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UMN acting student protests Nigerian Special Anti-Robbery Squad with original play

Wariboko Semenitari wrote and directed a virtual play giving voices to victims of police brutality in Nigeria titled, “Naija is Alive.”
Image by Emily Pofahl
Junior Wariboko Gabriel Semenitari poses for a portrait in Dinkytown on Tuesday, Nov. 17. Semenitari performed his play “Naija is Alive” with an audience over Zoom. The play is now available to watch on YouTube.

“Africans, listen to me as Africans. And you non-Africans, listen to me with an open mind.”

Originally from the song “Shuffering and Shmiling” by Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, Wariboko Semenitari, a third-year student in the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Acting Program, chose this phrase to be the standout line of his virtual play, “Naija is Alive,” which premiered online Nov. 6. Repeated powerfully throughout, this line highlights Semenitari’s hopes for how the stories and messages of his production will resonate with audiences.

The play centers around stories of victims of police brutality under the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police force in Nigeria. SARS is a division of the Nigerian Police that was formed in 1992 to combat theft and other local crimes. Since its creation, there have been hundreds of accounts of physical assault, sexual violence, kidnapping and murder committed by SARS officers.

As a Zoom-based production, “Naija is Alive” is organized in a unique fashion. It moves and cuts between actors as they dramatically recite monologues and real testimonies of SARS victims. The scenes are frequently intercut with footage of protests in Nigeria, speeches from End SARS activists and various other firsthand video content acquired from online resources and social media.

Having created the play for a project in his BFA acting program, Semenitari dove in with the “do it yourself” mentality. He took on the roles of writer, director, vocal coach and more for the production, which is available to the public on YouTube.

From its inception to the final product, “Naija is Alive” comes from a personal place for Semenitari. Having been born and raised in Nigeria, he felt a strong motivation to bring awareness to the injustices taking place there and to the End SARS movement.

“[End SARS] is not something that’s new; it’s been going on for a while. But recently it has gained more traction and higher impact,” Semenitari said. “In seeing that, I was like, ‘If I don’t write about this, I’m cheating myself.’”

Along with the premiere of the play, Semenitari launched a GoFundMe campaign in order to raise money for various End SARS organizations and to establish a scholarship fund dedicated to a Black woman in the University acting program.

When presented with the script, Assistant Director Adedotun Salami saw the timing of “Naija is Alive” to be impeccable.

“My first thoughts were how incredibly timely it was as the End SARS movement really started to gain traction and notoriety, especially from global media in October,” Salami said.

The End SARS social movement officially took its name from the widely circulated social media hashtag #EndSARS in 2017, and it has experienced a recent revitalization.

“Oct. 1 is Nigerian Independence Day, and to see the End SARS movement pick up in the month that we just celebrated freedom from colonial rule was actually very inspiring,” Salami said.

Semenitari was deliberate in his inclusion of an all-female and all person of color cast, hoping to challenge trends of mainstream theater and provide representation where he saw it to be missing.

“I cast all Black women because I didn’t see enough of that on Twin Cities’ stages,” Semenitari said. “I want to write more parts for them, and I want to see more Black women onstage and on-screen.”

Actor and University graduate Jennifer Waithera Waweru played several roles in the production. While the show dealt heavily in what can be difficult and painful subject matter, Waithera Waweru sees the play’s content as a necessary examination on police brutality as a global issue.

“I think for us as Black people doing this content, it was very familiar,” Waithera Waweru said. “Although we’re still stepping into new territory. The concept of police brutality is something that a lot of us feel very close to, especially this year.”

As a director, Semenitari aimed to create a safe space where the cast and crew could thoughtfully work through the material.

“It was metamorphic,” Semenitari said. “Out of the times of rehearsal where it hit us emotionally, that’s where the most beautiful moments would come out. I tried as a director to foster this space of safety for my actresses in dealing with this hard subject matter.”

Like the Fela Kuti lyric repeated throughout the show, Semenitari hopes viewers go into “Naija is Alive” open-minded and prepared to educate themselves on the issues of police brutality in Nigeria and on the End SARS movement.

“I want people to watch it,” Semenitari said. “Everyone’s always asking, ‘How can I do more? What can I do?’ You can watch this show and educate yourself, you can share the GoFundMe and you share the show with people. And as you’re sharing this, you’re not only giving back to Nigeria and Black women’s education, you’re giving back to Black artists, especially these women, [the cast and crew].”

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