Part of the Arcola’s Revolution season, Oladipo Agboluaje’s political satire centres around People’s Revolutionary Party leader Greatness Ogholi’s mission to bring the country together as ‘One Nigeria’ with his uncompromising socialist vision.
On the brink of becoming a presidential candidate, we watch him move from idealistic rabble-rousing towards the pragmatism of the real-world politics and its tit-for-tat concessions with enemies, schmoozing the money and union men, selling out loyal cohorts and, inevitably, being inattentive to one’s personal life.
If the setup sounds too worthy, worry not. New Nigerians is laugh-out-loud political satire. And while the Nigerian setting is closely observed and provides as a fascinating insight into some of the complex problems that beset African nations, at its heart, Ogholi’s woes are those of all who would stand up and try to effect change.
The majority of the action takes places as a series of meetings in a bland corporate hotel, which acts as a smart contrast to the tangle of identity politics discussed within it. As Cokes are cracked open in the international brand-name hotel, global capitalism stalks the set – an unspoken presence that ultimately chews up and spits out any possibility for change. It’s a smart move from designer Jemima Robinson. The stage mimics a company’s appropriation of local culture as international bland corporate chic adorns itself with African design tropes and gives what might otherwise be a politically slight play an extra dimension.
And to say it’s politically slight is not a deliberate slight. While the action occasionally feels like we’re being run through Marxism 101, followed by Political Pragmatism 101, the play and its ambitions are crystal clear. It’s proof that in these difficult times political satire can still have teeth. Agboluaje’s 90-minute play is packed with killer lines, and comic characters we can laugh at and with, as well as some great set pieces.
We begin with Ogholi practicing a zealous and pompous speech, hilariously running through different tones and delivery before engaging the audience in policing his integrity. Patrice Naiambana’s commanding performance keeps the audience engaged and delights in the words, overcoming the play’s limited emotional register and paper-thin plot by oscillating between egocentric, vulnerable and confused about his true purpose, while remaining sympathetic.
It’s essentially the three standout performances from Tunde Euba, Gbemisola Ikumelo and Naiambana that launches New Nigerians from a funny-if-straightforward play to a satisfying 90-minute romp. Ikumelo as Chinasa Umezurike – one of the most rounded and fulfilling characters – is mesmerizing to watch and owns every scene she’s in. She relishes the chance to show her range as she also pulls triple duty as Ogholi’s estranged wife Grace and the hotel waitress.
Rosamunde Hutt’s unadorned direction lets the actors attack their lines with gusto although things do, at times, topple over into being too talky. In particular, one overlong, two-way conversation makes the pace flag considerably, but things quickly pick up with Naiambana’s pitch-perfect audience participation keeping things interesting.
New Nigerians, despite its flaws, both revels in and reveals the fact that now is the perfect time to be provoking sympathetic laughter at the pressures and pains of those trying to effect real change.
New Nigerians is on until 11th March 2017 at the Arcola theatre. Click here for more details.