Reading through ‘Conversation’ gives me the impression that the playwright – Isi Agboaye, is an incurable optimist. Or, how else would you describe someone who still dares to entertain belief that there is hope on the horizon for a country that seems perpetually steeped in overwhelming despair?
The play is a fusion of old and new ideas with an emphasis on the old as having the panacea for the many ills bedeviling modern Nigeria. And to buttress the therapeutic power in our heritage or from learning from nature, the playwright takes an unabashed recourse to the African folktales and its witty conversational technique. He reminisces on his childhood experience back home in Africa where conversations are not only stimulating but also dramatic. How everyday conversations could take place anywhere, how they are embedded and echoed in folktales, how witty and intelligent expressions invariably help to stimulate social reform.
Only a few days ago Nobel Laureate- Professor Wole Soyinka in a public statement said that nobody is in charge of Nigeria. His statement pretty much sums up the current state of the nation where nobody is in charge, but everyone is in charge, a crazy pun that leaves the masses stupefied and are at the mercy of the somewhat now trite saying of too many cooks spoiling the broth. This is not novel to Nigeria.
Agboaye’s book resonates with the above sentiment shared by the iconoclast but with a kink. He foresees a change looming large on the horizon through some paranormal intervention. The locale is in a postcolonial Nigeria (Africa) where the lengthy dialogue among citizens is the prism through which the state of the nation is revealed to the reader. Made of two parts, while part one is an overview of the many woes betiding the country, part two brings succour to a people deprived for too long. The themes of self-reliance, self-discovery and self-development are too prominent to ignore.
Notwithstanding the rudderless present, the playwright believes a new Nigeria is in the offing, and is achievable if our steps are retraced to the authentic African self; in our ancestry. The playwright shares the impression that the colonialists imposed their culture and tradition on us and created wrong belief that the practices of our forebears were of questionable values. Barbaric! However, this position, the present reality, shows that the modern African is a synthesis of cultures. Is the playwright advising we throw modernity away? I disagree. The emphasis on reliance on our cultural heritage is advocacy for more focus and making it the matrix for our modern advancement rather than a holistic return to its pristine state.
I find the playwright’s bearing on self-reliance also in apposition with Sandra Izsadore’s espousal in her book -Fela and Me, when she said that “It is from the root that you grow and know the truth of self”. Africans agreed to be stagnated the moment they took up the role of a second fiddle via acculturation. They were derailed when they had contact with the imperial west and were infected with the wrong mentality that everything west was superior. This theme is not unique, if anything, it is verging towards obsolescence, but resorting to the rich African folktales as a medium for conveying this positive message is a mark of genius. This is what gives Isi Agboaye an edge in this experimental craftsmanship.
There is equally an element of the morality play technique where characters are given specific names that are reflective of their nature. Being a believer in a new country, the playwright would rather choose to have a healthy conversation among the different sects of people that constitute the present Nigerian society such as The Wailing One, The Acolyte, The Helpful One, etc with each character living true to type. The Acolyte is thus, a metaphor for western stooges who pretend to be for us whereas, in the real sense of it, they are an enemy within, a fifth columnist, waiting to carry out the command of their masters.
The Wailing One, easily reminds me of the derogatory moniker given to critics of the present administration by one of the presidential spokespersons. The Wailing Wailers, as known today, is a pejorative for citizens who are critical of the government. This has since become a new lexicon in the Nigerian political parlance. They question government’s true intentions, actions and inactions and this is the same role that the character of The Wailing One plays out in the ‘Conversation’.
Typical of the folktale genre, the use of deus ex machina to resolve the mounting conflict in part one, brings back the memories of one of such stories I had the pleasure of listening to in my childhood days. The God factor, referred to as Osenebua (the Creator) in Esan folktales– from whence Isi Agboaye possibly drew his inspiration, intervenes to help clean the Augean stables. This is usually when the conflicts become tense and the reader wondering if ever a solution is in sight.
Putting an end to the reigning chaos, the Creator, installs an emissary—the Ancestor, to help restore sanity within a week! A symbol of our heritage, the Ancestor is infused with supernatural powers to keep the marauding politicians at bay and also, is able to checkmate the excesses of saboteurs such as the Acolyte. “Things will be different now. The Creator of the universe sent me to help clean out the dirty stable for good” says the Ancestor upon assumption of office.
The coming of the Ancestor is in fulfillment of an earlier promise by the Creator who eventually considers the supplication of the masses. “I have heard about your ranting, about your embittered dispositions and have decided to do something. Enough is enough. I am sending Ancestor from a distant part of the Universe. He will coordinate the new dawn, working with Acolyte, a face that you are familiar with. I have empowered the Ants, your neighbours to teach you their ways”.
Just like the folktale I hinted earlier, Osenebua (the Creator) intervenes when the cruelty of the monster reaches crescendo. Ogioboh (king of native doctors) is sent on a communal errand to Iso, the abode of the Ogiso- the sky God. While he’s away, a hydra-headed monster, very much like our present day politicians, seizes the moment to exploit his wife and children. He would deprive them of food and everything good. A vulture is sent to tell Ogioboh to return. Not knowing the man of the house is back and reclining in the hearth, the opportunist monster goes about his regular mission to intimidate. Just before the native doctor could strike him dead with his powerful amulet, Osenebua emerges in the company of lightning and thunder. Time freezes. The Creator resolves the conflict himself being the avenger of the oppressed. The storyline is pretty much the same in the ‘Conversation’. In the end, the country undergoes seismic reform while the wicked politicians are punished severely for their atrocities.
The diction is academic and advanced. Though the experimental style might want to intrude occasionally on the pace and fluidity of the dialogue, the writer’s maturity comes to fore and is able to put this in check. The book is definitely worth reading!