nikkita duke headshot

Nikkita Duke

The Fehinty African Theatre Ensemble will debut its performance of “Fatty Bum Bum,” a political comedy about “marginalization and self-preservation,” this Saturday at the Green Line Performing Arts Center. Written entirely in Nigerian Pidgin, the play centers around Emediong, a young woman forced to confront a conductor who, because of her size, tries to make her pay for multiple seats on the bus.

Fatty Bum Bum was written by Nikkita Duke, a Nigerian playwright who graduated with a master’s degree in stage/screenwriting from Northwestern University last year. The Herald spoke with Duke about poetry, the perks and drawbacks of the Nigerian “boldness gene,” and writing beyond stereotypes of Africa. This conversation was condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: Can you tell me a little about the idea behind the play?

A: I’ve always found weight to be a tricky topic worldwide. I also find it interesting that societies become obsessed with bone structures and fat percentages. That seems to define beauty and what is presentable. “Fatty Bum Bum” in Nigerian Pidgin is used interchangeably towards a plus-size person with or without a big butt. Depending on how it’s said and who it is said to, it is either a compliment or an insult.

My experience with some Nigerians is that they always tell you their mind whether you care for it or not. So, you can be walking down the street and someone can stop you and tell you that they feel you would look finer in a different outfit or give you advice on how you should be. It’s always fascinated me because, one, nobody asked for it and, two, the people who do so genuinely believe they have the right because they are helping your life with what they say. And this ‘boldness gene’ has its perks when it comes to speaking out against injustice and all. But in the end, no one should dictate what makes you comfortable besides you.

How did you make the decision to write in Nigerian Pidgin, especially given the long-standing marginalization of African plays in the United States?

Pidgin-English is a language that connects a lot of Nigerians and West Africans. It’s not totally the same lingo across states in Nigeria or countries but most times, it’s enough to get you by and enough to understand each other. Across the African continent and worldwide, a lot of countries do have their own bespoke Pidgin derived from English or other languages.

In 2018, I saw a play by my friend and amazing playwright, Hannah Ii-Epstein. It was called “Not One Batu” and it was a full-length piece completely in Hawaiian Pidgin English. It was an incredible, emotional play and I was intrigued that I could understand a language I had never heard before and be so drawn to the story. And it was because I understand West African Pidgin that I was able to grasp things so easily.

After, I thought more about language and how things translate across continents. Before her play, I didn’t really grasp that a play in Nigerian Pidgin English could have an audience that wasn’t African. Once my mind was open, the possibilities were endless. Months later, I had the idea for “Fatty Bum Bum” and I knew it would be best expressed in Nigerian Pidgin English.

Can you tell me a little about how your work tries to overcome stereotypes of Nigerians, like the trope of the “scammer prince”?

Chimamanda Adichie said it best when she warned against the danger of a single story. She said: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

For me, telling different stories with Nigerians and Africans in the continent and in the diaspora helps diversify the narrative. No single human can be put in one box. Why do so to a whole nation or continent? Stories matter because they help educate and open people’s minds, which then promotes better communication and coexistence between us.

I tell so many stories with universal themes to make people understand that we go through similar emotions and problems. So, we keep hearing Nigerians are scammers, or Africans are underprivileged — cool. I’m here writing for people to hear more stories because we are more than our stereotypes and the single story you heard or saw.

You also write in other forms, notably poetry. Do you find that your poetry seeps into your dramaturgy, and vice-versa?

Yes, I love, love poetry. It was my first form of writing and to date, I say things poetically. Especially when my characters have a monologue or soliloquy in my stage plays and screenplays. I just finished a musical comedy TV pilot, and my poetry was very present in the lyrics. For me, writing has to do with language and expression, and my poetry seeps into everything. I love it that way.

"Fatty Bum Bum" will play at the Green Line Performing Arts Center, 329 E. Garfield Blvd., on Feb. 29 and March 7 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Buy online at bit.ly/FattyBumBum.

Reporter

Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

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