SURE Project: Silenced Voices in Nigerian Theatre

Last year Laura Mulvey, one of our recent graduates, conducted research into Nigerian theatre. Here Laura talks us through the project.

Think summer research projects are just for science students? The Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) scheme allows students from any discipline to delve into any area of research not fully captured by their course. In 2016, I carried out a project exploring the ways in which Nigerian theatre has enabled silenced voices to be reclaimed, under the supervision of Dr Veronica Barnsley and Dr Frances Babbage. I wanted to engage with the ideas about voice established by noted postcolonial theorists, and to examine how these ideas might correspond with or contradict the function of theatre in a postcolonial context. The experience heightened my engagement with my course and broadened my understanding of global literature, as well as strongly influencing the focus of my third-year dissertation.

For me, the application process began by connecting two seemingly unrelated aspects of my course that had captured my interest. In my second year, I had been introduced to the postcolonial theories of Gayatri Spivak, who writes about the silencing impact of colonial oppression upon indigenous peoples. Studying these texts opened an intriguing conversation with a module on politically radical theatre, and the ways in which changing dramatic practices were able to give a voice to social movements. The themes seemed to me to be particularly urgent, with ever-shifting global politics constantly questioning – and often restricting – who is able to be heard. By combining ideas from the two modules, I was able to formulate a subject for investigation: the reclaiming of silenced voices in postcolonial theatre. The dual focus of the project lent itself naturally to a double supervision, with Dr Veronica Barnsley guiding the postcolonial aspects of the work and Dr Frances Babbage supporting the theatrical elements. My initial outline was extremely broad, spanning continents, movements and decades, before discussions with my supervisors encouraged me to be more realistic about what could be achieved in six weeks.

Wole Soyinka

As such, the first stage of the project involved a process of narrowing down and refining my focus. I decided to situate my research in Nigeria because of the country’s rich theatrical heritage, which has encompassed both colonial influences and indigenous tradition. Following initial research into the Nigerian political theatre scene, I chose two playwrights to study: Wole Soyinka, a highly-esteemed playwright and the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and Femi Osofisan, an overtly political playwright whose work focuses on addressing the problems he perceives in Nigerian society. During each week of the project, I examined the texts of different postcolonial theorists, collating and interpreting their ideas about the position of voices in a postcolonial context. Sometimes in agreement with the plays, sometimes differing totally, the theoretical reading helped me to broaden my perceptions of what is meant by “having a voice” in the first place, and how the complex power dynamics of postcolonial societies might alter or confuse these ideas. I was also given the opportunity to attend the rehearsal of a piece of performance poetry, devised by migrants to Sheffield, whose work focused on the significance of the “Mother Tongue” in maintaining identity.

Meanwhile, the plays themselves contained rich and varied representations of voice, often functioning as a means to convey the untold uncertainties of postcolonialism. Particularly intriguing examples were Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, which reinterprets the true story of a Yoruba chief who was prevented from committing ritual suicide by a colonial official, and Femi Osofisan’s Once Upon Four Robbers, in which the audience are burdened with the responsibility of deciding the fate of a band of robbers. By studying these texts alongside the ideas of the theorists, I developed three main areas to categorise my findings:

Hierarchy of voice: Examining the hierarchies operating within the plays offered great insight into the variety of ways in which postcolonial theatre deals with the complexities of voice. While most of the texts were indeed concerned with giving voice back to the colonised, the presentation of realistic power structures troubled this principle, for example, with the relative silencing of indigenous women. These multi-layered systems of oppression were illuminated by the theories of Ania Loomba, who discusses the need for the colonial subject to “negotiate the cracks” of the dominant discourse in order to be heard.

Voice and death: Death was a crucial aspect of the interpretation of voice, in both the dramatic and theoretical texts. Gayatri Spivak’s writings on the practice of widow immolation highlights the double implication of certain kinds of death as both a manifestation of patriarchal silencing and a declaration of identity. This duality was reflected in the plays – while in many ways a symbol of ultimate silencing, the Yoruba perception of death as a gateway into the spirit world simultaneously gave the voices of deceased characters a higher authority.

Yoruba Mask

Voice in creation: Despite the unresolved issues and power imbalances at work, the texts invariably identified voice as a force of creation, for better or worse. Homi Bhabha theorises that the narrative of dominant voices in society forms the identity of a nation – a hypothesis that seems particularly pressing in today’s post-truth world. Osofisan turns this concept on its head, arguing for an uprising of unified voices to forge a better world.

Overall, taking part in the SURE scheme has had a profound impact on my academic study. As well as developing my knowledge of the subject area, the opportunity to pose my own questions and fully explore an area of my own interest has increased my ability and confidence in research. The specialist knowledge I gained supported my dissertation work at Level 3, and I believe the experience of such in-depth research will also be invaluable to postgraduate study. In addition, the demonstrable skills of independent working, critical analysis, and project leadership would be great assets in any job interview. I would certainly encourage anyone in the School of English to apply for SURE, as it gives you a chance to begin building your own area of specialism and to view your discipline in a whole new light.

— Laura Mulvey

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