Zazu Oke & Vince Deiulis. Set construction by Erica Causi. Lighting design by Wes Babcock. Photo by Kelsi Dewhurst.
Theatre Nidãna challenges what we think we know about WWI as it commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice of the First World War, giving us a little known perspective with the world premiere of Gods Like Us. An allegory that incorporates a traditional Nigerian lullaby and storytelling, and original music (composed by Nathan Radke and played by Mark Whale), Gods Like Us was devised by Zazu Oke and Vince Deiulis, who both perform in this compelling, eye-opening and thought-provoking two-hander; opening last night in the Factory Theatre Studio.
It’s November 1917, and a Canadian Recruiter (Vince Deiulis) approaches a Nigerian yam Farmer (Zazu Oke) in hopes of convincing him to join the Allied forces in their campaign to push back the Germans’ advance in East Africa. Taking a sales pitch angle on the ask, the Recruiter offers money, promising the Farmer increased status and respect within the village—and the ultimate advanced status of being “like us” (white men).
However, the British army—and by extension the Recruiter—have erred on gauging their audience. Assuming they’d be addressing uneducated, simple-minded African villagers who know nothing of the outside world, the Recruiter is faced with an intelligent, socially aware man who has personal, direct knowledge of the actual “opportunity” he’s being offered. Black men are not taken on as soldiers, but as carriers; and being denied a weapon, how are they to defend themselves? And the enhanced status pitch is inaccurate at best and at worst a lie.
The Farmer tells the Recruiter the story of the Tortoise and the Birds; the Birds are tricked by the Tortoise’s sweet words into helping him, only to find themselves cheated out of their promised reward. Instead of being helpless victims of a swindle, the Birds plot and get their revenge on the Tortoise—forever marking him as a crooked creature. While the Recruiter is charmed by the tale, he clearly doesn’t get the connection to their current circumstance.
As the Recruiter struggles to control his soldier’s heart (PTSD) episodes, the Farmer grapples with his anger at the sheer nerve and hypocrisy of his request. A British protectorate, the colonization of Nigeria has come at great, and tragic, personal and economic cost to its people. The Farmer has lost his family; and the farm is hanging by a thread as he tries to scrape by, selling his produce at lower prices to the British compared to what he could earn from his former German customers. Why should the Farmer fight for those who’ve done nothing but take from him and his people? And when the tone of the debate shifts from a battle of wits to playful wager to enraged face-off, the Farmer finds himself facing a moral choice: Does he use the power at his disposal to take revenge or does he let it go?
Riveting performances from Deiulis and Oke in this intimate tale of war, colonialism and race relations; the two-hander dynamic serving as a microcosm of the larger picture. Deiulis leaves us some room for empathizing with the Recruiter, who is under orders and navigating PTSD; but our sympathy for him only goes so far. Avoiding a sleazy, snake oil salesman approach, the Recruiter uses more friendly, insidious means to get the “natives” to sign on. Toeing the company line in his promise of white, god-like status, the Recruiter is entirely clueless to the fact that he’s adding serious insult to mortal injury. Oke is both impressive and heartbreaking as the Farmer. In deep mourning for the loss of his family and struggling to keep the farm—and himself—alive, the Farmer is patient and hospitable with the Recruiter; but his civility is tested when the Recruiter keeps pushing the Allies’ agenda, bringing the Farmer’s painful history of oppression and loss to the surface, and forcing him to push back.
Lesser known stories like this one need to be told. One has to wonder, had there been any attempt at reconciliation and reparation—and approached as a connection of equals and true partners—maybe prospective Nigerian recruits would have had a real reason to risk their lives in this war. But this observation is, of course, made through a 2018 lens. And while we honour those who served, we must also acknowledge and appreciate those who were unable to serve, or whose service was minimized, or coaxed or coerced with bait and switch methods, due to the colour of their skin.
Gods Like Us continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until November 17; advance tickets available online, or by calling 416-504-9971 or visiting the box office (125 Bathurst Street, Adelaide Street Entrance).
In the meantime, check out Oke and Deiulis’s Stageworthy Podcast interview with host Phil Rickaby.