The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, The Elufowoju jr Ensemble @ Arcola Theatre

7 June–21 July 2018
Directed by Femi Elufowoju, jr

Text (novel) by Lola Shoneyin
Adapted for the stage by Rotimi Babatunde

Credit: Idil Sukan

I am so, so glad that I went to see this play. It was so different to everything else I’ve seen in London – like a bowl of spicy Nigerian yam after a steady diet of bland bubble and squeak. Right from the moment I joined the queue for the (sold-out) Saturday matinee session, I could sense a different atmosphere to that usually found in an off-West End theatre, and I was very conscious that for once in my life, I possessed some of the palest skin in the room. The audience seemed to be comprised of many large groups – families, groups of girlfriends, whole communities crammed into Arcola Theatre’s many-tiered seating. They were quite possibly the most responsive audience I’ve ever seen, laughing uproariously at all the jokes, drawing shocked gasps at revelations, sighing and groaning at characters’ misfortunes, and often (seemingly involuntarily) answering characters’ rhetorical yes/no questions as they soliloquised. It was a pleasure to be drawn along by their energy, which echoed and amplified that of the performers.

Not that the performers were in any way lacking in energy: in fact, they crackled with it. This ensemble troupe is comprised of ten actors, seven women and three men, and each of them plays multiple roles, sings, dances, plays instruments, performs as a chorus-like ensemble, and often sits amongst the first row of the audience, reacting along to the anecdotes and events on stage. Through them, we are introduced to the scandalous story of a household in Nigeria, and its four main characters: Baba Segi and his four wives, Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi, and Bolanle. We get to know Baba Segi and each wife in turn, learning about their origins, trials and tribulations, and the decisions and fates which led them to this household. Once we’re all caught up with the local history, we follow the family as it investigates the mystery of youngest, most educated wife Bolanle’s seeming inability to fall pregnant.

Credit: Idil Sukan

This play is belly-achingly funny. Every actor has impeccable comic timing and is able to transform any line into a punchline through playful use of voice, body, and face. Sometimes, this propensity towards comedy can border on the uncomfortable: it is not often that heavy topics such as marital rape and what is effectively female enslavement are played for laughs. (Upon skimming though the script provided with the programme, it is worth noting that a number of relationships and sexual encounters were originally written as unpleasant or non-consensual, but were changed for the positive for the final version. I am very grateful for this!) However, perhaps disguising these topics as jokes was a way of sneaking criticism and condemnation of them into the play without moralising. Or perhaps my discomfort was simply due to my status as a cultural outsider. In any case, such moments were certainly confronting and provocative, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it? I do wish, though, that the ending had provided a clearer judgement on the moral(s) of the story, as Baba Segi’s and Bolanle’s final addresses to the audience provided a strange mixture of unrepentant misogyny and enlightened feminist empowerment.

This mix of old and new, tradition and progression, superstition and science, sexual liberation and sexual oppression, form a constant motif of the play and reflects the type of isolated yet rapidly modernising community in which it is set. This divide is explored both in caricature and in nuance, and we see a sympathetic side to every character portrayed, even if they are would-be murders or abusive husbands. There is one notable exception in the form of an unnamed rapist: it is no coincidence that this is also the most Westernised character in the play, and the only one who speaks English without an African accent. This play, for all its mockery of antiquated gender roles and superstitious/religious clap-trap, thrums with pride in West African culture. Sexual courtship is portrayed through dance, grief through ululating wails, and all manner of things from celebration to mourning to everyday cheerfulness through song. The entire play thrums with rhythm, even when drums are not present on stage, and the actors never miss a beat. They don’t need any setting other than a few armchairs and occasional props (a birthday present, a sinister jar, a fetish whip, etc): the performers’ bodies form the foreground and backdrop, their simple yet vibrant costumes providing all the colour needed.

Credit: Idil Sukan

Although the entire cast was outstandingly strong, I feel it fair to say that the standout performers were Patrice Naiambana as Baba Segi and Jumoké Fashola as Iya Segi. Both wove complex characters who were sympathetic despite their chauvinism and nastiness, showing us the festering wounds which caused these defects: loss of innocence and freedom, bitterness, vulnerability, gullibility, fear, insecurity, jealousy. And despite having many of the play’s most poignant moments, these actors were also the ones most likely to have us clutching at our sides with laughter!

Look: if you don’t see this play before its run ends on July 21st, you will be sorely missing out. This is theatre with a difference, with a spirit, which will open your eyes and worldview. We need more like it, but it seems unlikely that anything of a similar style and calibre will pop up on the London theatre scene any time soon, so catch it while you can!


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