Kemi Akindoju presents The Wives and Dazzles in It

This season has brought another staging of Ahmed Yerima’s The Wives — this time, as directed by the actress Kemi Akindoju, who also stars in it.

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As Tobi, the youngest wife of a deceased patriarch, Akindoju is required to be both annoying and sympathetic. She succeeds at being both. But that is only half of the story, as she thrives partly because the character wins the sympathy of the deceased husband’s sister, nicknamed Aunty Mi, and partly because Akindoju is herself bolstered by the superb Binta Ayo Mogaji in the role of that in-law.

Both characters are mostly on the side of the deceased. The two other wives are no longer fans of the man — but you can understand their stance: both were replaced, after all. Indeed, you have to think the youngest wife was saved from replacement by her husband’s death.

As for Aunty Mi, well, you can’t replace a sister. And one of the most potent weapons of the patriarchal system is how well it connects male entitlement with a built-in capacity for female replacement. This, of course, means that the lowest rungs in most patriarchal systems are occupied not just by women but by wives, girlfriends, lovers.

In Akindoju’s staging of Yerima’s play, the inevitable resentment of the replaceables is conveyed by the other two wives — the angry Angela (Kate Henshaw) and the accomplished banker Cecelia (Shaffy Bello). First wife Angela could never bring herself to leave the man; his second wife Cecelia left him but, as the audience finds out later, love, or whatever makes people marry, can fool you again if it fooled you once.

The lowest rungs in most patriarchal systems are occupied not just by women but by wives, girlfriends, lovers.

Their resentment takes a comic turn when both realise that their husband died with a smile on his face. Apparently, he was with his last wife when he breathed his last. And in case there is any ambiguity as to the meaning of that smile, the tactless Tobi comes to rub it in by speaking explicitly about their husband’s last night on earth while calling him “Tiger”. She announces that he had told her he was coming, when, in fact, he was going. Ahem.

It is at such moments that Akindoju’s comic gifts come forth. Here her humour is based on the kinship between stupidity and exaggerated innocence. And it is a bit of a misfortune that Nollywood doesn’t give her enough opportunity to work her comic muscles. On the occasion when she gets the opportunity on the big screen, as in a small role in the romantic comedy Royal Hibiscus Hotel, she shines.

She acquits herself admirably as director of a play in this staging — the transitions were especially seamless. And yet, I wondered what The Wives would be if she messed with the text a bit and decided to make it a drama with comic overtones rather than present it as a comedy with dramatic undertones — especially as it concerns the revelatory nature of the ending. That is a thought I have had in the years since comedy became the most common genre in Nigerian cinema and plays.

But we work with what we are given, and we have been given a comedy, which means it is Tobi who appears to be the protagonist — she changes from silly to disillusioned. That is on the surface. Towards the end, it becomes clear that it is Aunty Mi who is positioned at the centre of the play. She opens it with a lengthy monologue and almost ends it with a short one.

In between, she fends off the attacks on her brother and his last wife. When the play’s two living male characters (played by Jide Kosoko and Toyin Oshinaike) show up, she functions a bit like their chaperone. Watching Mogaji in the role, I remembered that as a younger actress in the 1990s, she was the comic foil in several Nollywood feature films. As an older actress, she seems to have moved her comic artistry from sharp-mouthed humour to something more understated, more sophisticated. Her talent now resides, it’ll seem, less in the speed of her caustic responses than in her gestures and delivery. She remains a delight.

Aunty Mi is clearly the much-vilified female custodian of the patriarchy — but as played by Mogaji, she isn’t quite a villain. Mogaji forces our sympathy to the extent that Aunty Mi becomes a woman who just happens to be very fond of her brother to the detriment of everybody else. With the death of her brother, she seems to believe it’s the youngest wife who is imperilled, but she is likely projecting her own fears. When she suggests Tobi shouldn’t get married to someone else immediately, she is obliquely negotiating an elongation of the only life she has known.

In the current social climate, women like her receive harsh criticism for their love and dependence on a man, for insufficient solidarity to other women. But when she looks in the mirror, she is likely to see a sister — a label Yerima and Akindoju show sometimes holds more weight than the word “wives”.

The Wives is showing at The MUSON.

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