Shakespeare in Calabar

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by Tom Hebert (Nigeria IV, 1962-1964)

This old postcard still hangs there in my mind: a King -- The Muri of Ifut -- his several courtiers, and the several wives of the Obong of Calabar, all bunched against the wild rain, the Guinean tempest howling up from the Bight of Biafra, a love-besotted Irish Holy Ghost Father clinging to the weakening Inner Above, passing a South African exile a fifth of Vat 69 ("All the better to hang on to that upright with"), while a full-sized Elizabethan stage sank slowly into the turf of a West Africa soccer stadium. Right then I hoped that it wouldn't ever get much better because a person can withstand only so much fulfillment in their life.

Sunk deep in the slack creeks that slowly wash out to the Atlantic, in 1964 Calabar was still a Victorian, Sadie Thompson kind of place. This crinoline tramp had, for generations, been compromised beyond redemption by her appetite for the British district headquarters and her earlier partnership with the slave factors' hulks that had stained her dark waters. But Calabar town, before Nigeria's recent oil boom and bust, had style, panache, many terrific secondary schools, and boasted numerous living relics from her colonial time: literary societies, bookstores, Pim's Cup #2, snooker at the club, formal balls and her flat-out four-wheel-drive love for Shakespeare.

My Peace Corps assignment was so perfect I hesitate to talk about it even now, fearing that someone will yet take it away. After one in-country year of teaching high school English, I wangled an appointment as business manager for the School of Drama at the federal University of Ibadan (the first Volunteer accepted there since the famous Michelmore postcard incident). For the School's first Theater-On-Wheels cross-country tour, I was named the advance man, traveling around the country creating local civic committees to handle promotion and logistical arrangements for the upcoming 3,000-mile tour.

That year, celebrating Shakespeare's 400th birthday, we presented an evening of four hours of scenes from his plays. A truly lavish production, it rolled through the country on a forty-foot truck-trailer combination that at each of the twenty-three host towns opened up into a stage, like a huge plywood sunflower. All funded by Shell Oil, the British Council, and the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, there was a bus for the forty student actors, four staff cars, and the advance man in a circus-painted Land Rover hung with loudspeakers, flinging gaudy flyers to a million townfolk. A sensational juggernaut highballing it from savannah to coastal delta, to Sahel and back.

Astonishingly, in the West Africa of this period lay the most Shakespeare-literate society the world has known since sixteenth century London. Secondary schools in Nigeria, Ghana, The Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Cameroon still competed under the Cambridge University/West African School Certificate Council's examination program. The School Cert mandated, among other standards, that students study five years of Shakespeare to prepare for the final examination's "set play." As a result, for several generations millions of West African kids quite literally memorized two or three of William Shakespeare's plays. (Such heroic learning was much inspired by every Nigerian's lovely use of language and the daily reality of a national life then singularly Elizabethan in the epic grandeur of its debates and tribal intrigues of power and vivid character.) At our performances, thousands would mouth the lines in an audible susurrus that confounds me now as I worry over what went wrong with American schools.

On my advance trip, learning that the patronage of Calabar's two Efik kings was necessary if the presentation was to happen, I had negotiated several details with their Royal Highnesses, the Muri of Ifut and the Obong of Calabar, and had come to know and greatly respect them. They immediately sent out the proper assurances and promised to be in attendance.

A month later, on the night in question, knowing we had presold 3,000 tickets, I asked my entire committee to be available for rough duty. At earlier stops we had had crowd scenes that bordered on riots, with a rush of 10,000 people pressing through the single stadium gate in Onitsha, kids hanging from telephone poles in Umuahia.

The backstage crowd that night included the priest who was vice-principal from St. Patrick's Secondary School, who, we all knew, was innocently smitten with a Calabar Volunteer (he would later suffer much more during the Biafran War from federal persecutors); a wonderful South African, teaching out his exile years in another local high school; the drama school's roguish English director; and several staff.

With an urbane Calabar audience seated without incident and the royals in their box seats, the lights came up on a ravishing Twelfth Night. But we were now hitting the rainy season. Two hours later, just after the scenes from Julius Caesar began, all hell broke loose. First the wind, then a small rain, then West Africa Wins Again! The speaker and light towers, rigged on cement-filled wheels, began to weave, while under the force of the wind the stage was coming unhinged. Soon the rain was blowing dead level across the footlights. Surely the audience would flee, but looking out we saw them rooted to their chairs. Electrical lines were arcing. Someone said that something had to be done. Perhaps the crowd wasn't leaving because the two royal parties hadn't budged. Detailed for the job, I scampered across the field to the royal enclosure. Crouching down by his armchair, I inquired of the Obong of Calabar, the senior of the two rulers, if he didn't think it best to call the whole thing off, so his people could find some cover.

His ear cupped to catch the now unamplified words, he looked up, smiled: "Thank you. I can't leave just yet. I haven't had time to read Julius Caesar in so many years. I don't remember now how it all resulted. And I, of course, should know. Remember, how `Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.'"

The next morning a heavy-duty tractor was engaged to unstick the stage from the field. The performance had, of course, carried on in the rain to a full, happy stadium.

Calabar was my kind of town.

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