By Patrick-Jude Oteh
IN my wildest dreams, I came across a playwright with three moulds all rolled into one – a Bertolt Brecht with all his seriousness and commentaries on the human condition, a Henrik Ibsen with all his apt and descriptive situational dramas and a Samuel Beckett with all the human and inhuman absurdities he can muster and feed into the human situation. Welcome to the world of Jerry Alagbaoso!
We first encountered Alagbaoso fortuitously in 2018 through Professor Barclays Ayakoroma in Abuja. He had come to watch one of our plays under the Consumption by Moonlight programme that was being organized by the environmental artist Ifesinachi Iwuanyanwu at the premises of the British Council. They were accompanied by theatre director, Agozie Ugwu, and after the play, during the post-performance discussions, he said he wanted to see me. In our discussions, he introduced himself with all humility and the name certainly rang a bell. I had heard of him from Professor Ayakoroma, and after more pleasantries, he said he would send us some of his works. He sent about 20 plays and in the last few years this has grown to a very comfortable 26!
We have produced four of his plays at the annual Jos International Festival of Theatre and they have not disappointed the audience. The issues he treats vary and they capture the entire gamut of the Nigerian society. The issues are serious, engaging and throws up our very essence as a people as well as the sordidness and absurdity of our being in a country where we do not even understand ourselves. The truth of the matter is that there is hardly any issue that escapes Alagbaoso’s microscopic, dramatic lens. In my estimation, it is the multiple award winning Tony Wants To Marry that puts the icing in his plays. A young man, Tony wants to marry with lots of prompting from his family as, according to them, he has “come of age”. So he sets about searching for a wife. He does this through a very weird and crude method – he wants to date as many girls as possible to enable him make a choice. He starts from one of the ladies of the deep night, he also dates an armed robber, he dates a man masquerading as a woman, he dates all sorts and after his encounter with the kidnapper, he decides that he has had enough and quietly settles with the church-going, decent girl whom he had maltreated but who still forgives him.
One of his latest plays, What A Man Can Steal has a title that that appears incomplete in itself until you watch the play. The title is actually a mouthful – What A Man Can Steal, A Woman Can Equally Steal! and it takes a very deep look at the men and women in politics, government agencies and ministries (MDA’s), with each group trying to out-steal the other. It is a very bitter and brutal race that ends in an unnamed government house where His Excellency is engaged in a frivolous relationship with one of the commissioners whose husband is a friend of his. This scenario sets up a battle of wits with the first lady who is determined to keep her place within the scheme of things. How is this to be done? With hot boiling water sprayed on His Excellency and his Commissioner! Equally in Sabita and Her Fiance, a young lady Sabita is under a lot of pressure to get married. Unfortunately, she does not seem to be able to hold down a suitor. When Engineer Tom comes knocking, he is a very clean, prosperous and confident young man who is into “online” business. He is successful and, with this success comes, a lot of gifts for his fiancée, his prospective mother and father-in-law (who later denies receiving anything). This goes on and on and Engineer Tom garners the accolades of the society with his Engineer title until he meets a real Engineer, an uncle to Sabita, who asks the right questions and begins to doubt the credentials of their Engineer-in-law. Until the police arrive to arrest him. He had gone underground after several heists and he even had a gun in his possession at the point of his arrest. He is a notorious armed robber, kidnapper, fraudster, thief and dupe who has left so many broken hearts and limbs in his areas of operation. But in the course of his arrest, Sabita and her mother are also arrested as accessories to the many sins of Engineer Tom; they had the gifts as evidence of his numerous operations. The play portrays the results of nebulous online or off-shore business success as a façade for numerous nefarious activities. In The Joy of Professor Abednego, Jnr, Alagbaoso discusses the underlying importance of culture and family, drug abuse and the significance of wealth as opposed to the tenacious interest in wealth. There is also a sub-theme of those who are in the process of committing “japa” but in the years to come, all of these go awry and what returns are broken dreams and broken bodies! These broken bodies are shipped back to the motherland as incurable drug addicts and societal misfits.
The beauty of Alagbaoso’s plays and their acceptance by audiences is the fact that most of his hard-hitting stories are couched in comedy or satire. Perhaps this is what has made even those whose noses he points to directly are not really offended until they get to the confines and security of their inner bedrooms and they then get angry and fume but by then all the other members of the public would have gone. For instance, in Sorters and Sortees, the age-old trend prevalent in our higher institutions when lazy students tend to compromise and bribe their lecturers with gifts in order to obtain favourable grades in their examinations is examined. The play also reveals the rot in our higher institutions. Alagbaoso goes on to proffer solutions on how this can be remedied whereby those caught will be used as a deterrent for others. Only time will tell if this remedy has been effective on the part of the lecturers and the students who tend to compromise them.
One would have thought that the hallowed chambers of an elective office in the National Assembly will be spared Alagbaoso’s satirical barbs considering the fact that Alagbaoso is a current member of the House of Representatives. He takes a critical look at this institution in His Excellency and the Siren wherein the use of motorcades and sirens is examined as tools of oppression. In this particular play even the fortunes of those who campaign and do not fulfill their promises are also put up for scrutiny. They always, according to the playwright, want to come back despite their unfulfilled promises. But then again, he zeroes in on the electorate who take such unfulfilled promises as another act of good fortune on the part of the offender. It is akin to riding the proverbial bicycle up the steep hill. The craze for honorary degrees is also examined in Honorable Chairman. Chief Miracle Best is the Executive Chairman of a fictitious Wazobia Local Government Area who is tricked into receiving a fake honorary degree which is stage-managed from start to finish by some unscrupulous elements but they would not have succeeded if Chief Best did not allow his ego and desires to influence his actions. The play takes a swipe at those who lack academic intelligence and basic knowledge and who now want to cover these with bogus, unnecessary and misdirected fake honorable degrees.
Alagbaoso’s oeuvre is limitless. The way people worship money and acquisitions as well as rich and shallow men who possess nothing except these objects is at the core of Oh! My Rolls Royce and My Fairly Old Wife. The wife is a metaphor here but in the real sense it refers to the worship of earthly possessions that even religion has fallen prey, as the love of money has consumed our religious leaders. One of the characters in this hilarious play rhetorically asks: “Have you seen a billionaire before who is an empty vessel?” It is my contention that Alagbaoso does not set out to make audiences laugh. Rather what we see at play is his use of comedy and satire as his own peculiar vehicles with which he drives his vision of an ideal society. The vision is clear and forward looking but whether a society like Nigeria is capable of grasping and putting to use such a vision is another matter entirely. It is only time that will be able to decipher this vision. On the other hand, perhaps Alagbaoso is a playwright before his time. His singular vision is driven by his knack for being in a vantage position through the positions he has been fortunate to hold in life. He has not allowed these to cloud his longing for a beautiful, forward looking society where all men and women can be equal. Deep down, one suspects that he is deeply pained, it is noteworthy to observe that he covers this pain with the illusion of laughter whereby everything seems good and edifying.
During the reign of Ibrahim Babangida when the office of the first lady was institutionalized, little did they know that they were providing the necessary cannon for Alagbaoso’s inquiring peep into such happenings in the offices scattered across the nation. The office has become so ridiculous that even the councilor’s wife is the first lady in his area of influence. In The First Lady, Alagbaoso lampoons the various offices of the first ladies, carpeting their frivolity and numerous election malpractices all in efforts to gain access to the offices and attendant wealth. He expands the functions of the office to include settling of electoral opponents and the intense lobbying for favours. Unfortunately in the plot of the play, this particular Chairman and his first lady fail to appreciate their supporters and when it was time for another round of elections, these supporters turn their backs on them with disastrous consequences. This is the ideal. But with modern and updated methods of rigging, we do not know if this can be possible.
In an unpublished tete-a-tete with the playwright which one feels is not deep enough and which does not capture the true essence of the playwright, he had remarked that he writes his plays to be didactic in mood and message. While this is true, one has often wondered if the sources of his stories, plots and sub-plots are from personal experiences or from observations of his immediate surroundings. For instance in Let My Husband Be, the playwright takes a look at the rampant evil of promiscuity especially in religious and family relationships. He actually questions the role of men of God and the role they play in the society as well as the true definitions of relationships between married men and the opposite sex. In his summation, most times and oftentimes, most of these relationships are not altruistic.
Alagbaoso has variously been described as one of the third generation playwrights who continues to weave words into characters who come to life from the inks of his pen. I agree with this assertion, and as one who has produced some of these plays, I see how they resonate with audiences.
Alagbaoso’s plays explore and try to explain the foibles and ugliness of the Nigerian situation but the characters are beautifully dressed and they can equally be referred to as the society’s high-end people. There are times you lose the foibles because of the smart and trendy dressing. Do you want to see the guard at the gate who knows all of his Boss’ secrets? Do you want to know how the kitchen maid knows that the Madam of the house has been quietly bowing down to the house-boy in the kitchen? The plots are numerous and they never fail to appeal. However, the challenge of plays such as Alagbaoso’s is the fact that they are not plays to be directed by the “normal” theatre director. I have always mentioned to him that his plays can only be directed by “crazy, non-conformists” who do not obey any theatre rules of engagement. They just want to have fun with the plays and exhibit the characters in their raw, less-human states. We should not forget that the classic definition of comedy is “showcasing the human being as worse than he is” and it is when this happens that the absurdity of the character elicits laughter and joy in the audience, because they end up seeing themselves as worse than they are.
I have met some critics who say that Alagbaoso’s plays are not fit to go on stage because the language of the characters are coarse, ridiculous and not fit for the status of the characters they tend to portray. And my response has always been that in dramatic theory and criticism, once upon a time, Aristotle had posited that tragedy can only occur to highly placed individuals like kings, royalty and the likes, so that when they fall, the weight of the fall is huge. But it took an Arthur Miller, coming centuries later in Death of a Salesman, to prove that the tragedy of a low man is equal to the tragedy of a highly placed man. The same can apply here. Alagbaoso has found a style that suits him, and with that style that is distinctly his, he tells his stories and graphs his stage. Perhaps it is time you show us your alternative.
Since 2017 when he came into national limelight, Alagbaoso has been consistent as a playwright, and he writes on the average a play per quarter and he has adhered to this faithfully despite his busy schedule and his response to this has been that this is how he relaxes – observing and writing. Going through his oeuvre, he has certainly done a lot of observing and in the right places, too.
As Honourable Jerry Alagbaoso celebrates his birthday today, we can only wish him well. The future is still very bright, and for his limitless energy, we are certainly hopeful that there are more works and writings in the proverbial pipeline! We are looking forward to these and to a future full of hope – for our dear country and for our institutions and hoping that more of us will continue to exhibit our foibles and frailties as worthy objects for Alagbaoso’s keen vision and writings.
Happy Birthday Honourable!
* Dr. Oteh is the Artistic Director of Jos Repertory Theatre, Jos, Nigeria