By Péjú Láyíwọlá
I was first captivated by the posters and then I was warned not to watch the play because of the high level of vulgarity shown on stage. I braved it and opted to watch it on the second day of the three days that it was shown at the Main Auditorium, University of Lagos. Truly, if you survive the first few minutes of the play, you are likely to sit through this very captivating and bold attempt by a talented young playwright, Otun Rasheed, to shock, provoke, challenge, incite, and stir all manner of emotions through this breathtaking 70 minitues play. Given the very diverse critique of this play, one thing remains clear: sex is a tabooed topic in Nigeria. People prefer to talk about it in private spaces and not see themselves on stage.
You must be mad, Yes You! is the title of the play. While some might quarrel with the title, I think it is apt because really we live in a very mad world! It is a world full of paradoxes. The play was laden with foul language. The stark show of sexual pleasure and the rigorous scenes of obscenity and eroticism would make you cringe! But the message is loud and clear at the end: the level of promiscuity in the Nigerian society is high but largely ignored. Parents delude themselves by thinking their children are ‘holy’ and would not indulge in sex in this highly virtual and visual world of the internet. Infidelity, fornication, incest, pornography have become the order of the day. The level of incest within families is so high that you would be shocked. A few years ago, I attended a popular monthly camp meeting. When the altar call was raised, I was shocked at the number of people involved in incestuous relationship come out for prayers.
The cast comprised students of the Department of Creative Arts. Otun Rasheed is a lecturer in the department. What great mentorship! But does he represent the views of the Department or does he make any reference to it in any way? No! It is unlikely that such a play would see the light of day were it presented as an academic project. It is also not likely to receive a research grant. Yet, the academy should be a crucible for such phenomenal thinking.
Many thoughts crossed my mind while watching. Some of these discussed below reflect, in part, views of some of my colleagues when we discussed.
Why are people more likely to accept visual images of eroticism rather than a play with a similar theme? What role does sound and movement play in accentuating a message?
A bit of diversion: About eleven years ago there was a half nude life-sized female figure in the courtyard of the Visual Arts unit of the department. She was bare chested and wore a very well sculpted g–string that had a butterfly as motif on what I would consider the most significant part. A former Head of Department (also a visual artist) could not understand why that work should have been made. We all lived comfortably with the work for a long time. Over time there were signs of wear and tear on the nipples and lips of the figure. Several months later, the work collapsed. When I asked the students what happened they jocularly said. ‘She was raped and murdered last night and the case had been reported to the state CID’. Investigations are still ongoing till now.
Religiosity and fanaticism becloud our judgment. I was told that some of the staff in solidarity rushed to watch the play only to run out after five minutes. They couldn’t handle it. Jesus! Armageddon! This is Satan at work! The devil is a liar! This playwright must be mad! Yes, Otun Rasheed is mad! We were told in our elementary theatre class that theatre is make-belief. Yet, there is a meeting point between reality and fiction. Outside the performance, can I look at the most vulnerable of the cast without casting my mind back to the acts of violation on stage? Perhaps the change of cast for each production helped mitigate this.
Tunji Sótimírìn is concerned about the very graphic scenes and the perception of parents who are only just accepting theatre arts as a field of study. Are parents likely to allow their daughters study theatre arts after seeing such a play? As a former Head of Department, I have come to realize that the passion for some of these students far outweighs the choices of parents. I have seen students cry when offered courses other than theatre arts. Every new entrant into the Theatre Arts Department believes, and rightfully so, that he/she would succeed and surpass the achievements of former alumni and alumnae of the department. Several of them abound – Moceda, Stella Damassus, Fẹ́mi Brainard, Mercy Aigbe, Dáre Art Àlàdé, Fẹ́mi Oke, Wọlé Òjó, Helen Paul, Ọmọ́wùmí Dàda, Sambassa, Sẹ́gun Adéfilá and others too numerous to list. The successful careers of their forbears in the entertainment industry looms larger than the sentiments expressed by some parents. We are thankful for such great mentorship since the days of cultural studies. Both students and lecturers have enjoyed such great tutelage from Prof Ẹ̀bùn Clark, Prof Dúró Òní, Prof Àbáyọ̀mí Barber, Prof Délé Jẹ́gẹ́dẹ́ , Prof Alagoa, Prof Anthony Mereni, Prof Bọ̀dé Osanyin, Alaja Brown and Túnjí Ṣótimírìn. It is from this tradition that Otun Rasheed has emerged.
Many questions arise, a number of which I cannot answer: What role does theatre play in the society? What was the message of this play. Was it meant to be a corrective measure? Must theatre always have a message? To whom was this play directed? What binaries does this play throw up.
There are many points at which this play succeeds:
a. The use of space was amazing. Like an owl, the audience found themselves turning three sixty degrees. Many of the cast were seated amongst the audience and the audience were literally brought onto the stage. The stage could not contain the depth of actions Otun Rasheed offered. I also like the use of light and the special effects on the stage particularly in the opening scene.
b. Great publicity. Every day was a new message urging you to watch the play. The t-shirts and posters added pep to the show. The visuals were simply amazing! Social media aided publicity for this pay. Gone are the days when crude publicity was done by hiring a rickety university based cab with speakers mounted on it, while announcement are made round the campus through unfiltered microphones.
c. There was great synergy between members of the theatre unit and the students in bringing this idea to fruition. For this, I congratulate both students and staff of the theatre unit. Otun entertains much as he shocks his audience. His main aim is to call for the censorship of plays just like it is done with films. His personal experiences of taking his under aged children to watch adult plays without knowing it inspired this work. You must be Mad, Yes you! was rated 18+. Tickets were not offered to underage undergraduates, but a few still managed the gain entrance. That is the very point this play tries to address. How careful can parents be in bringing up their kids? What should be told them and what should be left for them to discover on their own?
The play lasted for three days. In my mind, it lasts forever. The final day had the main auditorium full to capacity. My only regret was that the madness was not sustained for a full week. Much as I like this work of art, I would like the directors to temper some of the violent scenes, particularly those couched within the audience area.
I salute your courage Otun Rasheed for bringing this play to the university environment. I look forward to watching it over and over again. I hope it would be viewed in a more pubic theatre and receive the sort of commendation it deserves. Did I hear you say condemnation? It is left for you to decide because you must be the only sane person in this very crazy world.
Péjú Olówu Láyíwọlá is an artist, painter, and sculptor. She lives in Ibadan. Full text culled and edited from her Facebook page, with permission.