By Anote Ajeluorou
You do not sell ice to the Eskimos is the oft-quoted mantra for importing a people’s culture to them. Why, the Eskimo land is ice incorporated, attempting to sell ice to them would seem the most futile of ventures ever. The same could apply to Lagosians and their beloved area boys, those ubiquitous denizens that pepper the underbelly of this city of dreams. However, the area boy seemed a benevolent monster conjured from the magician’s box of tricks to full manifestation. And the merchant of this sole article is a mere visitor to the city, although a frequent visitor with an honorary citizenship status at that, who comes all the way from the remote ‘Forest of Ijegba’ tucked away in rocky Abeokuta.
Welcome to the enchanting world of Wole Syinka’s tragi-comic play The Beatification of Area Boy! Lagos city festers with area boys in one guise or the other, and daily, they make life hell to anyone who innocently falls into their dens. Surprisingly, the area boy was the sole item the maverick and incomparable playwright and civil rights campaigner sold to ecstatic Lagos audiences on stage last week (Tuesday - Thursday) at Freedom Park. The play was having its premiere outing at Lagos Black Heritage Festival (LBHF) 2015 that ended yesterday.
How did he do it? Simple; this is the dreaded days of the military and society doesn’t exactly rely on talents or excellence to forge ahead. The military in power aren’t looking for excellence; their civilian cohorts are worse. Short cuts and how to circumvent the system for the profit of a few are the norm of governance. Those who do honest work are derided as lacking the skill to fit it. Ironically, things haven’t quite changed a bit after 16 years of democracy in the country, some 25 years after the play was written during the Gen. Ibrahim Babangida years in 1990. How do you account for a society saddled with monsters strutting the national landscape as leaders? What counterfoil is there to set up again? How do you counterbalance the national madness for the sanity of ordinary citizens trying to make sense of their lives? Soyinka finds the answer in his offering of the area boy, Sanda or Oga Security (Wale Ojo) to counter the inanities of leadership and those ruining the nation with their greed and avarice.
The play was director by Soyinka, with assistance from Wole Oguntokun.
Sanda is a university dropout, who takes up the job of a mere security man or maigadi of an upscale shopping complex in the heart of Lagos Island. This is also the home of area boys in the city, but Sanda, through deft maneuverings, has turned the tide in his favour. He controls the entire area and the boys are all beholden to them. They defer to him and he uses this to his advantages. Overtime, Sanda becomes street-wise and masters the psychology of living on the street, and by extension, that of the national psyche and how to deal with it appropriately to survive. Also, through his vintage position he encounters all sorts of patrons to the complex, the high and mighty and those in the lowest rung of humanity. Sanda mediates in the problems shoppers encounter in the neighbourhood. He also has an assortment of neighbours – the tailor (Sola Iwaotan), whose superstitious belief is enough to build a cult of followership, a petty trader (Makinde Adeniran), a mamaput food seller (Ijeoma Agu) and a debarred judge/lawyer straggler (Ropo Ewenla), who often comes by to rant about his discoveries about the oddities of the human race and he intends to save lost souls.
Mamaput is from the Niger Delta, a people who have had their own share of suffering, passing from one hand to the other in a civil war in which they become bystander casualties. Her husband and her brother died in it; she still suffers nightmares from that war. Added to her nightmares is that of occupants of recently evicted Maroko dwellers by the military, slum dwellers on the fringe of upscale Victoria Island, whose stricken, hapless humanity stream pass not unlike the refugees of war-torn Rwanda or the civil war some 20 years before.
But the clincher comes when Sanda’s former classmate, Miseyi (Ina Erizia) comes shopping. She is shocked to find Sanda in security uniform and a lively exchange follows, how disappointed she is for him and he feels sorry for her in return in her poor reading of what their society has become. In the end she apologises; they had been in a campus band together and were quite close, but the intervening years had done their damage to them. Sanda’s cynicism is borne out of an understanding of society while Miyesi’s is borne out of being raised in a wealthy home. Her marriage is imminent, she informs Sanda, and it will take place at his shopping complex. He is happy for her, but wonders why she’d forsaken her former ideals of a better society. She invites him to her wedding, anyway.
But she turns the tables on her wedding night when she bears the calabash with wine to Sanda instead of giving it to her husband-to-be to drink. The distinguished gathering is scandalized, and it rips the two wealthy families apart. One is the military governor (Tunji Sotimirin) and the other is a contractor bigwig (Sir Peter Badejo), who together, inflict suffering on ordinary folks in their corrupt ways. Miseyi’s misbehaviour becomes a blow to the cementing of two powerful dynasties whose survival depends on collaborating to steal the joint commonwealth of the people and further impoverish them.
Sanda is also shocked by Miseyi’s action, but he is too street-wise and practical not to understand her. She does not love the groom; she isn’t in favour of the march designed to render the mass of humanity impotent by the two families. Her rebellion is designed to deflate the maniac of leadership and mercantile profiteering that governance has become. She intends to stick with Sanda even if it will somewhat reduce her status as a woman from the super rich; they intend to revive their campus band and start a life together.
In The Beatification of Area Boy Soyinka descends from the dense lexical teatise he is known for, although there are occasional flights of it in the debarred lawyer’s ranting in seeking salvation for lost souls that people the land. It is, however, packed with dense images of suffering and hardship, and is everyman’s play in its accessibility. The play is vintage Soyinka, as he effectively combines serious drama with rib-cracking comedy that is spot on. It’s at the heart of Soyinka’s lifelong struggles for social justice and an egalitarian society, where society’s resources are equitably distributed.
Many features make The Beatification of Area Boy a charming performance. It doesn’t happen in the regular Greco-Roman stage; it’s an open street, mobile theatre close. Action happen close to the main stage at Freedom Park under the dogonyaro tree and audience sits, stands, squats in a circle around the stage. Rather than props being moved to indicate scene change, the actions shift to a different stage set altogether instead and the audience is required to move to another stage to see the action in the three stages deployed. Trust Lagosians, who are used to scrambling for everything: once the action shifts, they picked up the few available chairs and scramble after it, from the main shopping complex area to the car park lot where area boys are doing brisk, fleecing business with customers who don’t know the rules of engagement. Sanda is, of course, the inevitable mediator and he gets generous tips for his troubles. But such scene at the parking lot drags on for too long and becomes a bore; less time should have been devoted to it.
Not least is the music the playwright weaves into the fabric of the play, which effectively captures the many nuances of life that is Lagos. Giving vocal power to this music essemble was the highlife maestro, Tunji Oyelana, Soyinka’s soul mate in musical composition in his incomparable ‘I Love my Country I no go Lie’ fame. Oyelana pelted the audience with some of unforgettable tunes that capture the many-sideness of Lagos, as a city capable of offering happiness and pain in equal doses. The prisoners, led by Toyin Oshinaike and Sotimirin, who come to clean up the complex before the wedding, no less provide their own musical entertainment to help add some relief to the judge/lawyer’s histrionics of salvation to lost souls.
The last scene change goes to the main Food Court for Miseyi’s marriage and it perfectly so fits a newcomer would mistake it for the regular drinking and eating ritual the place is known for. On the whole, The Beatification of Area Boy delivered premium dramatic value. It’s ingenuous performance strategy left the audience with much excitement, with many moments of hilarious fun. Overall, it was powerful delivery and Lagosians couldn’t but love their area boy any less for the counterfoil he provided to the malevolent rich and leadership!