By Martin Banham (University of Leeds)
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 60 (1995), p. 7]
[The World Première of Soyinka’s play, at The West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, 26 October – 25 November 1995, was sponsored by The University of Leeds It is reviewed here by Martin Banham, Professor of Drama & Theatre Studies]
The première of Soyinka’s latest play was planned to take place in Lagos but the political events that forced the playwright’s exile from Nigeria brought the play’s first presentation to The West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. It was in Leeds, of course, that Soyinka’s playwriting first took serious shape, during his time as a student of English in the University of Leeds in the 1950s. The University’s admiration for Soyinka was expressed through its sponsorship of the production, crucial support that allowed this production to take place.
The play’s sub-title is ‘A Lagosian Kaleidoscope’ and that very aptly describes its form. The street life of contemporary Lagos is brought onto the stage in a series of satirical and musical incidents that are held together by the story of Sanda – the king of the ‘area boys’ – who organises the exploited and the oppressed in the face of the corruption and brutality of the military regime and its parasites. The play is a fierce piece of political theatre, ranging widely over the suffering of Nigerians in recent years, either through the civil war or the plight of the poverty-stricken inhabitants of the Maroko settlement – thrown out of their homes by the army in order that the land may be redeveloped for ‘decent citizens’. Its weapons are mockery and contempt, but played in a context – frequently very funny but never unfocused – that pays tribute to the strength and resilience of the people.
The play’s performances in Leeds were given awful relevance by the announcement on its opening night of the death sentences passed on Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow Ogoni human-rights activists. More dreadfully, a few days into the play’s run, the death sentences were carried out. Ken Saro-Wiwa, like Soyinka, was a writer, and a man who addressed the world through laughter and satire. His television series Basi & Co. was hugely popular; his farcical plays and novels in ‘rotten english’ were truly representative of a man who enjoyed and celebrated life and shared that enjoyment with others. Those of us who remember him as a student in Ibadan in the 1960s recall a lively, creative, energetic and hugely friendly person. His commitment to his own people, and the sense of duty that led him to his death, are echoed in the dignity of Soyinka’s characters who face tyrants with equal courage. As Sanda says of the military at the end of Beatification, “They won’t always be there”, but as the character ‘Judge’ – who has been shot by the soldiers but survived – says, “I shall never forgive them. Never!”
*The Beatification of Area Boy is published by Methuen Drama, London, 1995.