Jos Theatre Comes to Abuja: Jos Repertory Theatre’s Queen Amina of Zazzau opens in Abuja on 13 November, and I archive my review of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes

Jos-based theatre director Patrick-Jude Odeh just sent me an email asking me to pass around information about the Jos Repertory Theatre’s production of

The Jos Repertory Theatre's performance of Wale Ogunyemi's Queen Amina of Zazzau, in Jos, February 2013 (c) Jos Repertory Theatre, used by permission

The Jos Repertory Theatre’s performance of Wale Ogunyemi’s Queen Amina of Zazzau, in Jos, February 2013 (c) Jos Repertory Theatre, used by permission

Wale Ogunyemi’s play Queen Amina of Zazzau in Abuja. There will be two performances a day, at 4pm and 7pm, on the 13th and 14th of November at the Abuja Sheraton. I love the Jos Repertory Theatre’s productions and I have actually seen them perform Queen Amina of Zazzau several years ago, so Abuja people should check it out. The tickets are N5,000 regular and N150,000 for a table for six. For reservations, please call 0703-246-0159 and 0905-365-2544 or call Eniola at 0909-287-3099. Tickets are available at Silverbird Galleria and at the gate. The production is supported by the Center for Arts Management, Nigeria.

But the primary reason for this post was to follow up on Noah Tsika’s recent review of the Netflicks distributed film Beasts of No Nation based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, and a subsequent twitter conversation I had with playwright Africa Ukoh. Tsika’s review of Beasts of No Nation, a film which I have not yet seen [2 February 2016. Just saw it. Still trying to wrap my head around it. A review may follow], argues that the film fits into a “child soldier” movie genre that is often presented to largely Western audiences.

[…] the film evokes the type of Tarzanism by which Western cultural producers perpetually seek to gain artistic legitimacy, proffering a cinematic vision of reflexive violence (couched as inherently, ahistorically “African”) as well as an especially aggrandizing, extratextual portrait of an American male director who made a “risky,” malarial, downright Conradian trek into the darkness of the global South.

Tsika points out that the film, like the novel, is set in an unnamed African country, but is shot in Ghana (and…em…Brazil….) and the characters speak Twi:

That Twi goes unmentioned in the publicity surrounding Beasts is a measure of the filmmakers’ commitment to their gimmick—to the coy presentation of an ill-defined “Africa” as a screen on which spectators might project their assumptions.

Tsika also critiques Netflix, the distributor of the film, for bypassing distribution units most easily accessible in Africa.

Scholar Amatoritsero Ede, in a recent article in Research in African Literatures, has critiqued the original novel for similar reasons, claiming that it demonstrates a “self-anthropologizing impulse”:

Iweala’s work is a sweeping allegory of a war-torn continent with its retinue of child soldiers. Due to the absence of a specific geographical setting, the whole of Africa becomes a war zone and is symbolic of conflict—especially war at its most bestial, considering the ghoulish boy-narrator’s automatic, almost psychopathic killing instincts.

Ede points out that it is not the subject matter that is the problem. As I argued previously, we are faced with very real and brutal stories of war that affect very real people–most recently in Nigeria, the stories that have come out of the Boko Haram conflict. Instead, Ede critiques the language in which the story is told:

Beasts of No Nation replicates that African inarticulacy in Agu, who is given, instead of proper speech, “a violent babble of uncouth sounds” much like Conrad’s black characters in Heart of Darkness (Conrad 84). […] Nigeria alone has over 250 languages, apart from a universal Pidgin English spoken by the uneducated mass across indigenous language barriers. In such a context, Agu’s inarticulacy becomes symbolic of “a return to origins.” This is because it is not explained by plot or yoked to any important narrative insight more than to the fact that this boy-soldier is uneducated and even incapable of the simplest thought in clear pidgin, a language so universal that every child and most uneducated adults take refuge in it. Nor could Agu speak his own native tongue. Instead he descends into a Conradian incoherence, alleviated by a “gerunding”: “It is starting like this . . . I am opening my eyes and there is light all around me coming into the dark through hole in the roof, crossing like net above my body. Then I am feeling my body crunched up like one small mouse in the corner when the light is coming on” (1, emphasis added). All that, even though he says, “I am learning how to read very early in my life from my mother and my father” (24, emphasis added). And this child-soldier who sings, “Soldier Soldier / Kill Kill Kill. / That is how you live. / That is how you die” (31), in order to remind himself of his fate, motivate himself against remorse, does indeed seem to understand the difference between a verb and a gerund after all.

Thinking of Beasts of No Nation, especially after Africa Ukoh tweeted me a review so egregious I initially thought it was satire, reminded me of his play 54 Silhuettes, the premiere of which I saw performed in Jos in November 2013. The play was a critique of the very sort of one-dimensional Hollywood representations of Africa at war that Tsika implies Beasts of No Nation continues. In the play, a struggling Nigerian actor in Hollywood, Chimezie, faces a crisis of conscious over playing an African soldier to Hollywood specifications. I published a review of the premiere performance in my column in Weekly Trust on 23 November 2013. Because Trust has, for some reason, “beheaded” all of my archived articles, cutting off the first paragraph, I am slowly trying to archive them here on my blog, with their heads retrieved from my pre-edit file and pasted back on.

I thought that the conversation surrounding the “Hollywood” production of this Nigerian novel, was a good time to revisit Africa Ukoh’s play. Please find my original review after the premier copied below.

IMG_5171 (c) Carmen McCain

Premiere stage performance of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes skewers Hollywood

“I’m not really in the mood to do any raping today.” One of the best one-liners I’ve heard ends Africa Ukoh’s brilliant play 54 Silhouettes, a satire about Hollywood’s imagination of Africa. The Stratford East/30 Nigeria House prize-winning play was originally produced for radio by BBC after coming first runner up in BBC’s 2011 African Performance competition. The first stage performance by the African Renaissance Theatre, directed by the playwright Africa Ukoh, premiered on 16 November at the Jos Alliance Francaise.

The story revolves around a Nigerian actor Victor Chimezie (Promise Ebichi), who is trying to break into Hollywood. When his Nigerian agent Sonny Chuks (Williams Obasi) gets him a role as a lieutenant named “Tiger” in a film set in Africa, Sonny thinks he has made Chimezie’s career. Chimezie and the scriptwriter/director Larry Singer (Idris Sagir) hit it off in the beginning, as both turn out to be Wole Soyinka fans: Larry once directed Death and the King’s Horseman and Chimezie once acted the king’s horseman Elesin. In Soyinka’s play, a patronizing colonial district officer Pilkings denounces as savage the tradition of ritual suicide by the oba’s companion after an oba’s death, but in “saving” Elesin he contributes to the death of Elesin’s son Olunde, who takes his father’s place. Chimezie and Larry recite dialogue from the scene where Elesin tells Pilkings, “You have shattered the peace of the world forever. There is no sleep in the world tonight.”

This symbolic tribute to Soyinka’s play resonates throughout 54 Silhouettes: Chimezie, like Elesin, faces great temptation to betray his people for a good life, and the well-meaning Larry, like Pilkings, is so blinded by his prejudices that he undermines (through his writing) the cultures he tries to represent. For a man who directed Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, Larry knows very little about Nigeria. In fact, he’s a hack. His film script is about an American journalist pursuing a ghost story in a “war-torn” Nigeria, somewhere in the Niger Delta. Larry manages to, as Chimezie points out, include “voodoo priests, a wrestling match with a lion, cannibalism, and half-naked dancing women” all in one film. The section we get to see performed features a warlord with a non-Nigerian name, played by an actor with a butchered “African” accent, who orders a child soldier kill a saintly Irish priest with lines like this: “You are an African. There is beastliness in your blood, and I shall unleash it.” Or “This is Africa. We are already in Hell.”

Chimezie grows more and more disturbed by the part he is being asked to perform and gradually makes enemies of most of his Hollywood contacts. Although Larry is smitten with Chimezie and seems to be open to suggestions, the swaggering cigarette-smoking “big-shot” producer Howard Flynn (played by the playwright and director himself Africa Ukoh) is irritated by Chimezie’s challenges to the script, telling him he knows “Africa is a big country.” He is also irritated that Chimezie does not seem “jubilant” enough at the news that Denzel Washington will star in the film. Flynn seasons his speech with racist slurs, calling Chimezie “Boy” and “Chimpanzee” and asking him if “you require jungle drums in order to express yourself.”

IMG_5150 (c) Carmen McCain

Sparks also fly between Chimezie and Kayode Adetoba (brilliantly played by Charles Etubiebi), the Brighton-born British-Nigerian actor whom everyone calls Tobi. He speaks with a South London accent, mispronounces Chimezie’s name just as Larry and Flynn do, and when he plays a warlord speaks with what internet critics call a “generic African accent.” When Chimezie protests, “That name is not from anywhere in Nigeria” and “That is not a Nigerian accent,” Flynn forces him to speak with the generic African accent too. When Tobi performs the hammy role in Larry’s script, asking Chimezie’s character what he is “insinuating,” Flynn asks “isn’t that too fluent?” Despite Flynn’s racist treatment—at one point saying “Down, Tobi” as if he were a dog—Tobi sides with the producer over his fellow actor from Nigeria. Tobi becomes increasingly incensed at Chimezie’s insistence on responsibility to “his people”—what Tobi calls “romantic idealism.” He tells Chimezie, “I was born in Brighton, I live in London. The closest I’ve ever been to Africa is in a plane flying over it.”

IMG_5141 (c) Carmen McCain

The tension also grows between Chimezie and his agent and friend Sonny Chuks, who has cashed in on a favour Flynn owes him to get Chimezie the role. When the two Nigerians get particularly passionate in their argument, they break into Igbo. Chimezie recites a proverb about the tortoise, “They say he is strong and wise, but when he sits for too long, he is seen as a stone. Who is to blame?” “I have a proverb for you,” Sonny counters, “Money, Make money.”

54 Silhouettes brilliantly skewers Hollywood representations of Africa in movies like Tears of the Sun or Sahara and even slyly weighs in on the casting of non-Nigerian “Hollywood” stars and British-born Nigerians who can’t get the accent right in films set in Nigeria, as in the recent film Half of a Yellow Sun. (See my critique of the casting here: first paragraph, rest of column.) Complementing the ethical questions at the heart of the play are a multitude of biting one-liners. The satirical dialogue reveals the subtle and not so subtle bigotry of the characters: “I make movies to make money, not to promote foreign relations,” Howard Flynn says. “The budget alone could feed a third world country,” Larry quips. “The only reason I kept this bizarre excuse of a name is because the sheer oddity of it gets me attention and makes me stand out,” Tobi seethes.

Of course, what looms over the play but is never spoken is the word “Nollywood,” and the absence of Nollywood here is perhaps the major hole in the play. While the first act pops with biting humour, in the second act, Chimezie enumerates in long monologues the invisibility of the African voice and his ethical problems with performing in the film. Here the play begins to drag a bit and seems repetitious—a flaw that could perhaps have been solved by looking to the new possibilities open to actors in Africa. The choice is not between suffering in anonymity, as Sonny puts it, or acting in a compromising Hollywood film. In a BBC interview with Ethiopian-American filmmaker Nnegest Likké about Africans in Hollywood, she emphasized the need to build an alternative African tradition, as if this was something that should be built within Hollywood. But while there is certainly a need to improve the chances of Africans and African-Americans in Hollywood, there is also a thriving alternate film tradition on the ground in Africa, from Accra to Lagos to Nairobi, which could be enriched by the passions and skills of actors like Chimezie.

IMG_5179 (c) Carmen McCain

Despite the perhaps false dichotomy presented here, the acting in the premiere stage performance of 54 Silhouettes was brilliant. I listened to the BBC radio performance online and, with a few exceptions, I thought that the character interpretation in the live performance was better, perhaps because the playwright Africa Ukoh was directing this production. The actor Idris Sagir who plays Larry Singer butchers his Hollywood character’s American (?) accent with a mixture of an American southern accent and some odd unplaceable accent full of “r’s.” But since so much of the politics of the play was about bad African accents by non-African performers, the (perhaps intentionally?) bad accent felt like poetic justice to me. The bad American accent like the caricatured Hollywood icons, and the over-the-top racism were all subversive gestures that mock and undermine Hollywood’s dominance, and the character of Chimezie becomes the ultimate deconstructor.

“I’m not really in the mood to do any raping today,” says Chimezie, effectively committing professional suicide. And in this moment, his resolve seems more like a satirical version of Elesin’s son Olunde in Death and the King’s Horseman, who killed himself so that tradition could live. What follows in my imagination is a “Part 2,” where Chimezie resurrects in Nollywood, moving beyond anxieties about Hollywood to tell stories his own way.

The play will be performed at the French Institut in Wuse 2, Abuja on December 5-6, and will be back in Jos on 7 December at a venue yet to be confirmed. Go see it.

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One response to “Jos Theatre Comes to Abuja: Jos Repertory Theatre’s Queen Amina of Zazzau opens in Abuja on 13 November, and I archive my review of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes

  1. Pingback: Africa Ukoh’s brilliant play 54 Silhouettes Takes on Hollywood in Jos and Abuja (and Photos of the Premiere Performance in Jos) | A Tunanina...

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