by Wilfred Okiche
Lala Akindoju and her blossoming company, Make it Happen production do not know how not to put up a show. She is the powerhouse behind Open Mic, a popular talent freestyle showcase that gathers tested stage and screen practitioners to improvise alongside studious up and comers. Last year, for its first major outing, Make it Happen productions staged an explosive, unforgettable rendition of V-monologues, the Nigerian franchise of Eve Ensler’s ground breaking play.
This year, Akindoju is back in the producing saddle, with another revival of a seminal work of art, this time, theatre maestro, Professor Ahmed Yerima’s dramedy, The Wives. The popularity of the dysfunctional family drama has seen it receive repeated treatments on several stages nationwide including a 2011 production directed by the Performing Arts Workshop and Studios’ Kenneth Uphopho and starring Akindoju, Kate Henshaw and Carol King.
For this revival which opened at the Agip Hall of the Muson centre, Onikan, Lagos on Thursday 9, October and ran through Saturday 11, Akindoju reprises the role of Tobi, the youngest and trophiest wife of Chief Olowookere. Tobi is a social climbing simpleton who marries a man old enough to be her grandfather and finds herself accused of murder by his eldest wife Angela, (Kate Henshaw, also reprising her role from the 2011 production, but sporting a different accent) when chief errm.. expires in her arms following a particular energetic bout of lovemaking.
The Wives opens in the home of Chief Theophilus Gbadegeshin Olowookere on the day of his committal to mother earth. He lies, lifeless, in a coffin draped in the national flag colours, for the play’s entire running time but his presence looms large, mostly through the memories and actions of the women he left behind.
The most important of these women isn’t any of his wives, but his younger sister, Aunty Mi, played with a gingerly spring in her step by the beloved veteran, Joke Silva. Aunty Mi is mourning her brother when we meet her and having one final conversation with him, but she isn’t allowed to commune with the dead for too long. See there are responsibilities that require her attention, Chief made quite sure of that.
His sad, untimely death at the ripe old age of 70 (his father lived up to 100) has led to mass hysteria in the household. First wife has had last wife locked up on a murder charge, but her real motive is more likely vengeance for the youngest one’s role in effectively commandeering all of chief’s attention- and affections- in the winter of his life. Hell hath no fury they say, like a woman scorned.
The second wife Cecilia (Ireti Doyle) has returned to pay her last respects, 20 years after she left chief’s household, taking with her, 2 cars for each of the 2 children she bore, but she also has plans to collect on a debt The reading of the will has to be arranged same day, before chief can be buried, as per his request. For this reason, the family elder is expected to arrive to perform the final rites of passage but chief’s first son and legitimate heir is not present, tucked away by his mother in the United States of America because of rumours that his father might have been a member of a cult.
Aunty is unbowed and committed to securing peace in the family as she has spent all of her life cleaning up after the mess left by chief and his brood. She manipulates each of the wives to dance to her own music and is able to squeeze out some level of compensation for all her years of loyalty. She is really only looking out for herself and is on her way to securing a happily ever after package from the clueless wives when her plans come crashing with the arrival of the family elder (Jide Kosoko). Accompanying him, is the village’s native chief priest who throws a spanner in the works with his visions of secrets long buried and a shameful act best left unspoken of.
This twist in the tale takes a long time coming and adds a whole new layer to Yerima’s nuanced tale, marked by brilliant characterization and witty writing. The play takes an unflinching look at the institution of marriage, juxtaposing it with an exploration of other themes such as feminism, adultery, and conflicts of interest. There is humour, emotion, action and even a hint of music.
Directed by Seke Somolu, the play is updated to reflect modern tastes. The women drink Irish cream, brandy and head financial institutions, a character takes a selfie and is obsessed with the style pages of ThisDay newspapers on Sunday.
The actresses are all top notch, and even though none of the characters are as rich as Aunty’s, the women bring their experience and unique personalities to make the most of the parts. Angela is bitter, biting and spiteful of others who have proved themselves stronger than her. She is weak and routinely abdicates her responsibilities as first wife and Henshaw plays her with a glint in her eyes.
Doyle’s Cecilia is the least drawn out character but the role is a perfect fit for Ms Doyle’s class and poise. Akindoju who is a stunner in her figure-hugging LBD has such a blast playing the airhead that she gets carried away on occasion and doesn’t quite realise moments when she should have toned it down. Kosoko and Oshinaike deliver sturdy performances of character roles.
Big, splashy and impeccably produced, this imagination of The Wives may well be the standard by which future productions will be judged. Akindoju obviously set out to put up a show. And oh! What a show.