watch every five minutes, imagining them on stage. I ached to be there, to see my characters spring to life. Gbenga had no time, or money, to video the production. All I’d see or hear of it was his interpretation afterwards. So I waited for him to call.

When at last we spoke, the adrenaline in Gbenga’s voice told me all I needed to know. By hard work, skill and determination he’d pulled it off. I suspect he didn’t sleep that whole week.

His team must have done an amazing job, because Terra Kulture offered Gbenga the chance to perform not one, not two, but eight shows over a two week period in 2012.

Over the next couple of years, STAR Performing Arts produced three more of my shows: Batonga, Take Heart and Don’t Hurt Me.

Batonga was a rewrite of the child trafficking story we’d waited so long to produce. The title came from a song by the brilliant singer Angelique Kidjo. As a child, Angelique was one of the few girls who attended school in Benin. When the boys teased her, she’d shout “Batonga” at them, a word she made up to mean power to women through education. Years later, she created a foundation called Batonga to raise funds to sponsor girl’s education in Africa. I reached out to Angelique’s agent hoping to involve her in the production. I even had the thrill of meeting him in his Wall St office, New York. In the end, we didn’t have enough funds for Angelique to perform with us, but he gave us permission to use her music.

Meanwhile, Gbenga contacted NAPTIP, Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, who do incredible work “to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons.” He wanted to promote their work through Batonga. They suggested several script changes, which we incorporated. To our delight, they endorsed the show and attended the performances.

Last year, I reached out to NAPTIP about my second novel which is set in Nigeria and has a character from their organization. I am thrilled to say they’ve endorsed it.

Take Heart, sponsored by SPAN (Society for the Performing Arts in Nigeria), was about a young man needing a heart transplant. We wrote it to support the work done by the Kanu Heart Foundation to provide heart surgery for children with heart problems.

Gbenga and Andrea, Melbourne 2018

Don’t Hurt Me, about family violence, marked the next stage in my development as a writer. It was a more traditional play with only the back story told through dance. For the first time, I worked with two talented composers, John Best and Sam Cooke, but these collaborations are stories for another day.

To this day, Gbenga continues to be a powerhouse in Nigeria for dance productions. As I said in A Week in Lagos, I had the pleasure of catching up with Gbenga last year, when he visited Melbourne with Spirit of David. 

Next time: How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal
Next Houston blog: Collaborating with Children.

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