THIS TIME, the rites of independence were performed at City Hall, barely a kilometer from the race course of the Tafawa Balewa Square, the scene of Nigerian independence in 1960. There was far less pomp to the event, no royal dispatched by a browbeaten British crown, no lowering or hoisting of flags, no tumbling “natives”, no jubilant throng.
There were elites with shoulders puffed with pride, legitimate pride. There were speeches too. And by the stroke of a speech, Stephen Forbes, the Director of Operations at the British Council, transferred ownership of the Lagos Theatre Festival to an almost fully Nigerian board featuring Ojomo Ochai, Bolanle Austen-Peters—usual suspects—and the veteran actress Joke Silva.
Britain’s civilizing mission to Nigerian theatre—excuse the suggestion—was at its fifth incarnation this year, having been inaugurated by the British Council in Nigeria in 2013 to put on a bloody good show and of course facilitate cross-pollination between theatre practitioners in Nigeria and the UK. In the intervening years, it’s become a noteworthy fixture on Lagos’ cultural calendar, lately turning its attention to unconventional spaces to bypass the dearth of stylized performance spaces—“theatre,” Soyinka once wrote, “is never the lump of wood and mortar which architects splash on the landscape.” This year, some 110 shows were put up across 21 venues.
In place of brass bands, in place of rowing, or tumbling, or mounted natives, there was the majestic Mara Menzies, part Scot, part Kenyan, storybearer. I’d seen her Illusion of Truth for the first time at last year’s Ake Festival. Her dazzling telling of first, a feminist Kenyan folktale, and then a lost Yoruba story, still captivated old timers like myself. Truth remained a matter of perspective, and careful contemplation the best avenue for justice. Mr. Forbes, hands no longer trembling now that he’d dispatched the colony, even took a delightful turn at playing a chastised Kamau.
ON DAY 3, I saw two plays that separated themselves neatly into Bertolt Brecht’s distinctions between dramatic and epic theatre. Tori Tori is both traditional and Brechtian in its ambition, shunning the seduction of plot for the abrasiveness of montage, wielding the lampoon as a weapon, a lasso to haul back Nigeria from the brink, melding stage and backstage. It eschewed the elaborate set pieces of dramatic theatre for something more agricultural, something more direct, something combative, something likelier to animate action. This house, you’re constantly reminded, did not arrive fully made; the scaffolding bears witness.
Tori Tori is an energetic lampoon of power and dysfunction in Nigerian society, moving at a frenetic pace, attempting to place its audience at some distance from its subjects, to, as Brecht once wrote, “arouse [its] capacity for action.” Nothing must be cathartic here; catharsis will only be achieved when the conditions underpegging the play become palliated.
The audience had other ideas. The everyday Nigerian has demonstrated an uncommon capacity for tolerance. Were you to push his back to the wall, he’ll punch a hole right through rather than pushback. This audience applauded, betraying its assimilation into the performance, defeating the imperative for real-world action. Were the audience to sigh and trudge out of the hall head-down, perhaps we could ascribe the reaction to resignation. But applause can only mean it assumed that the malaise depicted was something apart from it, something whose recreation is to be applauded. “The epic theatre’s spectator,” wrote Brecht, “says I’d never have thought it—That’s not the way—That’s extraordinary, hardly believable—It’s got to stop—The sufferings of this man appal me, because they are unnecessary—That’s great art: nothing obvious in it.”
3some was more conservative in its approach. And its interests were more confined than communitarian. 3some invites you in, excites your capacity for sensation, requires your investment in what is unfolding on stage. Soon you find yourself urging this or that person on, castigating that other person. Broad sections of the audience even found the capacity to be repulsed—there were groans of disgust—by the blossoming romance and sex between young man and far older woman.
3some leaves you breathless. No, it doesn’t snatch your breath away—there’s scarce sublimity on show here. 3some leaves you breathless in the way a marathon leaves its runner panting, thoroughly exhausted, pining after oxygen, glucose, water, looking for the nearest surface upon which to collapse.
Its directorial vision has quite obviously been blurred by an over-dedication to smut, titillation pressed to the service of pornography, not of art. There are more twists in this two plus hours than a headful of Ghana braids, than two entire years of Africa Magic’s Tinsel. Little wonder it finds itself in a knot.
When mother, oblivious daughter and her newly cunning husband all end up under one roof, when the edges of the menage a trois—a pat symbolism—are sutured shut, when it all ends somewhat happily ever after, when this dreary drama grinds to a halt, it is not catharsis we feel; no, this is exhaustion, thorough exhaustion, exasperation, torpor even, and Lord are we grateful for the cast’s bow.
What stands out in this staple Nollywood fare is Daniel Effiong’s magnificent reprisal of Dayo, a manic Christian man married to Chioma, a naïve wife chafing under the discipline of her superego. Chioma has met her very own Christian Grey on Facebook and is flung headlong into her throes of resistance when an apoplectic Dayo discovers the sordid details of her unholy fantasies.
We have liftoff. Chioma’s hysteric exit from her husband’s house ushers in her mother, bringing to light a transparently contrived sexual tension between mother and son-in-law. Things get out of hand, naturally. Dayo sleeps with his mother-in-law, whom, it turns out, he’d always been in love with. There’s some back and forth: now she wants to leave, later she wants to stay. In time, she decides Dayo is a conniving snake and definitely wants to leave. All of this is compounded by the return of a prodigal Chioma (the play advances no theory as to why this happens). A newly adventurous Dayo is ecstatic. Mother-in-Law leaves then returns for her daughter, who is confused as to why her mother no longer sees any good in Dayo. Regardles, Chioma insists her mother must stay with them, to keep the hinges of her new Dayo lubricated.
Discounting Chioma’s occasional incursions, this tension and its management is the crux of the matter. But it is the sheer energy of Dayo’s mania, the sheer incredulity of it, that drives this narrative forward.
As it happens, Effiong’s performance, his eclipsing of the play, is an indictment on the director’s vision, evidence that something has gone awry in his method. Per the synopsis in the festival booklet, 3some is to be centred around a mother-in-law’s discovery of sensuality in forbidden places. What we might then consider the “deadly secret” she “stumbles upon” is that the love she has for her son-in-law is requited, at least nominally.
Dayo, it turns out, has only struck back at his wife’s subversion by sleeping with her mother, or something of the sort. Dayo is the runaway protagonist of this play; the mother’s marriage-saving struggles and earth-shattering “discoveries” are mere subplots submerged deep beneath the story of Dayo’s linear transformation along a patriarchal continuum.
3some’s failure grates. There was so much potential here. Take Chioma. Her restlessness, we learn via a throwaway comment from her mother, derives in part from an inability to maximize her intellectual potential—she’s a Master’s degree holder reduced by Dayo’s conservatism to a domestic fixture. Instead, her restlessness is reduced to a sexual frustration incited by Dayo’s sexual timidity, and she merely swaps one form of domination for another.
Shortly before seeing 3some, I’d seen The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the Amazon series in which Joe Maisel’s exit from their marriage pushes a punctilious Mrs. Maisel into recognizing and exploring a comic career that had been her husband’s dream. Could Chioma have been more? Her naïveté unraveled, her itch for sexual adventure scratched red, the violence with which she rejected her husband tempered, Chioma returns home the same woman, to a husband whose repertoire of patriarchial conceits is now swelled by the darker art of bare-faced deceit.
In the final analysis, word of the smut will spread and people will troop, slack-jawed, to its allure like flies to rot. (The next day at work, I learnt from a colleague that a video clip of a scene featuring a completely naked woman had surfaced on Instagram, and after the festival, I learnt 3some was the highest grossing play of the festival.) Like its counterparts on screen, it has all the trappings of commercial “success”. 3some, one feels, is fish out of water on stage. Its natural habitat is on the centerspread of a soft-sell. The playwright Jude Idada is no mug, having only narrowly lost out on Nigeria’s top drama prize some four or so years ago. Regardless of the clang of coin in his pocket, even he, I suspect, must have sat through this with gritted teeth.
DAY 4 was redemption. I’d even managed to save myself the obligatory N500 paid to enterprising touts by parking on the driveway of City Hall and walking the short distance to Freedom Park. I reached “The Amphitheatre” just in time to catch the opening scenes of Nollywood Scoundrels.
In this play, two filmmakers must find the star of their film if they are to gain access to the funds that will produce for them a blockbuster. What follows their casting call is sheer hilarity, each desperate audition more absurd than what went before.
We expect the absurdity to come, but we are still somehow undone by its appearance. Cue laughter; glorious, unashamed laughter. And if we thought we’d seen it all, the absurdest absurdities were saved for last.
In physics, the mismatch between the real and apparent depth of an object is the refractive index of a surface. I have thought of humour in similar terms, a mismatch between expectation and reality. This is a comedy, we know, yet we laugh again and again, despite knowledge that everything staged here is engineered to elicit laughter.
Just when we thought we’d reached our absurdest, the bottom falls out of our floor: the final auditionee, the only competent auditionee, has no interest in acting; she’d thought this was a bank interview, and the interviewers twisted sadists. This turn of events elicits the second wildest laugh of the night. But there’s darkness beneath the humour, great depth, some poignancy, to her desperation: the audition room allows a level of levity impossible in the interview room. Dignity is a distant consideration. Acting—or anything—will be ventured, so long as it lands her the job she desires.
There was time for one more gag. Surely the cameraman had this all on tape? Surely the day couldn’t have been an abject failure. The filmmakers realise there might be some value to a highlights reel of the audition, seed for a show, material for compelling TV. “Nobody said action,” said the cameraman, cue bedlam.
2019 WILL BE the hundredth anniversary of “Hamlet”, the essay in which T.S. Eliot panned what some consider Shakespeare’s most important play. This essay birthed objective correlative, “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.” Hamlet, Eliot charged, failed as art because Prince Hamlet’s intense emotions were rendered as reportage, not as experience.
I saw Strelitzia by chance. I am one of those people who would have benefitted had a map of the venues at Freedom Park been included in the festival booklet. After Nollywood Scoundrels, I’d wanted to catch Quarter Life Crisis, but not knowing where was where, I blundered into Strelitzia—articulated, its creators insist, with a pop in the chest—and thought what the hell.
Strelitzia takes Eliot’s imperative to its natural conclusion. We are journeying—literally, on our feet—right into the heartland of memory, of emotion, a cluster of chambers through which we are ushered: now nostalgia, now pain, now laughter, now contemplation, now suffering, now loss, now love. This, in the purest, most uncontaminated sense, is what Eliot means by objective correlative. This is a physical journey into the chain of events that make memory and emotion.
And move over Soyinka too: Strelitzia is the very definition of ritual theatre. We are partakers of this ritual, not observers. This ritual isn’t performed for us; we are it.
Donna Ogunnaike’s process is poetry, the product sublime. Stories are told with bodies, by mouth, by mood, by setting. In the final chamber, the chamber which the shamanistic Donna herself haunts, we are hounded towards catharsis. Sufficiently sober, we are handed markers, implored to “nail our pain to the wall.” My pain is transmuted into a four-line poem in green ink, only two lines of which—the first and fourth—I now remember:
lessons learnt only too well
a lump of rock.
As transcendent as it may seem, this is all theatre, spectacle fashioned to elicit certain reactions from us in the moment. Strelitza is an unforgettable experience, but a cynic has passed through these hallowed chambers. Its significance beyond the moment is questionable. An encircled “Na wash” on the Wall of Pain, rendered in vivid red, suggests that one take it all with some circumspection.
If anything came close to marring my Strelitzia, it was the absurd preference which the “stage manager” accorded the lone white body among us. Was this young white woman’s brain all left lobes, unable to manoeuvre herself, like everyone else, into comfortable viewing positions? Our stage manager, a young Nigerian lady by all appearances, who, muttering “our guest” like a mantra, routinely hustled black bodies out of the way to accommodate this lone white body. It was puny in the grand scheme of things but so ridiculous it would not have appeared out of place as a scene in Nollywood Scoundrels.
About the Author:
Kayode Faniyi is a writer and cultural critic. His work has appeared in The Kalahari Review, The Mainlander, Brittle Paper, Music in Africa, This is Africa and Africa Is a Country. He holds a degree in Microbiology from Obafemi Awolowo University.