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In Prison Chronicles, freedom, inhumanity take centrestage

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Martha Helen Stewart, an American businesswoman and founder of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, in one of her books, said: “The last place I would ever want to go is prison.”

The reason for the statement is very clear: Limitation of freedom and the inhuman treatments of prison inmates.

Austine Onuoha’s Nevana Productions brought these happenings in prisons to the fore recently in a stage play, titled, the Prison Chronicles.

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Written by Wole Oguntokun with Onuoha directing, the play, a political satire, was one of the plays that featured at the last Lagos Theatre Festival (LTF).

The play is about four convicts — Kalis (Stanley Okeke), a witty fraudster; Kamoru (Adeniran Olamilekan), a police office-turned rogue; Anjola (Chibuikem Chris), a banker wrongly accused of fraud and Kamal (Olamilekan Temitope), who committed murder — who are in Cell Block B along with the demented Cell Warder (Ohye Harry) and his wife (Achalugo Ezekobe) referred to as the first lady. The inmates in their haplessness refers to Cell Block B as Heartbreak Hotel; a place where destiny is redesigned.

Using the prisoners to reveal some of the horrifying incidents in the prisons, the play depicts how some innocent young people find themselves in prison and also how the nation’s weak judicial institution encourage the rich and influential to always have their ways whenever they are involved in crime.

As a metaphor, the play depicts the class struggle in the society, showcasing how some of the inmates including Kamoru, a police office turned-rogue and Anjola, a banker falsely accused of fraud, become victims of the powers that be. This is also another display of vexation of spirit for the government’s failure to provide the necessities of life.

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Apart from this, the cell warder and his wife are the personifications of leaders, who do not only award contracts for the provision of the needful to the people to themselves and their cronies but end up not completing public projects or doing shoddy jobs. The poorly cooked and watery beans meal is symbolic of such projects.

Highlighting themes that include corruption, injustice, highhandedness among others, the play reveals the world of the opposites, showcasing how the jailed and the jailer suffer common fate — fear of the unknown. Here, the jailed is certain of his/her fate, having been sentenced to prison, while the jailer’s fate hangs in the balance, not knowing on whose side the divide the pendulum of justice will swing. Kamal escaping and the Cell Warder becoming a prisoner clearly show this.

Staging the play at the Freedom Park and inside the former prison rooms of the Broad Street Prison brought the characters to life. The presentation brings to life the tears, sorrows, sadness and camaraderie that exist among prisoners.

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An epic theatre performance, the audience was close enough to relate to the characters, almost taking part in the play, especially the audience sometimes stand side-by-side with the cast.

This dynamic of this makes for greater audience participation and leads to internalisation of the storyline while driving away boredom, as the cast move and come closer to the audience in form of a person confiding to someone. It brings the 3D experience to live, especially as the audience sings along in their songs of sorrow, lamentations and also participates in their call-and-response music.

With the choice of venue, Onuoha also brings another form of minimalism to the theatre, saving cost to adapt the stage, on lightning and audio without blurring the messages the play intends to send out to the audience.

The venue further makes the prisoners background and main songs apt and further expressing the fears of life, sufferings, the opposites of nature, the injustices in the system and death the end of a dream.

The costumes were relevant and the makeups suitable, leaving the impression that the cast was actually in prison. However, maybe because of the venue, the play ends at its crescendo, when the audience was looking forward to seeing more. Thus, leaving them at suspense.

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