Lagos Theatre Festival 2019: Shine your eyes before you “Swallow” bullshit

Obii Ifeka’s one woman show, “Swallow”, was a delight to see at the Lagos Theatre Festival 2019

The play presents a series of vignettes that speak to the heart of what it is to be a woman in modern day Nigeria. Obii is doppelganger and narrator as she channels different women, telling the stories that define women from love to sexual abuse, post-natal depression to a cheating husband, forbidden love and widowhood. Her story contains multitudes; taboo subjects that we often ignore or tell in whispers. Employing the agency of drama as well as a stage and captive audience, Obii gives vent to those emotions.

The stories, mimic in many ways a part of Chicago the musical, where the imprisoned women recount the stories of how they ended up in prison to the refrain – “He had it coming!”

Her performance was poetry on steroids with Obii in control, adopting persona after persona with ease. It was visceral and heart rending in places and more so because there were no frills, no special sound or visual effects, just a woman sitting or standing, emoting and having her words tug at our heart strings evoking laughter and tears.

The first character presents a young woman who falls pregnant and is chased away by her parents. She looks to her mother for understanding but what she gets is a face that seems as if carved out of stone. She says were her mother to be put up as an exhibit in a museum, people would look and “see courage. I will see failure.”

Failure to understand and empathize.

Her second piece was about a foodie who has a phobia for pepper. This was one of the funniest pieces in the ensemble but despite the levity, Obii still manages to keep the man/woman binary in focus.

“I am a foodie. I am seductive with food but pepper makes a meal out of me. When I go to the toilet I die,” she says.

But then she meets a man with whom she says she wants to “dig roots with him and grow our own family tree” despite being acutely aware that “All men cheat. I will tell you that story later.”

The man she has fallen in love with, however, happens to love pepper and on their wedding night sets fire to her privates with his piquant tongue.

The third piece opens with a direct confession “I almost came.” This is about coitus interruptus but one not caused by anything happening on the bed. The cause of the interruption is in the woman’s head, a recollection of sexual abuse and insistent demons from the past when she was “a grown man’s puppet.”

“They call babies a bundle of joy because they steal all their mothers’ joy” so says Obii’s fourth character as she presents a case study in post-natal depression, another taboo topic that gets swept under the carpet. For this woman, pregnancy has left her looking ugly. “My body feels like an ill-fitting suit,” she laments.

Infidelity is a big subject in Obii’s Swallow and she pays it full attention in her fifth set which features a sad wife speaking to her absent cheating husband whom she refers to as “Mr. Man” when she finds “thongs in {his} laundry.”

She knows about the affair but what does she do, she tries to become all that the mistress is in order to entice her husband back to her bed. “I know everything…that belt you are wearing I bought it. I am the one that’s dressing you up for her to undress.”

But her efforts do not have the intended effect in a performance that is amazingly sad. “You say I am changing… you are telling me that everything I did to become your mistress is in vain.”

How valid would a story about modern Nigerian women be if it does not riff on LGBT issues? Obii goes there by venturing into the dark.

“I hate the dark. I hate sitting in it. I hate being kept in it. I fear that my daughter will one day find herself in a dark room too,” her character says recalling how she is mistreated for being gay.

A widow’s lot is a sad one in some parts of Nigeria and in the seventh set, Obii presents a widow locked up in a room with her husband’s corpse.

“I am denied of everything including kindness.” Though presented as a sad commentary on archaic traditional practices, Obii doesn’t pass up the opportunity to show that she is not just a male bashing thespian by showing that when it comes to mistreating widows, women are the foot soldiers of patriarchy.

The last set is a letter addressed to a girl in which she is told point blank that to survive in a world where women are served dollops of bullshit at every turn, she has to become a magician: “of all the professions you consider being a magician. Flip the script and show then you are Houdini.”

Obii also asks that the girl consider silence as a weapon but above all, what Obii is saying in her appropriately titled “Swallow” is shine your eyes before you swallow their bullshit.

Brilliant.

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