By Anote Ajeluorou
Come July 24, the Command Performance of Sam Omatseye’s play, The Siege will be held at MUSON Centre, Onikan, Lagos. Omatseye is dedicating the play to Prof. Wole Soyinka, black Africa’s first Nobel Laureate who turns 80 next week, July 13. Wole Oguntokun is directing The Siege. Like the venerable man of letters, Omatseye is raising similar concerns about religious fanaticism and bigotry, using a remote historical moment in time and space to interrogate Nigeria’s contemporary experience in religious extremism and its deadly mix in politics.
To better situate his subject, Omatseye takes his audience to 18th century Sudan and the conflict that embroiled two men – the local but highly influential cleric, Madhi, who laid siege to the capital, Khartoum to oust the British colonial forces from the city. Although the British were beginning a roll back plan from Sudan because it was considered bad investment, but General Charles Gordon, who had been instructed to pull out, would not give the Madhi easy victory over a land he’d invested his passion and adopted as his own. It became a contest between two men who view Sudan with equal love and were willing to sacrifice all to keep it.
According to Omatseye, “Gordon and Madhi loved the land and their God. Both men were fanatical about their religious mission – Madhi desires to control his homeland and Gordon to retain his civilizing mission in Sudan. Gordon became a folk hero in England for holding out against Madhi. This prompted the British to urge the government to send troupes to Sudan to help Gordon stave off Madhi’s siege on Khartoum to save the pride of Christianity and the pride of England. The two men had exchanges in a year before Madhi invaded Khartoum, routed the British army and killed Gordon before troupes could arrive”.
For Omatseye the Madhi-Gordon imbroglio has implications for contemporary experience in the country, especially on current religious extremism that has crept into the political space and is fast becoming a way of being. He asserted, “The play is a way of looking at fanaticism, a lesson in religious bigotry and love of land. The two antagonists talk about the love of God in laying claim to the land, Sudan. It’s also a look at how clerics support politicians, urging them that it’s the turn of Christians or Muslims to rule or be in power irrespective of the consequences such motivation has for the interest of the larger society.
“The Siege is a historical play, a tragedy; a way of telling contemporary story using historical materials. It’s to say that religious bigotry isn’t news and that it has consequences for the present and the future. So, I decided to use the distance of time and space to tell a story, like Shakespeare basing his plays about incidents in Rome to address the British society of his day with similar situations and forcing the British to think about the political consequences of their actions”.
However, with Nigerian elites’ avowed disinterest or indifference and outright aversion to everything culturally and intellectually stimulating and challenging, how much influence does he think his play would have in helping to stem the ugly trend of mixing religion and politics? Keeping quiet or giving up or doing nothing isn’t an option, Omatseye argues, adding, “You don’t have to lay down; you have to keep engaging, keep striking at the ear to see if it will listen. To do nothing is paralysis and to surrender.
“It’s important we understand that as society gets increasingly philisticnic, it’s on the threshold of another awakening. Even in America, it’s beginning to reverse; they are beginning to understand that you cannot build society on money and power alone, but on culture. Money and power must have cultural templates on which they rest. So, when Obama questioned the value of art education for Americans and sued for science education only, he came under fire. He had to apologise for such gaff!
“Ironically, as education tends to be going down in Nigeria, people still want to get more education. Why is that? We’ll get to a point where we reject half-baked, educated people. Take Ekiti stomach-infrastructure proposition, for instance; it will get to a point where people will be dissatisfied with it and opt for the real deal. Or even the National Conference; we’re not yet desperate otherwise you won’t need anybody to convene it before it’s held. It gets to a time when our desperation will force us to sit down and really talk to ourselves”.
Omatseye, like many of his ilk, is sad that almost 30 years after Soyinka won the Nobel Prize, no endowment of any sort has been instituted for the two areas - drama and poetry - where Soyinka’s creative impulse has been most powerful. According to him, “Isn’t it ironic that the man that has brought the greatest accolades for Africa is a dramatist and poet and no endowment for both disciplines? How much does it cost to keep actors together to continually perform for a year? How many plays has the National Troup of Nigeria (NTN) produced in the last one year? Why can’t they do the job for which they are assembled and paid monthly? We have wealthy billionaires that don’t know what to do with their money except celebrate birthday and wedding parties in Dubai. We have companies that spend money on the vanity that goes on in the name of Nollywood, for what?
“On Broadway in New York, there are plays going on every day. That’s why it’s the most exciting city to visit. There’s nothing wrong with spending money on reality shows, but we need to put money in books. As bad as our education is, we have some really smart students. When they go outside the country, they beat the best over there. We should encourage this by putting money in what really pays us as a people.
“Part of my campaign in this play is to make the case that as part of our cultural policy, we should see to the pursuit of the arts being properly funded in budgetary terms by federal and state governments. Yes, they must all begin to put money in the arts!”
The Siege started out as a poem, Omatseye says, but grew bigger to a point where The Madhi had to reply Gordon and then it morphed into a play. He said he could do with sponsorship from willing corporate bodies and wealthy, theatre-loving individuals, as the play needs staggering amount of money to put it on stage. With foreign actors being flown in to play Gordon and other British officers’ part, the cost has gone up astronomically.
Above all, Omatseye has promised a thrilling experience for the privileged audience that will see the Command Performance on July 24, a date slightly removed from the frenetic activities around July 13, the actual birthday of pre-eminent man of letters, Soyinka.