By Anote Ajeluorou
‘Show me a man who has no past and I will show you a man who has not been born’ might perhaps be the most forceful and summative line that best captures the well of emotions that spring from the stage performance Alejo (The Guest) on Sunday at The PAWSTUDIOS at 5 Adebowale Street, Maryland, Lagos. It was a production of Ikenna Jude Okpala’s Wazobia Theatre in the experimental theatre he calls Mobile Theatre Series, which aims to bring theatre performance to neighbourhoods on the Lagos Mainland that seems bereft of any artistic and cultural offerings.
The other weekend, Okpala staged the show at QDance Centre at Yaba to a very lean audience. It wasn’t any better on Sunday either: very lean patronage! But he’s undaunted, like his thespian colleague Kenneth Uphopho, whose performance and training studio he restaged the highly improvised play. The duo of Okpala and Uphopho are strongly campaigning for theatre and other artistic performances to be brought back to the Lagos Mainland, as only Victoria and Lagos islands tend to have cornered all such performances and offerings in recent memory.
In spite of the huge challenges they face in this campaign – low or no patronage at all, lack of funds to mount a more vigorous campaign, lack of sponsorship for theatre performance, poor venues on the mainland - they march on regardless. It’s a measure of their tenacity and self-belief in what appears impossible at the moment. Their commitment and zeal towards realizing a vibrant art presence on the Lagos Mainland is unequaled; they bid on time to reward their efforts.
It was in this ferment of hope and despair that Okpala boldly staged Alejo, a play that refocuses attention to HIV/AIDS and the need to reach out to those unfortunate enough to be living with the disease that was once regarded as a death sentence on its victims. The premise of the writer and director, Okpala, is that old habits diehard in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and that those living with it are still vulnerable and discriminated against. It is against the backdrop of this perception, especially in the rural areas, that a play like Alejo comes handy in enlightening those who still think the disease is a death sentence that could be contracted through contact and other means except through blood and sexual contacts.
That was how Alejo’s unfortunate lot started. She’d been knocked down by a hit and run vehicle, and rushed to a nearby hospital. But she’d lost so much blood she needed a transfusion to save her. But the doctor was so careless that even when he’d been told that the bloods in the bank were yet to be screened he went ahead to transfuse it on the poor girl. Months later she tests positive to HIV/AIDS, and so starts her life of trauma. At her own home, at school and at every social gathering, Alejo is discriminated against. She is so traumatised by those around her that she decides to leave her home in the city to wander away to anywhere she could find solace.
She arrives at a village square and meets some young people practicing a dance. For once, she finds something that excites her and watches, and even makes some dance moves. But some of the dancers are not happy when they spot her, a stranger trying to belong. Bayo is vigorous she’s no good and must be shooed off, but Wale is adamant she stays. He’s enchanted by her charms. Finally, she finds a home with Iya, an elderly woman who recently suffered the loss of her son. Together and bond by a common tragedy, Iya and Alejo share their bitter moments. Unfortunately, Bayo eardrops on them and catches Alejo threatening to infect everyone she meets with her disease. Word soon spreads of the stranger bent on killing everyone with her disease. However, by now Wale’s love for her has waxed strongly. But on discovering her story, even Wale’s love begins to fail; he temporary flees to avoid her. But he returns to confront her and her evil plan. But her act isn’t intentional. When she makes that vow, she hadn’t as yet known the depth of her love for Wale or of Wale for her. His love, she confesses, is the only silver lining in her horizon since she had the disease. She’d feared that if she’d told him about her condition, he would have fled from her just like the others. Only Iya’s appeal makes her remain in the village. And when the villagers descend on her to chase her from the village before she kills everybody, it is wale who stands between them and Alejo and forces them to abandon their mission.
Alejo gets a small window of opportunity to tell her own story, why she is running from her past to an uncertain future. When she is done, the villagers are overawed at what she has suffered and become empathic towards her. They are even more so when they learn that mere contact with an HIV/AIDS positive person does not translate to contracting it. They then embrace her and beg forgiveness of her and implore her to stay in their midst.
Okpala’s Alejo is theatre of greatly improvised performance skill. Paucity of funds, poor patronage and poor venue have forced him and his kind to be frugal and minimal. But even at these obvious constraints, there’s a sense that a great performance has been laid out. The small cast of about seven or eight transforms itself from one scene to another with great felicity on stage – as dancers at a village square, market men and women, medical crew in a hospital, farmers at work, Alejo’s family, a classroom with students and a teacher and much more. It’s this fluid, transformative performance ability, with accompanying costumes being changed right on stage that sets this kind of theatre apart. No time is lost in cumbersome scene changes, as the parts are changed into just as soon as it’s introduced. Indeed, it’s a spare stage space with no heavy furniture to move around, but managed with ingenuity.
Perhaps, the only point missing is how persons with positive status manage the illness with the cocktail of drugs that make them live as normal a life as possible. Alejo should have been seen attending such clinic to get her drugs; that way the villagers would have been further encouraged not to see such people as living on death’s row. However, Okpala and his small cast and crew, the drummers and instrumentalists, put up a splendid performance on Sunday that deserves a better, bigger audience for a theatre showpiece that currently sees it.
Theatre lovers on Lagos Mainland should look out for shows in their backyards; they are not inferior to the ones offered on the islands, so Okpala seems to be saying with this production. Ironically, it’s the same individuals that put up these shows on the twin islands of Victoria and Lagos. For Okpala, Mainland, too, is got the artistic and cultural performance magic worthy of catching deserved attention!