Award-winning poet and author Titilola Atinuke Alexandrah “Lola” Shoneyin made her fictional debut in 2010 with Orange Prize longlisted The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.
It has since been translated into seven languages. Then, Rotimi Babatunde’s stage adaptation had its world premiere in Nigeria in 2013. By 2015, director Femi Elufowoju began putting together a 12-strong troupe of actors and creatives to research and develop Babatunde’s script for UK audiences.
With a small grant from Arts Council England, he launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a three-week workshop at Theatre Royal, Stratford East. The all British-Nigerian cast explored the intricate language and lyrics, original music composed by Oyebade Dosunmu and movement vocabulary by Uche Onah. Two performances were staged with the help of 64 backers.
Then, in 2017, he launched a follow-up campaign, and 84 backers are to be thanked for this glorious seven-week production run at Dalston’s Arcola Theatre.
Rotund lothario Baba Segi (Patrice Naiambana) has been made rich and kept from womanising by his fortunate marriages. But, despite three wives and seven children at home, and struck with persistent bellyaches, he finds himself in love! He is besotted, perhaps for the first time, with recent university graduate Bolanle (Marcy Dolapo Oni). He woos her tenderly, looking forward to boasting of 10 or more children.
Bolanle’s mother (Ayo-Dele Edwards), is blinded to Bolanle’s darker secrets by her ambitions for her daughter. So, she is disgusted by Segi and by Bolanle’s seemingly inexplicable receptivity to him.
Outsider Bolanle imagines a warm welcome from her sister wives and a hiding place in the heart of a lively and (in time) loving household. She doesn’t really appreciate that she will also be the youngest and most junior wife, or that she is unwittingly entering a microcosm of the secrets married women keep.
Senior wife and mother of two Iya Segi (Jumoké Fashola) wants nothing more than to continue to rule the household. A savvy businesswoman with lucrative interests, she throws her weight around and will stop at nothing to show who’s boss and thwart Bolanle’s influence within the household.
Second wife and mother of three Iya Tope (Christina Oshunniyi) is timid and can be bullied into a lot of things, but has a gentle heart. As Bolanle joins the family, Tope wants no part of the hostility and instinctively knows where to draw the line.
Wife number three and mother of two Iya Femi (Layo-Christina AkinludeIya) is an ambitious schemer with a taste for the finer things in life, and the delusion that she deserves them. She is just as easily bullied by Iya Segi, but teams up with her to boss Tope around and undermine Bolanle.
With strong support from the rest of the Elufowoju jr Ensemble: Ayan De Firstas, Usifu Jalloh, Tania Nwachukwu, and Diana Yekinni as the Nurse, Shoneyin deftly weaves together the distinct voices of Baba Segi and his wives in a comedy of sexual politics and Nigerian social structure.
We gain a richly humourous, unexpectedly charming portrait of a clamorous, apparently happy household, whose chaotic harmony is about to be rocked by the secrets which inevitably leak from the damage inflicted by naked ambition!
The strength of the story lies in the effortless embedding of gender politics into almost every setup, with a strong sense of subversive tongue-in-cheek, almost as if Jane Austen had got her hands on a Shakespearean plot. The cast enacts each main character’s time-hopping story, narrated by the owner with as clear and distinctive a voice as the actors embodying them, and subtly demonstrating that women, like ‘black people’, are not a monomyth.
Babatunde layers in contemporary and traditional Yoruba songs (10) and dance numbers (6), performed to traditional instruments by the cast. They cleverly create interludes instead of conventional scene changes. Elufowoju Jr coaxes consistently strong performances from the entire cast in main and ensemble roles.
The committed cast does not only give the comedy justice (particularly Fashola, Naiambana, Jalloh, and Yekinni); but also the drama (particularly Dolapo Oni and Naiambana); the music (particularly Naiambana, Jalloh, and De First); and singing (particularly Fashola and Yekinni).
ULTZ’s design makes great use of the teeny tiny space of studio 1, utilising a stylised, in the round presentation and the minimum of props.
What perhaps doesn’t work so well is that at 130 minutes, with an interval, the play runs a little long, most obviously because some of the musical interludes, at times, feel a little protracted. Whilst the multiple story threads come together nicely in a satisfyingly shocking final act, some of the more sensational backstories, so amusing in the setup, surprisingly go nowhere. So, the end feels less textured than the beginning. Though the internal worlds of the women are richly rendered, and even with Bolanle’s university education, the most telling statement is that of the persistent power of patriarchy, even in ‘modern-day Nigeria’.
Still, you will leave the theatre with a smile on your face and laughter still on your lips.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is a vibrant, scandalous tale of sexual politics and family strife in contemporary Nigeria, on until 21st July 2018. Go see it!
For more information, visit Arcola Theatre