Prayer and politics in times of greed

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By Kayode Faniyi

This year’s edition of the Lagos Theatre Festival started with speeches, small-chops and an assortment of drinks in the cosy ambience of the Lagos City Hall. The evening rounded off with the poetic narration of Scottish-Kenyan performer Mara Menzies, who won the hearts of everyone in the audience with “Illusion of Truth”, two folk stories set in long-forgotten communities in Kenya and Nigeria.

I was back there two days later to watch “Tori Tori” (written by Joshua Alabi), an energetic lampoon of power and dysfunction in Nigeria; it’s a series of skits highlighting almost everything that has gone wrong in a society united by music and sports yet torn by conflict and corruption: a cash-and-carry judiciary, Jet-flying clergy, child marriage, poverty and unemployment, among others.

It’s not long before we are confronted with the frustration in the land. “We have enough for our needs but we suffer because of your greed,” one character says.

“The old continue to take and take and give nothing back,” blurts another.

And they are all united in decrying a situation where “our country’s oil & gas wealth is distributed based on political patronage”.

And it was not a surprise to hear a poke at politics and a wake-up call to the general public. In one scenario, we are told that in a place with a population of 20,000 people, one aspirant managed to win an alarming 40,000 votes.

“When colours and greed dictate the game, democracy will not survive,” one of the casts says. And a rejoinder: “When prayers and vigils replace your PVCs (Permanent Voters’ Cards), democracy will not survive.”

“Tori-Tori” (“Story-Story”) combines traditional and Brechtian elements, shunning the seduction of plot for the abrasiveness of montage, wielding the lampoon as a weapon, melding stage and backstage. It did away with the elaborate set pieces of dramatic theatre for something more agricultural, something more direct, something combative. This house, you’re constantly reminded, did not arrive fully made; the shabby scaffolding bears witness.

The everyday Nigerian has demonstrated an uncommon capacity for tolerance. The point is made that were you to push him to the wall, he’ll punch a hole right through rather than push back. This audience applauded, betraying theirassimilation 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 could only mean it that they assumed that the mindlessness being acted out was alien to their own everyday realities.

I was at Freedom Park (The Amphitheatre) 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 get the funds to produce the blockbuster of their dreams. What follows their casting call is sheer amusement, each desperate audition more absurd than the one before it.

I have thought of humour as a mismatch between expectation and reality. This is a comedy, we know, yet we laugh again and again, despite knowledge. We are in the middle of a sigh of relief when the bottom falls out of our expectations; we expect the absurdity to surface, but we are still somehow rattled somewhat when it does.

And we thought we’d seen it all but no: the writer saves the most laughable bit for last. The last person to audition, the only gifted one of the lot, has no interest whatsoever in acting; she’d thought this was a bank interview, and the interviewers some sort of twisted sadists. Acting—or anything—will be ventured, so long as it lands her the job she so craves.

Surely the cameraman had this all on tape? Surely the day couldn’t have been an abject failure. The filmmakers realise that there might be some value to a highlights reel of the audition, the probable seed for a show, a ready-made material for compelling TV.

Not quite. “Nobody said action,” the cameraman says.

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