State of the Bully

Wole Soyinka’s theater of dictatorship.

The Beatification of Area Boy
A play by Wole Soyinka
At the Majestic Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Oct. 9-13

Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1986, is Nigeria’s most famous son and a great comic writer. Few people could write a hilarious sketch about supernatural castration and mob justice, but in his play, The Beatification of Area Boy, which just had its American premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Majestic Theater, Soyinka makes these subjects seem naturally farcical. You can almost imagine Jerry Seinfeld, his open hands thrust forward, his expression one of ambushed innocence, delivering the line, “I’m just a victim of vanishing organs!” The second act’s goofy wedding scene could be the lighthearted Greenwich Village favorite Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, only with Nigerian high-life music and less tacky costumes. Critics have noted echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan and of Bertolt Brecht–Soyinka once mounted an African Threepenny Opera, and a character in Area Boy is identified as “some sort of Mother Courage”–but I was constantly reminded of the funny bits in Oliver! The humor is somewhat Dickensian, as indeed is the Nigerian city of Lagos, where the play is set.

Soyinka’s work and life are deeply rooted in Nigeria. He has taught at the University of Ife, edited a political-literary journal, and kept a high profile as a political organizer. He has written memoirs, novels, essays, poems, and plays that switch between comedy and tragedy as the mood and the political moment take him. The closest he has come to an ideology (after the obligatory youthful flirtation with socialism) is a personal Africanism based mainly on the Yoruba animism of his grandparents (as opposed to the Christianity of his parents). He is at heart a guerrilla; one of his first moves upon returning to Nigeria from college in England was to start a theater for hit-and-run actions, and he once helped take over a radio station in order to tell the then-head of state to get out of town. But he also once wrote an essay making fun of poets who take over radio stations. Soyinka has practiced every known form of mockery–in Yoruba terms, he has much in him of the trickster, Esu–and he has paid dearly for it. He spent part of the 1960s in jail; now 62, he is in his third exile. His wife and children live in hiding. Though attached to the drama department at Atlanta’s Emory University, Soyinka travels constantly and surreptitiously. He receives death threats with monotonous regularity.

When he last fled Nigeria, in 1994, The Beatification of Area Boy was about to enter rehearsals. The rehearsals were canceled. The play finally opened more than a year later in Leeds, at the innovative West Yorkshire Playhouse. Hours before the premiere, the regime of Nigeria’s current tyrant, Gen. Sani Abacha–who himself seems like a character from Soyinka’s 1984 work A Play of Giants, a pitiless satire of four African bullies-of-state of that period–announced that its courts had sentenced writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa to death. Soyinka skipped his play’s premiere and denounced the decision on British television.

The review in the Nigerian News of Area Boy that ran after the Leeds premiere was positive. Though it mentioned the play’s anti-militarism only in passing, and Abacha not at all, it did note ruefully that this “masterpiece” was “well worth the journey to Leeds.” Brooklyn seems an equally awkward venue for Area Boy, since it was clearly intended for a Nigerian audience. One recent Friday night, you could almost pick out those theatergoers who knew Nigeria by when they laughed.

When, at the start of the play, a rising sun stirs a pile of rags in front of a tony shop into a man, and that man identifies himself as the beautiful dawn’s creator–“I breathed into the sky before I slept, and look at the result”–you recognize him as that theatrical staple, the Holy Fool. When he then declares the start of “a new day, on a clean slate,” you realize he is a genuine madman. Nigeria has not had a clean slate since around 1960 (if even then), when the nation gained independence from Britain. Since then, a succession of horrible dictatorial governments, most recently Abacha’s, has failed to deliver on promises of a new day. “People say the nation has lost its soul, but that’s nonsense,” the madman declares. “It’s just a question of finding where it’s heading.”

That many in the Brooklyn audience laughed heartily at this last line reveals much about contemporary Nigeria. The nation is heading straight for what Soyinka imagines here: a bleak expanse of cement across which Nigeria’s well-to-do must unhappily pass before entering La Plaza to shop. During the play, the stage fills up with a seller of odds and ends, a liquor-and-pottage vendor, a barber, a few petty hustlers, and, finally, their charismatic leader, Area Boy himself. From time to time, a blind guitar-strummer wanders on to sing the praises of Lagos in lilting ditties, a sort of demented Harry Belafonte.

The play is essentially a series of sketches, most of them comic, a few tragic. The Nigerian civil war is recalled by the Mother Courage type, Mama Put, who still carries the bayonet soldiers used to kill her brother. The raised expectations following Nigeria’s oil boom are fondly remembered when a visitor from the country rides in on a bicycle. Everyone is shocked. Imagine riding a bike, when you could be complaining about not having a car! A song follows: “No one on his mettle goes pedaling a bike/Not even with petroleum or an astronomic hike.” The characters do not develop much, nor does the plot. An old girlfriend of Area Boy appears, and we learn they were in college together. Losing his hopes for changing the world, he dropped out and got this job, as a security guard. She is shocked he would fall downward into the nickel-and-dime crime of the survivor class. He is still attracted to her, and maybe to those old ideals.

Military men, not surprisingly, make numerous appearances here. Since the play is a comedy, they manage not to kill anyone onstage, thanks to the artful dodges cooked up by the area boys. The soldiers are little more than buffoons. The Beatification of Area Boy also has an upbeat ending, which I won’t give away, that is at once dramatically dashed off and convincingly heartfelt. It prods at the play’s central problem: How can this be a comedy? Amid such horror, how can you preserve hope? I suppose that for hope to survive, it must be, in some sense, perfunctory, much in the way that jokes aren’t funny when they have to be justified.

Despite its broad comedy and hopeful conclusion, Area Boy has its chilling moments. At one point, the characters realize their sunrise that morning was unusually dramatic because it had been enlivened by fumes. The army had just destroyed a shantytown, Marako, on the edge of Lagos. Later, the cast watches in silence as, offstage, the million or so residents of Marako, homeless, trudge past to their exile. The colonel has a line whose referent some in the audience may have missed, though no Nigerian would. “I want nothing less,” he orders his expectant soldiers, “than the Ogoni treatment … and don’t be stingy with the bullets”–a reference to the displaced and massacred people led by Saro-Wiwa, who were fighting to preserve their lands from ruination by Shell Oil Co.

Soyinka has said that, had he written Area Boy later than 1994, he would have made it much bleaker. I imagine he will write another play, one perhaps more in line with his most recent book, The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis. There, he describes Abacha as “the last in the line of the reign of deception, of obfuscating rhetoric and cant in the service of a straightforward will to domination by an anachronistic bunch of social predators.” The play will probably not be a comedy.