Live review

THEATRE REVIEW: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives at the Arcola Theatre

Jumoké Fashola
(known to jazz audiences as presenter of BBC Radio 3’s J to Z)
and Tania Nwachukwu
Photo Credit: Idil Sukan

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives
(Arcola Theatre, 19 June 2018. Review by Kate Delamere)

A debut novel about a polygamous husband by Nigerian poet and author Lola Shoneyin made a powerful transition to the stage in an adaptation by Rotimi Babatunde. The Elufowoju jr Ensemble production was brutally faithful to the poetry, humour and honesty of Shoneyin’s writing that had the audience laughing uproariously, then seconds later taking an emotional punch in a plot that revolved around four women, one husband and a devastating secret.

The polygamous theme was a storyline close to the author’s heart giving the play added depth and authenticity. Shoneyin’s maternal grandfather HRH Abraham Olayinka Okupe was the traditional ruler of Iperu Remo in southwestern Nigeria and had five wives. The sharpness of her perceptive storytelling littered with rich African proverbs was brought to life in this true ensemble piece in which each actor and actress brought something special to the party.

Patrice Naiambana gave a wonderful performance as head of the Nigerian household, flatulent chauvinist Baba Segi. He magnificently plundered his character’s ignorance and traditional beliefs to give us real belly-laughs as well as make us think during his narrative monologues. His formidable height and muscular physique only added to an imposing presence in his role as a controlling violent husband.

The actresses playing his four wives gave strong, sensitive performances with gifts for comedic timing – from the formidable Iya Segi who loved throwing her weight around, played by Jumoké Fashola, shy Iya Tope, played by Christina Oshunniyi, materialistic Iya Femi, played by Layo-Christina Akinlude, to beautiful university graduate Bolanle, played by Marcy Dolapo Oni, a pertinent catalyst to the denouement of the plot.

They took us on a thoroughly enjoyable roller coaster ride, expertly guiding us through farcical moments as well as magnificently conveying the unbroken spirit of women in the face of abuses of patriarchal power.

“Men are like yam, you cut them how you like,” says one of Baba Segi’s wives with a toss of her spirited head at one point in the play. The united strength of women surviving against adversity was also conveyed in the powerful uplifting dance and song routines choreographed by Kemi Durosinmi. Reminiscent of a Greek chorus, there was something almost ritualistic about the old wives welcoming a new one into the fold. The fast-paced play was superbly directed by Femi Elufowoju jr, who established the first ever African national touring theatre company in Britain, tiata fahodzi, which he led from 1997 to 2010.

A directorial decision to occasionally break the fourth wall with actors directly addressing the audience as well as using the device of frozen montages failed to break our empathy with these finely drawn characters. Even seeing the actors standing next to the audience waiting for their next role didn’t break the tension and suspension of disbelief in the story. His fast scene changes with minimal props lent themselves to the intimacy of the in-the-round stage with a colourful picture of Nigerian life painted for the audience with minimalistic additions to scenes such as a cooking bowl or wrapped birthday present.

Ayan de First and Usifu Jalloh
Photo credit: Idil Sukan

His musical direction featured impressive drumming and percussion by the actors evoking the beat of a contemporary African world. Touches of brightly coloured skirts and headscarves worn by the wives were further simplistic brushstrokes that represented this world, adeptly selected by costume supervisor Shola Ajayi. The realism was complemented by the naturalism of the lighting by designer Ryan Joseph Stafford.

It wasn’t hard to see the resonance of the play’s themes about the imbalance of gender sexual politics currently reflected in the global Me Too movement spread virally in 2017 against sexual harassment and assault.

The play, first staged in 2013, was a pertinent reminder that inequality begins at home.

Baba Segi may remain stuck in a macho patriarchal past obstinately protecting his manhood and public image but hope for a new future came in the emotional climax of the play, cleansing not only the characters but also us in the audience. As the fourth wife Bolanle walked away from her husband to a new life her words strike a chord with women everywhere. “My bags are packed. I depart. Can you guess my destination? Freedom! That is my destination. Nowhere else but freedom.”

Secret Lives runs until 21 July – BOOKINGS  

Categories: Live review

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