Nigeria is a so-called “developing” country saddled with a corrupt government, crushing international debt, appalling slums, guerilla warfare, malaria, kidnappings, environmental disasters and an average life expectancy of 47. It’s not as bad as other African countries; of course that’s not saying much. If you’re like me, it’s a place that’s just not very high up on your list of vacation destinations. Thing is, we go there just about every time we fill up the gas tank. Nigeria is America’s fifth largest oil supplier; Shell, Chevron, Exxon, et al suck 2 million barrels of oil a day out of the Niger Delta. The black gold has enriched successive unsavory dictators (and now unsavory “elected” officials) for years while local tribes fight amongst themselves – and hold oil company employees hostage – to get a taste of the development spoils.
Yeah, so my next vacation is probably not going to be African. So I’m grateful for Dan Hoyle, who spent a year in Nigeria as a Fulbright scholar studying oil politics. You might not expect an egghead of that caliber to be the best go-to guy for a one-man show, but the versatile writer/performer has crafted an engrossing evening of theater about cheap life in that turbulent land. Called Tings Dey Happen, his play incorporates a wide array of characters to palpably convey the danger, desperation, and wicked humor that marked his travels. The story’s told in a way that casts you, the understandably timid spectator, in the role of the Fulbright scholar while, onstage, Hoyle channels Nigerians and whites on all sides of the oil game. The various rival tribesmen, urban hustlers, Texan oil workers, U.S. diplomats and aggressive prostitutes are portrayed with mesmerizing acumen, and they are all talking directly to you, that is Dan. At times the effect is potent enough to make the walls of the theater dissolve into the thick, menacing air of the Niger Delta.
There is one scene near the beginning – in which a friendly militant welcomes Hoyle back to his shack and talks for too long – that drags languidly, but Hoyle soon recovers the momentum and you’ll never look back from there. The rest of the play is as haunting as it is hilarious; one of Hoyle’s best recurring characters is a pithy stage manager who incessantly interrupts the show when things get too heavy and explains how he pleaded with Dan to show all sides of Nigeria, to remember the celebratory spirit that often transcends the strife. (After all, Nigeria was for a time considered the “bread basket” of Africa; it’s a nation that, in modern times, yielded the music of Fela Kuti, a gift more precious than oil.) Hoyle’s choice to employ various degrees of pidgin English – the lingua franca of Nigeria – is risky but ultimately pays off. At times he dips into incomprehension when some characters’ pidgin gets too thick, but the trade-off for the audience is a visceral sense of the disorientation you’d experience on a tour through the Niger Delta. It’s certainly a fascinating place to visit from your air-conditioned theater seat, but by the end you sense that Hoyle wouldn’t want to live there either.
Tings Dey Happen continues at The Culture Project [55 Mercer St] through September 23rd. Tickets cost $35.