Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Theatre Review: King Baabu

Wole Soyinka’s King Baabu is a comedy satire that parodies many African nations, including our beloved Nigeria. As coup follows coup in the nation of Guatu and the citizens cry out for democracy, the military rulers in Guatu struggle to reinvent themselves. General Basha, shortly after playing a central role in  General Potipo’s ascension to power via military coup, is pushed and prodded by his wife, a veritable Lady Macbeth, to acknowledge his ambitions and take over government. With help from his wife, her  brother, Tikim, and the labour, religious and traditional rulers of the day, General Basha is able to oust Potipo, who manages to escape with his life, and declare himself monarch of Guatu. He takes on the guise of outwardly benign ruler, paying lip service to democracy and open government even as his actions remain decidedly undemocratic.    

All is well for Basha – now King Baabu – for a while. But soon enough, discontent and insurgency arise, led by General Potipo, and King Baabu is on the run.

Featuring a stellar cast that includes Seun Kentebe, Toju Ejoh, Abiodun Kassim, Tessy Brown and several others, King Baabu will have you falling off your seat with laughter. My favourite memories of the play are of King Baabu (played by Toju) dancing in his kingly robes and crown. But besides its fun and humour, King Baabu will get you thinking, about Nigeria and the many countries like us – each in our own way a picture of Soyinka’s Guatu – where former military rulers outwardly reinvent themselves. I think it is significant that for a huge portion of the play Basha/Baabu wears his military uniform underneath his robes – this monarchy/democracy is a sham that makes us question the verity of Nigeria’s democracy. The ease with which the labour, religious and traditional leaders are bought over to whatever side holds power is, though humorously portrayed, disturbing. The play’s ending – spoiler ahead!  – is the ultimate question. The supposed savior of the kingdom is General Potipo, the same one who had, in the first act, taken power through a military coup. Is he just another player in the same vicious cycle, a placeholder until the next coup?

King Baabu is an important play delivered with humour and wit. Delightful yet thought-provoking, it is one I am glad to recommend.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Theatre Events This Month (And Beyond)

It’s a good month to overdose on theatre. This September Terra Kulture will be showing two (yes, two!) plays on various days: Wole Soyinka's King Baabu and Greg Mbajiorgu's The Prime Minister’s Son. (Get discounted tickets for both plays from DealDey, before the offers expire.)

(The Prime Minister's Son shows September 19, 20, 23, 25, 26, 27.)

Lekki Waterside Theatre will be showing Tyrone Terrence's Yoruba Romance.

And as if that isn’t enough, early in October there will be Bobo Omotayo's London Life, Lagos Living (get tickets here) and Okonkwo's Inquest, a play based on Achebe's Things Fall Apart (tickets here).

Whew :)

There will be reviews. Watch this space. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

Life on Default

I was talking with a 9-year-old the other day about the most riveting of topics – school. In about a year she'll be ready for secondary and she seemed pretty pleased about this, having recently been promoted from primary 4 to 6. She said she would be going to a boarding school. I asked if she liked this and she said, in this odd, adult-sounding way that kids sometimes have, ‘I don’t like it but my mummy said I’m going.’

I went to a boarding school. Did I enjoy it? Well, for the first three years I cried each time I had to go back after a holiday. I remember my mum asking once if I was being abused. So no, I didn’t enjoy boarding school, but I learnt how to do boarding school. In many ways I’m glad for the experience. It has inspired many of the things I write.

A couple of years ago I said to a friend that all my children would attend boarding secondary schools. What he said next was utterly simple, yet it was something I’d for some reason never thought about: ‘why would you want to do that,’ he asked, ‘when you yourself didn’t like boarding school?’ After a moment of stunned silence I finally admitted, somewhat shamefaced, that I’d never looked at it that way. I come from a family of boarding schoolers; it’s my normal. It’s like taking the same route home every day; you never really think about it until you have to. Years before, I’d had a similar conversation with a different friend, saying that boarding schools made children independent. He’d said not necessarily. He didn’t like the idea of boarding schools, said he wouldn’t want his kids living away from home at that age. We agreed to disagree; what did he know about boarding schools, he hadn’t attended one. Me, I knew about boarding schools. I’d attended the same one the whole of my six years in secondary school, and so had all my sisters. We turned out great!

Anyway, all of this got me thinking about the decisions we tend to make with our minds set to Default: big decisions like the careers we get into, the people we marry and when, having children and how we raise them. Sometimes a simple conversation is all it’ll take to cause a shift. Other times we’ll spend years of our lives trying to do the opposite of our normal when we realize that wait, I actually do not have to do life this way.

Having and raising children is one life-altering decision that too many people make by default. For a lot of people it’s not even an active decision: it’s just what people do *shrug*. Having a child means being responsible for a life. Why the enormity of this undertaking doesn’t seem to astound more people is a mystery to me. I know that the thought of raising a child makes me lightheaded with anxiety about the various and spectacular ways I could mess up and scar my offspring for life, the many ways I could fall short as a parent. Maybe the answer is a simple one, that these other people just have more courage than I do. Or more faith? More love?  

These days when I think about having or raising children, there are no automatic answers anymore. And I say ‘if’, not ‘when’. Because I asked myself if I really truly wanted to have children, and the answer was not Default-yes.

Friday, August 21, 2015

A Cynic's Guide to Taking Chances

Long before I go in I know it’s going to hurt. But I go in anyway, because on my New Year Resolutions list it’s right there, number four: take more chances. I am taking a gamble on my heart.

But I will never tell you this. It’s not your problem, not really. Just like it’s not the doctor’s business how long and hard I psych myself up before every visit. His business is to treat me. So treat me, however you will. I am taking chances this year. 

But in my head I will live out the worst possible outcomes. I will give you everything I have to give and I will come up short. You will become ingrained, build a house under my skin, and then one day you will move out and there will be just air where you used to live. You will love me but you will leave me. It will hurt but I will not stop myself now. I don’t want to.

So today, while it is still early days, I am nursing my broken heart. I am living my future in my present, taking today’s pills for tomorrow’s aches. I am building up the pain, living in it, dying in it. Say what you will, but I know what I am doing. I have lived this before. The trick is, when you anticipate so much pain and live in it, nurse it and let it break you, it never hurts as bad when the real thing comes.

And the real thing always comes. This is the part some people refuse to learn.  

Friday, August 14, 2015

Theatre Review: Batonga

Presented by Seeing through the Arts (I love this name!), Batonga tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who becomes a victim of child trafficking. Abike has a simple life in the village. The oldest child of her widowed father, she works hard to help him and her younger ones, and even other villagers, as much as she can. Abike is loved by her father Olu and many in the village, but her family is poor. They struggle to get by and even regular meals are a luxury. One day Olu is approached by Rachel, a ‘posh’ woman from their village who has managed to make something of herself in Lagos. Unbeknownst to Olu, her income is mostly derived from her child trafficking business. Olu, somewhat reluctantly, hands an excited Abike over to Rachel after she promises that Abike will be give employment, as well as an education, in Lagos. Taken in by the promise of a better life, Abike makes her way to Lagos. But she soon learns that things are not always as they seem.

I thought Batonga was... okay. Not great, just okay. The thing that I enjoyed the most about the play was the dancing. And there was lots of it. I loved the vibrancy and energy of it all, the dancers cartwheeling and somersaulting over each other. The acting was pretty good, but the outstanding actor for me was Bola Atotiyebi who plays Auntie.

Some things I wasn’t crazy about, like the narrator sometimes giving us unnecessary exposition. The narrator served the purpose of summarising bits of the story that couldn’t be dramatized in the play’s 75-minute running time, and this she did well. But there was no need for her to tell us something like ‘Abike was scared, humiliated!’ when Abike was on stage showing us just that, and better than any words could describe. Also, while I like musicals, I prefer ones where the actors do the singing. With Batonga it was mostly songs we know being played through speakers. This probably wasn’t a problem for most people though, and it would certainly have worked better if the breaks between music, the narrator’s exposition and the actors’ dialogue were better coordinated. These three constantly clashing into each other was not very pleasant. 

Also, certain story elements bothered me. Like why does Rachel have to, quite suddenly, fall for Olu at some point? I found this unnecessary, and all the more so because it goes absolutely nowhere. Maybe the idea is that her ‘falling in love’ is what gets her to confess the truth about Abike’s situation to him. But surely this could have been achieved some other way without needing such an obvious plot device.  

On a more positive note, one thing that this play does have going for it is that it packs an emotional punch. The story is built around an important subject (I think this is one of those stories where subject overshadows delivery though) and a sympathetic protagonist, and we are fully with Abike, rooting for her every step of the way.

Batonga shows every Sunday in August at Terra Kulture, 3pm and 6pm.

Friday, August 7, 2015

50 Minutes

It’s ironic to die on your way to a funeral. I hope God isn’t a fan of irony.

I’m in my seat on the plane watching people settle in around me. I take a shaky breath. Fifty minutes defying gravity doesn't sound so bad. But 50 minutes is more than enough time to die; enough time for one thing or many things to go wrong.

It’s my first time flying this airline. Why does the upholstery on the seats look so worn, the carpet faded? How old is this plane? What corners have the airline cut this month, this week? The kind that could kill me?

I remember to not give voice to my fear. God is with me. My life is in His hands. His plans for me are good (not death by plane). I wonder about others who have fallen from the sky, wonder what plans He had for them.

I survey the other passengers. Some are falling asleep. A few are reading. One woman is spanking her child. I stretch my neck to look out the window across from me. The sky is overcast but the ground is dry. Grey sky above, grey ground below. Grey is the colour of impending death, not black. Black is solid, final. Definite. You know where you stand with black. But grey, grey has just the right amount of ambiguous. Grey lets you hope. Grey should know better.

A flight attendant gives the safety announcement. She points out emergency exits; the closest to me is five rows away. But what’s an emergency exit when there’s nowhere to exit to? The flight attendant is dark skinned, with a weave that looks expensive. I’m sure expensive hair burns just as good as cheap.

I wonder about flight attendants. Do they, somewhere between their 2nd and 41st flight, develop immunity to the stomach knots that form in those moments when the engines quiet down after taxiing, just before they rev up again for take-off? The flight attendant is gesturing to the floor lights that should come on in case of an emergency. They do not come on now; aren’t they supposed to on cue? What else will fail to work like it’s supposed to? The wheels? The engines? Or something completely out of anyone’s hands, like the weather? Panic floods my chest and I clench my hands into fists.

A woman seated across from me, two rows ahead, catches my eye. She is putting on makeup. Her hand moves in sure strokes, painting black onto her eyebrows, red on her lips. She wipes a smudge from the corner of her mouth with a bold finger.

Calm settles upon me, slow and barely discernible. Like dew. This woman is going somewhere, meeting someone: the boyfriend of many years who just bought a ring? The prospective client who is about to give in? The secret lover? The interview panel that will decide whether she gets to relocate?

The deftness, the certainty in her fingers, is proof that she will get to where she needs to be. She will take me with her. We will land safely. And because she knows this I suddenly know it too.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Theatre Review: Madmen and Specialists

Madmen and Specialists is a dark satire by Wole Soyinka. Set in the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War, it tells the story of a man (Dr. Bero) and his father (Old Man) who find themselves on opposing sides. The father, a physician slash philosopher, following his experiences at war comes up with the idea that humans should eat whatever they kill, including other humans. This stance, really a stand against war, causes him to promulgate a ‘religion’ in worship of ‘ASS’. He recruits four men, old patients of his damaged in body and mind, as ardent followers. His son Bero rises to a position of power in military intelligence, and finds himself at odds with his father. He imprisons and torments his father, seeking to know the true meaning of this ‘ASS’. Meanwhile, Si Bero, Bero’s sister, who has been left to hold the fort in the supposed absence of her father and brother, joins up with two elderly herbalists, Iya Agba and Iya Mate, who teach her the art of the herbs on the condition that Bero continues with the work when he returns from the war.

Things come to a head when Bero comes home, to confront his father and to break it to Si Bero that no, he will not be continuing the work. Things spiral out of control from here, culminating in tragedy.

I struggled with whether or not to write a ‘review’ of this play: how could I – should I even – write a review of a play I did not really understand. The producer had warned us in her opening remarks that we were in for something “weird”, but I had no idea. I have not read Madmen and Specialists, or really very much of Soyinka. A few minutes into the play I understood the reason for the producer’s warning, but I cannot say that it helped me much. I found this play quite confusing and felt off balance for most of it. There were some laughs here and there – the scene where the pastor visits Bero shortly after his return is particularly hilarious and would be the high point of the play for me, only I did not know it then. The rest of it was a struggle.

I will say, however, that the acting was superb. There was Patrick Diabuah, who is a personal favourite, as Dr. Bero. KelvinMary Ndukwe was terrifyingly convincing as Old Man. Other cast members include Bola Haastrup, Jennifer Osammor and Austin Onuoha. I do not fault the cast or crew at all. I just think that Madmen and Specialists is an obscure piece of work, certainly not the kind I enjoy. The play was one hour and twenty minutes long, and for once I did not wish a play to last longer.

I will commend the crew, though, for anticipating the audience’s confusion and trying to manage it. I liked that the producer had told us to prepare for a weird experience before the play started, even though I did not fully appreciate this heads up until later. She’d promised a Q and A session after the play, certain, in her own words, that we would have questions. She was right. I was relieved when someone in the audience asked, clearly confused, for a summary of the play. Director Kenneth Uphopho (with the silent ‘p’s; director of Saro and Single in Gidi) did a good job of explaining the play, and I think the audience was somewhat appeased.

Madmen and Specialists was brought to us by PawsStudios; the final showing was on Sunday July 26. Still, you can catch a play at Terra Kulture or the Lekki Waterside Theatre every Sunday. 

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