Memory in black and white

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By Kayode Faniyi

I saw Strelitzia by chance. I’d wanted to watch Quarter Life Crisis (billed for The Kongi Harvest’s Gallery), but not understanding the lay of Freedom Park had found myself at The Ramp area as the Donna Ogunnaike show was about to begin. Guests were gathered outside an enclosed tent, all white outside and, as I would later see, charcoal black inside.

Some guy was speaking to them, performing. There was a woolly spiel about the audience being story-bearers, but the setup intrigued me. To add to my befuddlement, we were to be participant-observers. This particular piece of theatre promised to be different from everything I had experienced so far. I stayed.

Taking in Strelitzia reminded me of something T.S. Eliot had written almost a century ago. In the essay “Hamlet”, based on the widely known Shakespeare’s play, Eliot had described the objective correlative as “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that emotion.”

But here I was face to face with the objective correlative in living colour. Strelitzia was a literal journey into memory. At first it seemed like a journey into Nigeria’s popular history but soon bared its fangs as something deeper and more potent. We were ushered into a number of chambers in which we took in the performance of memory: historical, familial, sensual, emotional and more.

The familial memory presented here was somewhat gratifying. If you were over a certain age, staring you in the face was the living room of your childhood, with its transistor radios, boom boxes, VHS players, kerosine lanterns and the bulging television that only came alive at 4pm.

These days, beer companies are routinely accused of sexism for pandering to the male species with their ads. Why not? the counterargument goes, you pander to who your market is. But a poster on the wall of the living room of our childhood gave me pause: a Guinness ad cut out from a newspaper shows a woman and a man guzzling beer. Were attitudes freer then, society less cynical and judgmental? Are we racing backwards fast? Or were corporations more edgy, less cynical?

Crying men are weak men, so the popular wisdom goes. And so men are cultured to bottle up pain and fix a tight a lid over it. Unfeeling ‘cyborgs’, on the other hand, are the real men. Whether Ogunnaike wanted to subvert this toxic put-on at the symbolic level is unclear, but we confront the emotional memory of the muscular tears of a grown man. It was, I’ll admit, some vicarious catharsis, for through him I cried the tears I would not bring myself to cry.

Our winding journey through memory-land came to an end in Ogunnaike’s lair. Here, chairs were provided and we sat. We laughed in one breath and the next we pondered the narrative unfolding before our eyes. We watched Ogunnaike enact her special relationship with pain.

Theatre morphed into ritual: sufficiently sober, we were handed markers and encouraged to nail our pain to the wall; so moved was I that I penned a four-line poem in green ink. Afterwards, we had to wash our hands in a bowl and towel them dry. We were, at that point, cleansed.

Strelitzia had swallowed me whole, but I retained enough awareness to notice that an earlier participant had scrawled “na wash” in red ink on the Wall of Pain. It was hard to miss. And I was reminded that this was all performance, although one laced with actual lived experiences.

I’d noticed too, that the “stage manager” seemed to accord the lone white figure among us an unhealthy amount of attention. Whereas we were all expected to shuffle into comfortable viewing positions, the manager, muttering “our guest” like a mantra, hustled the black beings out of the way to accommodate this visitor.

I’d seen the uproariously funny comedy Nollywood Scoundrels earlier in the day: the stage manager’s outrageous carry-on would not have been out of place in it.

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