KELVINMARY DIVES INTO THE DEPTHS OF THE DARK WITH SISI PELEBE
By Deoye Falade
If there is any atmosphere where the Lagos Theatre Festival could further prove its revolutionary spirit and actualize its mandate of restructuring the creative use of space and the augmentation of conditions germane to the inclusion of more experimental works in the Nigerian theatre – in manner and matter – its fifth edition slated for February 27th to March 4th, 2018 would be apt. Its vision is simple yet intricate: cultivate (new) audiences appreciative of performance art, resourcefully transform space in Nigerian theatre sphere, and engage topical as well as marginal issues that have, through the ages, remained potent enough to be peculiarly Nigerian and require interrogation. The creative works presented in previous installments of this festival have more than maintained fidelity to this vision, encouraging the rapid development of and sustaining noteworthy dialogues around the theatre form; and it is in furtherance of these, while expectant of another edition, that certain highlights, especially of the 2017 edition, like SISI PELEBE, are being revisited and reviewed.
Who is Sisi Pelebe? What did she do? Who was she involved with? Whose marriage or relationship did she ruin? True to the title, Kelvinmary Ndukwe, the writer and director of the show, keeps the audience glued and guessing from start to finish.
Loosely translated into English, from Yoruba, Sisi Pelebe means Slim Lady – the stereotypical Delilah, not Queen Esther. This misdirection plays out throughout the play; just when you’re wondering who the play is all about, another card is shown and then another, all done with the aid of a burdensome family secret begging to be unravelled by the children: young adults tired of being kept in the dark by their parents and uncle.
Family dramas can be intriguing, as evidenced by the deluge of tele-novellas and soap operas being binged on daily. The play has the same effect, as Kelvin seems to have imbibed the Mexican or Indian knack for the overly dramatic. The good thing, in this case, is that it largely works.
Sisi Pelebe is the story of a family burdened by secrets to the point of disintegration, such that any shred of healing had to be gotten through revelation. Like a dam set to burst, each revelation acts as a form of temporary release. And what are the bread and butter of every family scandal? Sex! However, this time around, considering the society in question, topics like homosexuality, gender change and incest are unabashedly explored in a manner hitherto unseen on any stage in Nigeria.
Opting for a site-specific setting, the characters walk, drink, sit, and talk among the audience, giving a feeling of one watching some dramatic feud play out between two aggrieved market women. The characters, just five of them – mother, father, son, daughter, uncle – maximise the space to perfection like they are in their living room and the audience are the guests. The acting is quite good, each character timing and delivering their lines to near perfection to the delight of the audience.
In Sisi Pelebe, one sees first-hand how dicey revealing certain sexual orientations are, even in close settings like the family. It reveals how far certain people with differing sexual orientations are willing to go in order to fool others who will otherwise be hostile to intimate affairs that have no sort of impact on them. For instance, Sisi Pelebe’s lesbian lover opts to undergo surgery to become a man just so she can be with the woman she loves. Aside the shock value of that revelation from the estranged uncle who wants to run the sword of truth through the hitherto close-knit family – not with good intentions however – it feels a bit disconcerting. A critical question to ask, here, would be if a woman who is sexually attracted to other women sees herself as a man or a woman still. Regardless, the motive and idea behind the gender change are easily understood. For Sisi Pelebe’s husband (the mother’s nickname due to her skinny frame when she was little, caused by her refusal to eat well), if changing her appearance to a man is all it takes to be together with her lover in the hateful society they find themselves, then it is a small price to pay.
Though appearing convoluted, the plot stays the course all through and the end makes perfect sense when viewed through the lens of the beginning. What seems to be a casual touch from a brother conveys an entirely different meaning in the wake of a revelation. It is more like peeling an onion, one layer of secrets revealing another, each slightly more shocking than the preceding one and while seeming unkind to one’s accelerating heart rate, the script mercilessly plays out, riding the rollercoaster of curiosity to the peak. The costume, party clothes, fits the setting, creating the impression of a family celebration going on outside the house.
This is the second performance of Sisi Pelebe, Kelvinmary reveals at the end of the show, considering the anti-gay laws in Nigeria. Also evidenced is the small audience during the performance at the Lagos Theatre Festival. It just may be ahead of its time, but one also wonders if this isn’t the right time for such a show to be performed for a larger audience. If anything, one enabling factor to play out positively for it can be the fairly lax censorship of theatre, compared to film, in which case, Sisi Pelebe wouldn’t even see the light of day in Nigeria.