July 15, 2010

Soyinka's Birthday

I was invited to a performance on Lagos Island tonight in honor of Nigerian playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka on his 76th birthday. Truthfully I had no idea what the evening would involve until I arrived. The festivities began with a red carpet of Nigerian stars—76 of them—each appearing in character to recite a line from one of Soyinka’s plays. It was quite a grand affair; Nigeria knows how to pull out the stops when it wants to. A gigantic crane with a spotlight followed the actors; a booming emcee introduced each celeb while another instructed us all to applaud at the right times; and schoolchildren in uniform were even carefully placed along the red carpet route to convey, oh, whatever children convey: education, the future, wide-eyed wonder.

The play itself, I discovered, was actually presented by an American collegiate troupe touring Nigeria on a cultural exchange. To my disappointment, the play, about a heated encounter between an African Muslim immigrant in NYC and a virulently racist/xenophobic cop, didn’t have much to say except that there are racist/xenophobic cops. And we knew that already, didn’t we? There’s not much more need, in my opinion, to “expose” the crazy hate-filled people among us who would have been KKK members in another era. It’s the more subtle, bubbling-under-the-surface-just-out-of-sight racism in all of us that we need to shine a light on. I couldn’t help thinking that presenting to Africans this play that rails against card-carrying American bigots can be just as harmful as Hollywood flicks that dwell on Muslim terrorists.

I was caught off guard, and I’m sure the cast was too, when the Nigerian audience began to burst out laughing at the hatemonger’s antics. The cop pulled a gun on our Muslim protagonist, and the audience whooped and hollered; he went on to label him a terrorist, an inferior, backward savage, and the audience couldn’t contain themselves. It was as if they were watching a farce. As the play went on, I decided that the audience may be on to something; after all, extreme racist hate is so senseless and illogical that at some point it reaches the level of the absurd. As this cop exposed his blind thinking more and more, the audience had little choice but to laugh at the fool.

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