By Pelu Awofeso
If you are on the Island at 7pm tonight, or if you can make it there from the Mainland at that time, I encourage you to get to the Freedom Park (Broad Street, Hospital Bus Stop) to see the second and final performance of THE TRAGEDY OF KING CHRISTOPHE–as staged by the remarkable Jos Repertory Theatre.
Written by Aime Cesaire in 1963 and directed by Patrick-Jude Oteh, It is two hours of absorbing theatre, delivered by a cast whose stagecraft will keep your gaze on the stage from the play’s hair-raising beginning to its heart-wrenching end.
‘Christophe’ sketches the story of events in 18th-19th century Haiti, previously a French colony scarred by slavery. It’s central character, Christophe, an idealist black slave fed up with colonisation, join forces with others to free the state of foreign rule and domination. He later installs himself King of the northern territory and begins what will be a brutal and bestial reign, driven by the desire to revive the spirit of hard work, discipline and patriotism in the people.
“I wanted them to hunger for progress,” he says at some point, when he realises that the masses, whose interests he seems to be advancing, aren’t quite in step with his vision.
Christophe is a good man with a good heart–and with good intentions for his country. He strikes me as a man whose idea of societal purification and development are far too advanced for his time. On another level, he is a perfectionist who makes the same mistakes leaders often make in their quest to change the status quo—they become deaf to voices of reason and blind to the impending calamity that follows.
History is a good teacher, but humans have perfected the habit of not learning from it. Chritophe is like most freedom fighters we know in 20th century Africa who later become heads a government; he is full to busting with 1001 things to do to achieve national greatness. He wishes for Haiti to be the envy of all nations, especially those in the West. And just like Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yeu, he needs the newly liberated country to literally leap from third-world status to first in the shortest possible time.
Alas, the ‘Citadel’ of a modernist city that he carefully and laboriously conceives as the defining edifice of that majestic rise of the ill-fated country from the rubble of an inglorious past becomes his undoing. It is a pitiful sight to see him, wracked by paralysis, watch helplessly as his kingdom collapses all around him.
That, sadly, is the futility of misplaced machismo. And a line in the director’s note puts it plainly: “The life of a nation does not begin or end with a single individual and it has not been possible that a single individual can solve all the problems of a nation”.
Seated in the audience last night with dozens of other guests, I couldn’t help but situate Nigeria in the unfolding drama. Like Christophe’s Haiti, we’ve had our own share of colonial rule, of wrong-headed, materialistic leaders, of self-serving dictators, and of countless grandiose projects. This is a play for history buffs, as well as fashion and music enthusiasts. It recreates aristocratic living of the 18th/19th century so beautifully and so excellently.