Theatre Review: ‘New Nigerians’ by Oladipo Agboluaje @ The Arcola Theatre, London
Greatness Ogholi (Patrice Naiambana) is a rare political creature. A veteran Nigerian socialist tired of the self-serving political elite, he announces his intentions to run for president at the next election, as head of the People’s Revolutionary Party. He has established a grassroots movement – the New Nigerian Initiative – whose activists are trying to raise awareness about Comrade Ogholi’s policies nationally. Committed to progressive politics that transcend gender, age and ethnic barriers, Delta state-native Greatness even has a young Igbo woman as his running mate; the formidable Chinasa (Gbemisola Ikumelo).
Unfortunately, Ogholi’s message of hope isn’t catching on in key states. (As one character quips, Nigerians aren’t natural socialists). His overt atheism isn’t popular in a deeply religious country either. Without sufficient support, he has no chance of even making it onto the ballot.
A dubious lifeline appears when a defector from the main opposition party, the billionaire businessman and ideological opponent Danladi Musa (Tunde Euba), suggests forming a coalition with the PRP. Even some of Greatness’ supposed union allies are advising him to jettison his principles in the name of ‘political pragmatism’. He wonders if his ideas will ever see the light of day intact. They are all that are left him. After the recent death of his father and abandonment by his wife Grace (Ikumelo) taking their only child with her, little remains of his personal life to salvage.
Despite its satirical slant, lively performances from a versatile cast, and light-hearted audience participation, a familiar bitter taste pervades Oladipo Agboluaje’s highly germane ‘New Nigerians’. Some variation of ‘You need to be in power to effect change’ is repeated like a depressing mantra. Comrade Ogholi’s struggle to remain true to his socialist ideals in the face of systemic rot and cynicism is the same that preoccupies leftist politicians the world over (I feel for you, Mr Corbyn). True radicals are stymied by champagne socialists in denial and/or self-appointed gatekeepers of power. Besides the acerbic wit, ‘New Nigerians’ main antidote to the sense of despair is optimism about the growing political consciousness of the upcoming, tech-savvy generation.
Through the deterioration of Greatness’ marriage, Agboluaje underlines the huge personal cost of staying true to one’s vision. His estranged born-again wife Grace, who doesn’t share her ex-husband’s fervour, resents being a revolutionary widow. Nevertheless, ’tis a pity that the writer chooses to caricature certain social groups. The two main female characters occupy extreme ends of the spectrum; all too willing to use their sexuality to curry favour (Chinasa) or sour-faced and repressed (Grace). Churchgoers as a whole are depicted as joyless Pharisees; too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good. Agboluaje has bought into the falsehood that ‘pie-in-the-sky’ faith prevents Christians ever taking an interest in socio-economic justice.
Such lazy stereotyping is not worthy of an otherwise sophisticated and perspicacious analysis of contemporary politics in Nigeria and beyond.
Written by Oladipo Agboluaje
Directed by Rosamunde Hutt
Assistant Director – Richard Speir
Set Design – Jemima Robinson
Costume Design – Kate Royds
Tunde Euba – Danladi, Comrade Edobor
Gbemisola Ikumelo – Chinasa, Grace, Waitress
Patrice Naiambana – Greatness
‘New Nigerians’ continues at the Arcola Theatre, London until 11 March 2017.