“The process of interrogating the present”, a respected playwright, poet, and critic, once wrote, “implies the making of memory. For the future to be meaningful there is a need to make memories, in form of actions and thoughts”, because “memory is fundamental to growth, identity and recognition” and “it is only a writer who experiences the contemporary that can understand the hiatus between the autochthonous values of the past and the influx of foreign values into the land”. This aptly captures what the playwright, Chris Anyokwu, has accomplished with the stage production of his soon-to-be-published play, “The Far Country”, performed by Theatre Centrik and directed by Tony Biyi Bandele in two shows at the Art’s theatre in the Faculty of Arts, Unilag, on the 30th of June, by sundown. There could not have been a more perfect time to release one’s mind and get suspended in disbelief. It was a well-lit atmosphere, the evening skies outside the theatre reflecting the ambience of the well-lit hall itself, which all combined to make for a pleasant watching experience. The performance in its entirety was a riveting experience that is imbued with the throbs of a troubled humanity, which resonates with the anomalies of modernity, especially the fractured state of the nation, the steep amorality and the confusions that are often glossed as advancement in human ‘civilization’.
“The Far Country” is a gripping drama on the signs of the times with a kaleidoscope of the transgender revolution, corruption, identity crisis, theft, and the past that keeps coming to haunt the making of present memories—trendy themes of modernity. The play is about a runaway criminal politician, Kingsley, who goes to the UK to seek a sort of asylum in his friend’s (Ayo’s) house. Once there, he learns about (and also joins in) the new lifestyle of some who had also come to the UK from his home country (Kleptoria, a fictive African country) and have opted, for whatever reason(s), to literally change their sexual identity. It is the trauma that arises from his own sexual transformation from a male (Kingsley) to a female (Alice), and, later, back to a male (as Theophilus), especially as the dialectical tensions between his present (that finds no meaningful existential bearing) and his past (his strongly entrenched African culture which perpetually condemns him as an abomination)—a mix that haunts (as well as hurts) his sense of self (identity crisis), that sustains the conflict of the play till it reaches its climax where this tripartite selves merge in one, creating an illusion of a new creation. An ominous one at that—one which succinctly captures the irony of societies which, in appearing to have reached the ivory towers of science and technology, has gravely fallen into the abyss of confusion, and a depravity that, in effect, exonerates even the excesses of a Sodom and Gomorrah. The play, in this sense, serves a clear warning to all.
The performance was very eclectic and full of creative energy. It’s nice to see the rich simplicity of the design of the set, which featured three carefully-hanged pictures on the walls—one of which contains images of mega cities (with skyscrapers) used to indicate the presence of diaspora. It was the availability of enough stage space that added to this effect, in addition to affording the actors free movement and an opportunity to express themselves around the stage. One aspect of the performance that may have gone unnoticed by many in the audience because of how natural it came is the believability of all the characters. The actors who played out the character of Kingsley, Alice, and Theophilus were very exceptional in the way they captured the grief and unsettlement of a mind that has gone through painful ruptures physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. To add to this is that majority of the actors stayed true to their respective characters, especially in the details of their body movements and gestures. One especially memorable scene would be the conversation between Kingsley and his father’s ghost (a manifestation of the prodding of Kingsley’s troubled conscience) in the hospital while he was about to submit himself to surgical transformation into a lady (Alice). To say the least, the actor’s gestures acutely captured the psychological anxiety of his character (Kingsley). Another one would be the opening scene in Kingsley’s home in Kleptoria when the khaki-uniformed men barged in to search for the criminal (Kingsley) with arms. That scene is adroit as it successfully conveys the misdemeanours of many security agencies in Africa (Nigeria, to be precise) which has made them more of a laughing stock. Their farcical marching in and out of Kingsley’s home becomes a ready source of comic relief to the audience. And, indeed, we all laughed.
I must also applaud the use of well-made costumes in the production: from the white overall of Kingsley’s father’s ghost (symbolic of his conscience), including the agbada of one of the actors (typical of Nigerian politicians), to the lascivious dresses of all the ladies on stage (which, if anything, bespeaks the looseness that has become a norm in today’s fashion trends), the costumes were just appropriate.
And while the sound during the production was initially quirkily low and incoherent to the opening dance performance by a group, the choice of the fast-becoming-classic “Pray” by the award-winning singer Dare Art Alade, and the classic tunes of the legendary Fela greatly added to the success of the play as it aligns well with its thematic trajectory. To make up for the lapses of the first dance group was the solo cultural dance performance of a young lady reminiscent of J.P. Clark’s “Agbor Dancer” as she was indeed ‘caught in the throbs of drums’, ‘entangled in the magic Maze of Music’ as she ‘treads the intricate pattern rippling crest after crest’. The combination of the play with such fitting music and dance performance made the performance a refreshing cocktail of total theatre.
The above successes notwithstanding, there were some conspicuous blotches. Suffice it that I point out the three that detracted me from the otherwise excellent performance:
- The character of Ayo (Kingsley’s UK-based Kleptorian friend) should have been very pronounced via the actor’s effecting (or even affecting) a near-native speaker of English accent. Some in the audience (myself inclusive) were not impressed by the actor’s crude accentuation of the word f**k, which also became bland at some point due to unnecessary overuse.
- Some of the actors were not adequately audible. At some point some in the audience had to prod such ones to “project!”
- Some sex/romance scenes mock-ups where, in my estimation, rather longer than was necessary. At some point, I observed, some in the audience began to find them a little offensive. (Although, in comparison to the Telemundos that majority in the audience do watch often, these scenes are nothing to be offended by).
I have simply decided not to mention the occasion of power outage during the performance (an understandable, and thus, excusable detraction, for persons who understand Nigeria’s predicament with respect to electric power supply).
Apart from these, other aspects of the production was satisfactory and, in some specific respects, very professional as well. The most professional and, indeed, the highest and most effective part of the play happens to be the very end of the play itself, when the tripartite bodies of Kingsley, Alice and Theophilus merges into a wholly different creature. If anything, the illusory image of three heads and six limbs in one is terrifying. It is a terror which the playwright obviously intends to shock the audience into a deep realization of the frightening state of the human situation in the face of such absurdity.
The publication of this play will no doubt further help to position the playwright, Chris Anyokwu, in the great tradition of writers notable for their heightened sense of perception as the moral vault of society, and also stamp his status as a social crusader in revealing to us the kowtowing status of a nation’s social, political, economic and moral stability. Anyokwu is surely making himself relevant as a writer by harkening to the high calling of creative writers to tackle the “big social issues of the contemporary Africa”, to use the words of Chinua Achebe. Here is a playwright with the insight of a Femi Osofisan, the wit of a Zulu Sofola, and the aesthetics of an Ola Rotimi. He comes across as the guy who’s seen it all, heard it all, and is not afraid to show it all, with the aim of reengineering/regenerating and liberating us all from the ramshackle of social, political, moral and cultural cul-de-sac.
In short, Anyokwu has proven, with plays such as Stolen Future, A Parade of Madmen, Ufuoma, Homecoming, Termites, Beyond the Wall, Camp Hope, Blood Lines and other Stories, and, now, “The Far Country”, his innate capacity, in the words of Hope Eghagha, “to withdraw from the fanfare of the moment, examine it like a sculptor and polish the final work for the benefit of humanity.”
This is a play I will recommend for every stage! Anyokwu has succeeded in ambitiously covering much of the serious issues affecting modern living—political corruption, identity crisis, the past versus the present, and, the most pronounced in the play, transgender. After watching the performance one cannot but recall the infamous Diepreye Alameiysia runaway saga and the now-common trend of sexual/gender transformations which is now very popular in many parts of Europe (the US and UK being in the fore-front) where LGBT rights has been fully integrated in their culture. And with the rise of transgender celebrities—such as Bruce (now Catylin) Jenner, Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono, Isis King, Jenna Talackova, Lana Wachowski, Carmen Carrera, Andreja Pejic, amongst others—it is more than crystal clear that trends such as this are beginning to creep into the consciousness of the entire world! And with the plague of eurocentricism and the all-too-powerful influence of western media in African nations, “The Far Country” turns out to be not that far after all. “The Far Country” is, in fact, nearer than you think!