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Jerry Alagbaoso: Dramatist in search of a new socio-political hygiene – Part 2

By J.O.J. Nwachukwu-Agbada
09 December 2018   |   4:25 am
The day Chief Ome-aku comes to take away Edna, the fat girl, she is nowhere to be seen although she had promised to come out as soon...

The day Chief Ome-aku comes to take away Edna, the fat girl, she is nowhere to be seen although she had promised to come out as soon as she sighted the commercial motorcyclist. Meanwhile, Edna is in her room from where she calls him “idiot” and asks, “Is he not old enough to be my father?” (p. 126). On this day, Jackie 2000, a member of the university monitoring group meant to stem the tide of rising incidents of outsiders invading the female hostels in search of straying female undergraduates who would not mind a sexual escapade outside the university, Chief Ome-aku is one of those caught. The Divisional Police Officer (DPO) describes Ome-aku as “one of those who give ina-aga business a bad name” (p. 137). Chief Ome-aku’s life is one of falsehood as attested to by his wife, Acharaugo who remarks: Ome-aku, yesterday when you were putting on coat and tie and rubbing powder, I suspected you and asked a number of questions, but you told me that you were going to lift school principals to the venue of a national convention. But our visit here is a revelation that you usually lift girls and not responsible people like principals. (p. 135)

As the play is ending, Chief Ome-aku is still detained along with Corporal Lezieanya who accepts a bribe from him and Jackie 2000 who molests him and collects his personal effects.

In Alagbaoso’s thirteen plays so far, they are largely domestic issues or light incidents. There is no denigration intended in this remark because lightness does not mean flimsiness. The next play, Armchair Parents is a satire directed at parents who hardly do their job as their children’s trainers and upbringers. Many of them are happy to have offspring but they normally find it difficult to do what is expected of them in the course of the growth of their wards. Where we first meet the Maraizu family is at the dining table. Josiah grabs fried plantain even while the grace before meals is yet to be said. His excuse is that “fried plantain tempts me whenever I see it” (p. 152).

Initially accused for fouling the air, Josiah extricates himself from the charge by proffering a toy, which sounds like an air-spoiler. Even if this is true, to have brought such a gadget to a meal arena does not indicate good breeding. The father’s prayer is more or less conceited by the kind of things he says which he calls prayer. At the dining table supplication, Chief Maraizu, alias ite-ego (money pot), an industrialist, refers to money and bastardises a popular prayer at meals: “some people have food but no money and some have money but they cannot settle down to eat. But here in my family, everything is complete” (p. 153). Again Victor, the other son of the family, is not available. Vero, the first daughter, makes an excuse for him: “… maybe he is having extra lessons today” (p. 153).

The Maraizu couple is lackadaisical in the upbringing of their children. They hardly know where their children are or what they are doing at a particular time. The girls are not bright and so rush off to marry rather than get educated. For Chief Maraizu (ite-ego) not having his children properly educated, the girls end up as hair-dresser, secondhand clothing trader and Lydia, half-educated, dabbles in marriage with Alex, the son of another ite-ego of Amanabu autonomous community who, not long after, was caught and jailed in South Africa for drug-related offences. Victor is glorified by the father (Chief Maraizu) for his involvement in the collection of and the use of high-sounding words. Rather than realize that a knowledge of bombastic English is not same as a display of genuine intelligence, Chief Maraizu remembers his primary school days and insists that “Victor has not even spoken half the big words I used then” (p. 157). Mrs. Maraizu is not given to highfalutin words in Armchair Parents but Mrs. Ezekiel is fond of such words in Tony Wants to Marry (2016). Listen to her in the second work: My only son (referring to Tony), please behave yourself. You are causing daily disappointment, depression, distraction, confusion and frustration. (p. 31)

Earlier, Mrs. Ezekiel in denying that she never cheated on the husband in the conception of Tony cautions her husband, Mr. Johnson Ezekiel over “the temptation of hallucination, psychological disorganization and suggestive questions” (p. 30).

In Officers and Men, a fictive text by Jerry Alagbaoso (probably his only in the narrative genre), the Victor of Armchair Parents is whimsically recalled. In the novella, Victor is Dr. Timmy Jimmy’s cousin’s son who lives with the Jimmys. Mrs. Jimmy is worried that Victor has been identified as having an inclination for “high-sounding English words” (Officers and Men p. 94) and would soon take after Dr. Jimmy who speaks of “a hotchpotch conglomeration or a melting pot of people with a lot of social and economic engineering” (p. 94). What Mrs. Jimmy is afraid of in Officers and Men about Victor matures in Armchair Parents (p. 159) when the latter tells his parents rather rudely: “So all of you have gluttonously, consciencelessly, omnivorously and inconsiderably settled for dinner without me.” Only Josiah, Victor’s younger brother, knows that knowledge of pompous English does not translate to intelligence. He informs his brother calling him “Senior Victor” – even as they do not attend the same school- that “a boy in SS2, like you in my own school, who speaks your type of grammar is empty upstairs” (p. 160). However, Chief Maraizu, their father, is not sensitized to fear future failure on the part of his first son. Instead he cheers on: “But this is grammar! Hail Victor, King of Queens English” (p. 161). Chief convinces himself that Victor is echoing a life he (Chief) lived many years previously: “I loved words, big ones for that matter. In fact, I manufactured words the way I manufacture pure water and soap today” (p. 163).

Victor’s indiscipline has become a topic of discussion among his teachers. When we come to Scene Three of Armchair Parents, the principal and his teachers are about to sack him. The English teacher talks about “the case of one Victor in SS2” which is “disturbing and may bring a lot of shame both to his family and this school” (p. 165). When his class is given an essay to write “he would write off point using big words which I understand he copies from dictionaries and magazines” (p. 166). But this is not his only fault. Victor was given a letter to his parents making observations about his character but it was feared that he failed to do so. He is a bully, remarks the Matron, for which she describes him as “something else” (p. 166). He forges a letter meant to convey the school’s gratitude to his father for his monetary donation, ostensibly written by the principal. This is in spite of the fact that the principal never asked for money from Victor’s father nor did she receive any. Victor has also repeated SS2 three times and equally forges his result sheets. The principal thus accuses Victor of being “such a cheat” and of forging “results and letters to suit your parents’ perception of your person and your conduct in this school” (p. 169). While the teachers are furious about Victor’s conduct in the school, his father and mother (Ochiora) are not perturbed. As the minor inquisition by the school is on, Victor is still engaged in using hoity-toity to impress. Says he to his teachers: “None of you here knows the pendulum, the equilibrium, the precipitant, the stimulant, the totality or the nitty-gritty of this anachronistic matter which I had earlier confined to a historical dustbin or stable and psychological disposition as an antecedent in learning and the consequences thereupon. (p. 173).

Notwithstanding the setting, Chief Maraizu cheers his erring son:”Egbe! Ekwedike! Bekee! Yakpotuba! O gini na afio!” (Gun! The strong man’s wooden drum! English! Let it re-echo! What is booming!). Convinced that Victor is undisturbed by the seriousness of his misconduct, the principal and the school are determined to bring in the police. Appeals for a re-consideration begin to come from Victor himself, Josiah, his brother, his parents who had not been sober, and his sisters, Lydia and Pat, who had felt impressed by their brother’s pretentious English. Victor’s father and mother trade blames on each other as to whose gene is responsible for their son’s poor conduct. In spite of the numerous pleas, the principal is decided on punishing Victor Maraizu: What does it, therefore, profit armchair parents if they gain the whole wealth chasing money and suffer the loss of good education for their children? This is my decision. With immediate effect, Victor Maraizu is hereby expelled. (p. 178).

The final play in his Collected Plays I is The First Day, certainly at school. The setting is a co-educational secondary school where new intakes, called ‘Freshers’ in Nigeria, go through hell in their first year. The early ‘movements’ of the play, more or less are introductory scenes. A case is made for what girls benefit from co-educational schools: they “toughen girls in so many ways” (p. 186), a case-making which adds little to the effectiveness of the drama. In Movement Two, the shortest of the scenes we observe only one boy whose playmates are not available but are “planted in the audience” (p. 188). However, as Dike addresses the audience, about six playmates emerge from there as in total theatre. They are Banjo, Musa, Mike, Philip, Taiwo and Dike who try to intimidate Junior unsuccessfully in a game of Ludo because he scored several sixes. When they fail, they turn to a returning ‘fresher’, after all “do you know what it means to be somebody’s senior by three years? 365 days or so, multiplied by 3. Is it a joke?” (p. 191)

Philip calls the freshman “that idiot walking so majestically” (p. 194). He is referring to a new student who is simply identified as fresher. A good gait by a new comer is said to be ‘majestic’, indicating arrogance. This is counted as a fault on the side of the new arrival who is not yet conversant with the tradition of the school. The second ‘fault’ counted against the Fresher is that he enjoys “a senior joke” (p. 195) because the latter observes the seniors mocking one of them, Banjo, choke for his greed. The third ‘fault’ is that the freshman arrives the school with a football. Dike asks him, “… do you think you are here for Super Eagles or Manchester United?” or as Musa asks the new-comer, “for All Secondary School Football Competition?” The fourth ‘fault’ is that the football is thrown to the Fresher “and you were bold enough to catch it in your hands.” Philip educates him: “As a mark of respect for your seniors, you should not have touched that ball; rather you should have headed it!” (p. 195). There is a fifth ‘fault’: when ordered to organize “a football match for 22 players here, (p. 196) the boy retorts, “How?” considering that his seniors there are not up to 22 in number. Dike is apparently scandalized by the Fresher’s question: “What do you mean by how?” Fresher unconsciously begins to distribute the roles to his seniors without knowing that he would soon incur their anger.

Musa cries loud: “Everything has spoiled! You mean you were just pointing at your seniors? So you are not afraid?” (p. 196). For all these infractions, Fresher is asked to “hold your two ears, squat like a frog and start pumping the air according to my count” (p. 197). This play is a demonstration of the fagging system in the secondary school and how it works. It is aggressive, provocative, undemocratic, attention-seeking, intimidating and initiative-killing. Of the seniors, only Moses is sober. He advises Fresher: “If you dislike what my mates did to you, and if you like what I did for you on your first day, let that be a guide to what you will do to younger students who will be your junior in future” (p. 203).

Five plays are also found in his Collected Plays II, first published separately in the early 2000s. They are Oh! My Rolls Royce and My Fairly Old Wife (2010); The First Lady (2009); Honourable Chairman (2002) while His Excellency and the Siren got published in the Collected Plays II in 2006. Again, these plays are concerned with the daily idiosyncrasies in society which prominent playwrights may have observed and ignored. Alagbaoso noticed these ‘minor’ social slips and devoted time and energy to them. One of these social anomalies is captured in Oh! My Rolls Royce and My Fairly Old Wife whose emphasis is on wealth to the detriment of proper social conduct. From the naming of some of the characters in his plays, Alagbaoso’s dislike for the society’s adoration of money and those who are moved by it is quite evident. Here, we have ‘Chief Ego-na-atakasi’; ‘Chief Ome-aku’ in Ina-aga; ‘Chief Yakpotuba Maraizu, alias Ite-ego (money pot)’ whose wife is ‘Ochuora’ (ruler of people) in Armchair Parents and Chief Nelson Wokenife, alias ‘Omere-Uwa’ (benefactor of the world) in His Excellency and the Siren etc.. The craze for unmerited honours is best demonstrated in Honourable Chairman. We are told that Miracle Best cherishes the honorary doctorate degree organized by his brother from Alasaambara State in the United States until the police come for them at the Ignoramus Hotel where the ceremony of the conferment is going on. The literary vehicle by which these eccentricities are borne is the satire. Alagbaoso seems to be fascinated by the ridiculous such that virtually all his plays are steeped in satire and sarcasm. He is also keen about lampoon and mockery, and often creates humour out of some of the incidents in his plays.

The name, ‘Ego-na-atakasi’ simply means ‘money exites.’ This is the name of the chief character of Oh! My Rolls Royce and My Fairly Old Wife. He is really excited by the money he owns that each time he is announced as a ‘millionaire’ Chief Ego-na-atakasi shouts, “point of correction,” insisting that he is “a billionaire, not a millionaire that I was many years ago” (Collected Plays II p. 25). When one of his praise-singers claim that “you are the richest man in the universe,” he is so happy that he returns, “that is not contestable, my boy” (p. 25). The men and women who attend his ceremony adulterate church songs such that where God’s name had been used in the songs, ‘Ego-na-atakasi’ replaces it. At this occasion, Chief Ego-na-atakasi attacks the poor among his guests while denigrating the traditional rulers as well. He is unhappy that bottles of champagne are standing before the traditional leaders and orders for the bottles to be taken to the inner bar and “replace them with beer, malt and other soft drinks” (p. 27). He asks rhetorically before giving the order: “Does any of you know the prices of bottles of champagne which you are drinking like water?” Apart from allowing songs meant for praising God to be used for him, Ego-na-atakasi talks down on the things of God or Godly figures: “Who is this beautiful reverend sister?… Look you are too beautiful to be a reverend sister, better think of removing this habit so as to travel overseas and get married there; I will sponsor you” (p. 29). When the Reverend Sister responds that he can never stop God’s choice, work and will with his “unexplainable wealth” (p. 30), Chief Ego-na-atakasi retorts saying, “My wealth is explainable and with it I feed a lot of mouths including the clergy and the religious” (p. 31). Chief believes in the magic of money for him to say, “Afterall, if I had wanted to be a Knight of Saint of anybody or any person, I would have influenced or monetized it” (p. 33). He says this in the church service conducted by Rev. Dr. Ozor and his assistants. The satire is quite clear here when the Reverend shows clearly that he is keen to lay hands on Chief Ego-na-atakasi’s money. At this service, Chief and his wife command everybody’s awe as the Chief dances majestically while the wife sprays money around. The youths are not left out. Like they do with politicians, they plead with Mrs. Ego-na-atakasi:“Mama ego, echefukwana umu gi” (Mother of money, do not forget your children). It is no religious service as such as the Reverend Dr. Ozor do nothing but ask his congregation from time to time to ‘praise the Lord!”