The white papers… The burden of nationhood
We must not forget in a hurry the words of Ernest Hemingway, the American journalist and author, who said, “all things truly wicked start from innocence.” Olawale Olabanji must have had this at the back of his mind when his theatre troupe Theatre on the Mainland Series (TOMS), recently staged The White Papers at Lagos Airport Hotel, Ikeja, Lagos.
Humorously showcasing the importance of education in the polity, the play centres on Araromi, a rustic community for the necessary social amenities for a comfortable live. The state governor writes the ruler, Kabiyesi (Oluwasegun Okiki) to list what his community wants done for them, but since no one can read or write in the community, the series of letters refer to as white papers are not read but deposited in the palace.
Apart from occupying space and seen as agents of death, the letters become a subject of controversy that make Kabiyesi and his chiefs to loose their sleep.
They see the letters as government calculated attempts to take over the leadership of the community and enslave the people.
Worried that nobody is able to read the letters, the king and his lieutenants come up with the idea of sending someone to the city to learn how to read and write. The problem then becomes who to choose, as two of the chiefs want their sons to be the ones to go. After a protracted discussion, the chiefs agree on sponsorship of anyone that wins a wrestling match to be organised for this purpose.
Princess Adesewa (Omotunde Shogunle), Kabiyesi’s daughter, persuades Aremu (Ojediran Seun), her fiancéem to participate in the contest so that he could benefit from the scholarship scheme if he wins. On the other hand, Ojo (Lawal Adetola), the radical son of one of the chiefs, believes he is the most qualified and would win the contest. However, the contest becomes Ojo and Aremu affair.
When the day arrives, the two engage each other. The contest is so stiff that the judges are unable to decide the winner, and the two become the beneficiary of the award. They leave for the city to return in five years’ time to unveil the white papers and teach other villagers, including Kabiyesi, how to read and write.
Barely two years and six months after the duo leaves Araromi, Ojo returns to the village claiming he has completed his education. He begins to arrogate much learning to himself; he also pains Aremu as a never-do-well. As expected of him, he begins teaching the villagers, including the king. But Ojo begins to teach the people wrong things. Apart from this, he warms himself into the heart of the princess. He impregnates her and looks forward to inheriting the king’s wealth.
However, Aremu returns, having successfully completed his education. He exposes Ojo’s quackery, and informs the villagers how he absconded from school. Aremu reads the white papers that say the state is ready to provide social amenities for the village.
Written by Kenny Omo-Oba, and produced by Olawale Olabanji, the play employs dance, music to tell the story of love, communal life and the negative effects of procrastination and refusal to adapt to changes, especially when they are positive.
The cast showed proficiency in interpreting their roles. The street language, songs and dance were apt and made the play easy to understand and relate with. The costumes and stage design also reminded the audience of a rural area.
Nevertheless, Ojo, as a bad boy, should have been more serious, show commitment and make the audience feel the emotion he is projecting – act it out and not speak it. Instead, he bursts into sporadic laughter. He does not show remorse for betraying his community, family and even wasting taxpayers’ money on his trip abroad. Even when reprimanded by the chiefs, he still continues his silly laugh, which is an absurd happening in a rustic African community the playwright wants to portray.
However, it would not be out of place to say that Ojo is a caricature of the Nigerian politician and leader, who daily carries on with impunity, and depriving the led what is rightfully theirs. The play encourages all to seek knowledge, be willing to overcome personal and collective challenges, and for everyone to act humanely.