The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives announces itself in the tightly-filled Arcola studio — the seating rises on all four sides, dwarfing a small playing space marked only by woven mats – with the voices of unseen Nigerian women. But just like in the house of the eponymous character, though it is the women who do most of the work, creating much of the music, playing most of the ensemble roles, cooking and cleaning and raising the children, it is Baba Segi himself who rules.
Patrice Naiambana lives so fully and easily in the skin of the big, loud, crass, jovial Baba Segi, you start to wonder if that is just what Naimabana is like (some intriguing doubling later on reveals that it’s probably not). Baba Segi is the kind of man who is an innocent because he is so self-centred; generous because he cannot countenance the women under his charge knowing how to fend for themselves. The power he holds over his four wives is that of a patriarchal society that gives them no other options. The power he holds over the audience is that he’s so much fun.
Baba Segi’s good humour sets the tone for the lively, textured two hours to follow, which unfolds in vignettes that dash backwards and forwards and side-to-side, down tangents and into song, telling the story of how Baba Segi marries his wives and then, thanks to the arrival of a young fourth wife, comes to really know them all. It’s based on an award-winning novel by Lola Shoneyin, and playwright Rotimi Babatunde emphasizes his fidelity to Shoneyin’s text in the script, many of the characters’ instances of direct address to the audience lifted word-for-word from the novel. This, however, does not make the evening feel flat or didactic, as such heavily narrative literary adaptations often can. Femi Elufowoju Jr’s dynamic direction creates a collaborative world of storytelling, where actors flip from role to role and watch, waiting, from the side lines, ready to jump in with musical accompaniment or a prop or just a reaction to what they’re seeing.
It’s a reminder of why it’s important to achieve diversity onstage through means that aren’t just casting more people of colour in Shakespeare. Secret Lives doesn’t feel like your usual Anglo-Aristotelian story with an unusual cast, it feels like a piece that is genuinely speaking with a different voice. The structure itself is unfamiliar, the particular blend of humour and pathos unexpected and occasionally jarring, in a good way. While the word “authentic” makes it sound horribly like some kind of anthropological curiosity, Secret Lives is an example of artistic diversity that’s much more than skin deep.
But — and I hesitate to articulate this, because the dominant tone of the play is one of humour and joy (and it’s not Secret Lives’s fault that it is the third play that deals with themes of domestic violence I’ve seen in the past two weeks) – there’s a dark undercurrent to Baba Segi’s rule over his wives that I kept waiting for the play to excavate more fully. It seemed to me, for much of the show, that this would be a story about how women make their way through and around and in spite of and under the burden of patriarchy and sexual violence of all kinds. The rape that one wife survived in her youth is intentionally and subtly laid alongside the forced marriages of the others as not equivalent events, exactly, but perhaps rhyming ones — or so I thought.
Instead, in an uncanny echo of Consent, the play ultimately seems to decide that only certain kinds of sexual violence count. The ending, which is supposed to be triumphant, comes paired with a disturbingly smug suggestion that the women who fail to escape Baba Segi’s control — and said women happen to be the uneducated, less conventionally beautiful, less accommodating wives, all of whom have children and no way to return to their families — don’t have it that bad, and deserve no better.
The mix of hope and comedy in the play’s final speech made me wonder if perhaps I wasn’t meant to be troubled by the themes of violence and quiet suffering that drift beneath the surface throughout, as well as delighted by the transgressive ways women find to carve out some happiness in lives they would not have chosen for themselves. That the show’s fable-like cadences were meant to extend to hoping for nothing more than victory for the heroes and punishment for their foes. But the play attends so sensitively to each woman’s story, it seems impossible that was the intention.
It’s the contrast to the delightfulness of the preceding two hours that make that final sour note so disappointing. Up until then, Baba Segi leads his family in perfect harmony.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is at the Arcola Theatre until 21st June. For more details, click here.