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A Fulbright in Nigeria That Turned Into a Show

November 15, 2009

Many things have happened since Dan Hoyle performed in the premiere of “Tings Dey Happen,” his incendiary and brilliant solo show about Nigerian oil politics, nearly three years ago at the compact theater the Marsh in San Francisco.

His career has been on the rise. “Tings Dey Happen” won the Will Glickman Award for best new play in the Bay Area and was featured, to critical acclaim, in 2007 at the Culture Project in New York. (Wilborn Hampton in The New York Times called Mr. Hoyle “a first-rate reporter and actor.”) Last month the State Department invited Mr. Hoyle to return to Nigeria to perform “Tings Dey Happen” as part of an official diplomatic tour. Now back in San Francisco, he is reprising his production at the much grander Marines Memorial Theater.

Meanwhile, Nigeria — the land where Mr. Hoyle spent 10 months in 2005-6 as a Fulbright scholar researching his project — has spiraled downward. Known as much for its corruption, kidnappings and violence as for its ample oil reserves (Nigeria is the fifth-largest oil supplier to the United States), the country has been hemorrhaging blood and money like crude from a plundered pipeline. In the most recent wave of unrest this summer, clashes between Islamic militants and the police led to dozens of deaths. Olabode George, a prominent figure in Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party, was convicted of corruption charges in October.

Bizarrely, few of these events make it into the latest iteration of “Tings Dey Happen.” Besides the slicker lighting and sound effects, minor textual cuts and the addition of supertitles to help audiences understand some of the Nigerian characters’ Pidgin, the present production is pretty much like the past. Getting the most from this latest version requires attending a post-performance discussion or reading an as-yet-unpublished essay by Mr. Hoyle. But he misses an opportunity to address the inadvertent impact of well-meaning outsiders like himself on the lives of the Nigerian insiders.

As a performance, Mr. Hoyle’s theatrical journey through the Niger Delta’s remote and lawless hinterlands continues to arrest audiences, even in this less intimate setting. Over 90 minutes he embodies a variety of African and other foreign characters with warmth and energy.

Foremost among his sharply drawn creations are a warlord who wields multiple cellphones and whose Jabba-the-Hutt-like aspect belies a sentimental side (he keeps a photo album); a loutish Scottish oil industry worker; and a physically awkward, slow-spoken 23-year-old sniper who dreams of going to a university. Mr. Hoyle captures these characters so vividly that he seems to disappear inside their stories, much as Anna Deavere Smith (“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” “Fires in the Mirror”) does in her stenographically precise reproductions of real-life characters.

Yet Mr. Hoyle still maintains a shadowy presence onstage despite a desire to remove himself from the narrative. When asked in a 2007 interview with The Huffington Post about the most important decision he had made while creating the work, he replied, “Taking myself out of it.” His characters address their invisible interlocutor directly and even poke fun at him: “No, Dan, please sit down. Let us dance for you,” some Nigerian characters jovially insist when this Westerner takes ham-footedly to the dance floor. Try as he might to remain an outside observer, Mr. Hoyle can’t help putting himself in the frame.

His relationship with his interview subjects is particularly complex in the case of Okosi, the young sniper. Okosi is based on Williams Ajayi, a real-life militant whom Mr. Hoyle befriended during his first visit to Nigeria. In the play Mr. Hoyle grippingly recounts Okosi’s decision to throw his guns away to pursue his undergraduate ambitions. What Mr. Hoyle doesn’t address onstage is the impact he himself has on the character’s life. Only one desperate utterance from Okosi — “Dan, please, when are you coming back?” — hints at the American’s influence on the Nigerian.

Only beyond the realm of the play do you start to get a sense of Mr. Hoyle’s true agency in the Niger Delta. In prose and conversation he tells of being reunited with Mr. Ajayi in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, during his recent visit. At the meeting Mr. Hoyle learned that the real-life Okosi narrowly escaped being killed by gang members for turning his back on a life of crime. These days, Mr. Hoyle said, the former militant lives a life of poverty, “a sometime day laborer, sometimes just wandering the streets hoping to run into old friends who will buy him a meal.”

As demoralizing as this story is, discovering Mr. Hoyle’s role in shaping Mr. Ajayi’s life is even more unnerving: “When he met me,” the performer writes in his essay of being reunited with Mr. Ajayi, “it was like a light to his life. After hundreds of performances in the U.S., I couldn’t really point to any impact my show had made on the Niger Delta. But during my research I had impacted Williams enough to change his life.”

The fortunes of individuals and nations rise and fall every day. The genius of “Tings Dey Happen” is its ability to help us understand how filling the tanks of our cars here in the United States might spark countless wars in a far-off land. If only Mr. Hoyle, full of fresh insights from his recent trip, would confront the consequences of his presence in Nigeria more openly, instead of through his characters’ oblique references to an invisible white guy named Dan.



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