‘I am wife Number One…I am gold. And then silver, bronze, even charcoal came along!’ This lament by the eldest wife of ‘Baba Segi’ (pronounced ‘Shegi’) is a good indicator the dynamics between the four women in the life of a polygamous Nigerian character in the seminal novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, written by Lola Shoneyin. A stage adaptation was performed in Kenya by Maimouna Jallow, on June 15th 2017, in the presence of the author of the book, and much of Nairobi’s urban literati.
Perhaps because the story was told from the perspectives of women, the female audience members were very engaged. I could hear not just their laughter and comments, but their excitement as well. They were really enthralled by the gossipy anecdotes of first loves, arranged marriages, painful lovemaking, patriarchal structures, adultery, womanhood, and family strife. The venue, Goethe-Institut Nairobi auditorium, was packed to capacity and – for standard safety concerns – overcrowding was not allowed, which meant that a substantial number of attendees were turned away. Inside, it was as warm as French toast.
I would be remiss if I did not mention Lola Shoneyin’s interview with novelist Zukiswa Wanner (author of London Capetown Jo’burg) which preceded the live performance. I’ll say this straight from the shoulder: Lola Shoneyin should herself be on stage. She might argue a lack of time (apart from being a wife and mother, she is the director of Book Buzz Foundation, a poet, educator, publisher, and she runs the Ake Arts & Book Festival) but she is a natural on stage. Funny, vivacious, confident, bold, audible. She kept the audience in stitches throughout her interview and later fielded audience questions. As you might expect, the inspiration for her acclaimed first novel was drawn from real-life people she observed growing up in Nigeria (she has also lived in the UK). And yes, she is jittery about topping her first novel. Kenyan writer Peter Ngila, who recently returned from an Ebedi Writing Residency in Nigeria, had this to say after the show: ‘I wish all lit(erary) events are and will always be as well attended as this…I so much enjoyed the evening. Lola is as funny as Maimouna’s performance.’
When we spoke after the show, Maimouna Jallow shocked me by saying that she has only been performing on stage for two years (She is a journalist and communications consultant). She commands the stage like a veteran. She and her husband, Hugh Amai, have co-founded a cultural movement called Positively African which promotes arts, literature, and music from diverse African influences and backgrounds. Maimouna is currently working on a stage production dubbed Westgate Women, based on the infamous 2013 terrorist attack on Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi.
In his 2013 Tony Awards opening song, ‘Bigger’, host Neil Patrick Harris sung: ‘Mike Tyson had a one-man show, let’s give the man a hand’ (Indeed, the former pugilist did give an outstanding Broadway performance in Undisputed Truth, directed by Spike Lee). Solo live shows are no walk in the park. The audiences’ eyes never leave you. You might be afraid to wipe your face or blow your nose lest it is interpreted as an important part of the act! You can imagine how much material one has to memorize, and Maimouna did have a couple of stumbles in her monologs. The sporadic use of the f-word (unflinchingly used in the original book version, which also has graphic sexual references) caused a few gasps and might be frowned upon by conservative audiences. Maimouna played four different characters, in addition to being the narrator, and managed to bring out the uniqueness of each one, making multiple actresses unnecessary. It is important to note that Maimouna has thus far expressed interest in storytelling and adaptations, not in presenting ‘a stage play’. Hers was a dramatization (as opposed to a play with dialogues, entrances and exits, multiple characters and so on). To borrow and modify Neil Patrick Harris’ lyric, Maimouna pulled off a one-woman show with charm, wit, and passion – let’s give her a round of applause.
Below is the trailer for Maimouna’s show, along with 4 other book-to-stage adaptations, performed under the banner title ‘And Then She Said…’
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.