Politics and Satire, 2017
This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series!
To mark this year’s centenary of the Russian Revolution, Mehmet Ergun, artistic director of Arcola Theatre programmed a "Revolution Season" of three plays. I was commissioned to write a new play to complete the trilogy of revivals of Gorky’s The Lower Depths and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
The best remit to a black writer working in the UK is that I could write anything I wanted, set it anywhere I chose, so long as the piece interrogated the nature of revolution. In this post-modern (or is it post-post-modern? Who knows) world of identity politics, my subject matter was not bound by my designated identity. And so, as a person who self-identifies as a British-Nigerian when in London and as a Nigerian-British when in Lagos (or is it the other way around?), woozy with the dizziness of freedom, I decided to write a satirical drama set in contemporary Nigerian politics.
Although I have not lived in Nigeria since 1995, thanks to the internet and satellite TV, I have kept in touch with its current affairs. The accessibility of Nigerian fiction, music and film kept me in dialogue with its culture and self-representations. My anxiety about my competence to write about the country I’d long left evaporated whenever I read comments on social media below any article or opinion piece on Nigerian affairs.
Having written a few pre-Trump era satires, I was gratified to once again expose the mendacity and venality of the political class. But throughout rehearsal and rewriting, a question nagged me: what effect will satirizing satraps have outside of the theater? Why is New Nigerians being produced in London and not in Lagos? Wouldn’t white audience members see my representation of Nigeria and Nigerians as confirming their stereotypical views of Nigeria and Nigerians in general? Wouldn’t Nigerian audience members revile me for exposing ‘our’ dirty linen in another person’s yard?
I have always answered the question about representation by quipping that I was a playwright and not the ambassador. Still, as a playwright I found my craft in conflict with trying to say something relevant and original yet funny and outrageous. I do not believe satire is dead. It was the default genre of Nigerian comedy when I lived in Nigeria. When I write about Nigeria my ideal audience is Nigerian. This is how I tell my truth to power, how I cover my backside on thorny issues such as ‘authenticity’, even if a few thorns get through. And I believe the Nigerian experience has as much universal resonance as The Fate of the Furious.
Satire comes from anger at the status quo and from a moral vision. It comes from a fierce love for those battered by the antics of the powerful who use us as their bargaining chips for their power games.
And if the media wants us to think that detonating bombs look beautiful and make an orange-tanned incompetent presidential, then I have lots to write about, even if it’s from a Nigerian perspective.