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.