By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Wednesday, September 29, 2010.
Despite being one of the oldest countries on earth, a cradle of world civilisation and a site of ancient architecture, history and human culture, most coverage of Ethiopia is seen through the prism of war, famines and poverty. Of course, there’s much more to this vibrant multi-faceted nation, something which the Unicorn Theatre in London Bridge is about to reveal, through an adaptation of Elizabeth Laird's popular novel The Garbage King.
Set in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa, The Garbage King is the story of two very different boys who find themselves abandoned to the city’s dangerous streets, and it has been adapted for its world stage première by acclaimed writer Dipo Agboluaje.
With a set created entirely from recycled and discarded objects, and live music performed by Ethiopian Krar player Temesgen Taraken, the environment may be familiar to Amaka Okafor, one of the shows ensemble cast.
Speaking with her recently during a break in rehearsals she described a recent trip – made almost spontaneously - to Ethiopia with Liam Lane, who is one of her co-stars.
“It was really good for building the world of the play and the vibe and the smells and sights and sounds [of Ethiopia]."
With her father being Ben Okafor, the musician and actor, the twenty-something Amaka says she learnt her trade by putting her hand up to appear in every school play possible and also by criss-crossing the UK to act in community halls and small venues. She has been a member of The Unicorn Theatre’s ensemble cast for the past two years and already appeared in productions of The London Eye Mysteries. She also played the role of Miranda in the Unicorn Theatre’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Amaka, who is of Indian and Nigerian descent, shared some insight into her preparation and it seems that the gender of the character was not the main focus for her.
“That has been the one of the challenges – but also I have worked really hard to find this character. I think it is one of most difficult roles I have ever played; but I am getting there. [He] has an overbearing father and a mother who spoils him. He doesn’t do well at school or good with his grades. The only thing he is good at is story writing. A lot of people will identify with that.”
The novel is based on the experiences of Elizabeth Laird who lived and worked in Ethiopia for several years. In the novel, several kids are portrayed; only two are the focus of The Unicorn's production. Having loved the book Amaka knows that a much loved story remade for stage or screen can be frustrating. For The Garbage King, she plays the role of teenaged street kid Dani - a boy. Some characters go missing, some scenes are totally different. But she’s pleased with and excited about Dipo Agoboluaje’s adaptation. Although the story is told differently on the stage she reveals that: “Dipo has done an amazing job. It is really true to the story - certain things are made sharper and more dramatic - everything that happens in the book is pretty much there”.
Although London is a city of immense wealth with pockets of poverty and hardship, the level of destitution seen in Ethiopia’s capital is on a vastly different scale; nor does London have the problem of abandoned street kids. The connection between Ethiopian kids and their counterparts in other countries is one of reasons why Amaka is confident that a UK audience will love the characters and identify with the story.
“The street children theme is a massive theme in it [but] this play is also about family and where you belong and how young people are treated by adults. Even though to us living on the streets could seem like the worst possible choice - it is also a family; and it is learning how to survive and look after each other”.
The Garbage King
Adapted by Oladipo Agboluaje
147 Tooley Street
London SE1 2HZ
Until - 31 October 2010
0207 645 0560
Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.