You can’t talk about theater in Nigeria without talking about Bolanle Austen-Peters. From her father’s law firm to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Switzerland and eventually building Nigeria’s first ever privately-owned theater, Terra Kulture Arena, Bolanle’s impact on Nollywood and the arts in Nigeria is huge.
Born February 4, 1969 to the family of legal luminary Afe Babalola, Bolanle had her primary and secondary education in Ibadan, South-West Nigeria. She studied law at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) before going on to earn a master’s degree in International Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
She started her career in her father’s law firm before working with the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Switzerland. Bolanle later moved to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the United Nations Development Program. She moved back to Nigeria in 2002 and founded Terra Kulture Arts and Studios Limited the next year, 2003 as an educational and recreational organization set up to promote the richness and diversity of Nigerian languages, arts and culture. It is the first privately owned modern theatre in Nigeria.
Terra Kulture also promotes culture through its Nigerian restaurant, and bookstore, which provides language classes in Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa, as well monthly book readings of famous Nigerian and African works. The company has gone on to organize over 300 art exhibitions, 135 plays, 65 book readings, according to its website.
In 2013, Austen-Peters launched her own production company called Bolanle Austen-Peters Productions (BAP). The company first entered the theatre industry with the production of “SARO the Musical.” The production attracted critical reviews and accolades from the global powerhouse media platforms like the BBC. The production soon became the first Nigerian musical to be performed at London’s West End and Shaw Theatre.
In December 2015, BAP performed its second production, Wakaa the Musical. The show toured Lagos and was performed in London’s West End from July 21 to 25, 2016. In December 2017, Bolanle Austen-Peters also directed the iconic Fela and The Kalakuta Queens musical and added Moremi the Musical, which tells the story of the 12th century Yoruba legend Queen who liberated the people of Ife from the grasp of their enemies, in 2018. Her direction of Moremi the Musical received rave reviews and accolades from Professor Wole Soyinka who reportedly described it as “a theatrical Landmark in Nigeria’s theatre history.”
Speaking at a media parley in 2017 on the need to invest and expand the arts, she said, “The resources we have as a Nation is not what is critical, what is critical is the development of the human mind. The creative mind is the most important resource tool in any nation.”
In 2015, Austen-Peters decided to branch out into film and her first project was 93 days (2016), a movie about the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Nigeria and the heroic doctors who put their lives on the line to contain the spread. It was selected for premiering and viewing at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Chicago Film Festival, the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, the Johannesburg Film Festival and the Africa Film Festival in Cologne, Germany. The film also scored the highest number of nominations (13) at the 2017 Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards.
In 2019, Austen-Peters, through her company BAP, released The Bling Lagosians, a film about the lifestyle of Lagos wealthy and powerful elite. The movie was one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, raking in over N120 million, according to her website. In 2018, Austen Peters’ Terra Kulture won the contract from then Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, to build six theatres across the state in an effort to improve the adoption of the arts in smaller communities. Ambode commissioned four of those (President Muhammadu Buhari commissioned the first in Oregun) before he left office.
Speaking on the project, Austen-Peters said, “I am truly excited about this project. And I almost became emotional because it was just a whisper. I saw the governor one day and I said: ‘Why don’t you build theatres around Lagos so that our youths and people in the communities can have access to such recreation facilities. And he said: ‘Why not?’ It was just like that.”
Bolanle Austen-Peter is married to Adegboyega Austen-Peters and they have two children together. Over her illustrious career in the corporate world and as an entrepreneur, she has contributed incomparably to the growth of theatre, entertainment and film in Nigeria. It doesn’t look like she’s stopping soon
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