by Lynn on March 10, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Yonge Centre for the Performing Arts, a Soulpepper and Obsidian Theatre Co-production. Plays until March 24, 2024.

Written by Inua Ellams

After Chekhov

Directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu

Set by Joanna Yu

Costume by Ming Wong

Lighting by Andre du Toit

Sound design and composition by John Gzowski

Vocal music coach and arrangement, additional composition, Adekunle Olorundare (Kunle)

Movement director, Esie Mensah

Cast: Akosua Amo-Adem

Virgilia Griffith

Daren A. Herbert

Sterling Jarvis

JD Leslie

Tawiah M’Carthy

Ngabo Nabea

Oyin Oladejo

Makambe K Simamba

Odena Stephens-Thompson

Amaka Umeh

Matthew G. Brown

A powerful re-imagining of Chekhov’s play set around the Biafra Civil War with familial complications driving the action. A terrific production of a bristling play.

The Story. Playwright Inua Ellams took Chekhov’s play, Three Sistersand reshaped it for his own purposes, but still keeping the form of the original.

In Chekhov’s play three sisters reminisce and lament moving from Moscow with their commander-soldier father to a small outpost. They have been there for 11 years. The father has since died and while they are celebrating the birthday of the youngest sister and guests come to wish her happy birthday, the sisters long to go back to Moscow.

As the press information states for the Inua Ellams’s version of Three Sisters:

“A year has passed since their father died but the three sisters – Lolo, Nne Chukwu and Udo – are still grappling with his loss.

 What’s more, they’re stuck in a small village in Owerri, Nigeria and are longing to return to the cosmopolitan city of their birth, Lagos.

What they don’t know is that the Biafran Civil War is about to erupt and change their lives and their country.

Chekhov’s classic play is reimagined to explore the devastation of colonialism and a fight for emancipation through the lens of a family and love.”  

The Production and comment. Inua Ellams has set the play in 1967 Nigeria beginning three months before the Biafran Civil War when the Igbo people wanted to break away from Nigeria and form their own territory called Biafra. Nigeria was predominantly Yoruba speaking and also a separate ethnicity from Igbo. Nigeria didn’t want the separation and so civil war resulted with the Nigerian forces surrounding Biafra and starving them and killing them until they crushed them.

So while the structure of Ellams’ play follows that of Chekhov in the relationships etc. Ellams has made the Biafran War and the politics that brought it about, the centre of everybody’s concern. And he’s made Lolo (Akosua Amo-Adem) the voice of reason when it comes to clearly elucidating the powerful effect of the British over Nigeria.

Nigeria won independence from the British in 1960. But the perceptive and politically astute Lolo knows that the British still controlled Nigeria from afar, and subtly.  The country was financially beholding to Britain. I certainly appreciated Ellam’s new take while still maintaining the characters and their relationships.

To clarify and illuminate those relationships in Inua Ellams’ version we begin with the three sisters.

Udo (a lively Makembe K. Simamba), the youngest sister is pursued by two young men, one is a hot-headed soldier and the other is a thoughtful man. She doesn’t love either, but feels she can love the thoughtful man.  This enrages the hot-headed soldier with serious results.

Nne Chukwu, (Virgilia Griffith) the middle sister is frustrated because she is married to a dull man but charmed by the married commanding officer of the troop that is in the town.

And Lolo (Akosua Amo-Adem), the eldest daughter is a school teacher, dedicated to teaching but frustrated by the out of date and inaccurate publications she has to use. Lolo is the most politically astute.

The sisters have a brother Dimgba (Tony Ofori) who was a promising scholar but lost his way. He is in love with Abosede (Oyin Oladejo), an awkward young woman who is looked down on by the sisters. Abosede is Yaruban which also makes her feel out of place.

These characters and their relationships, echo those in Chekhov only they have Russian names. There are servants and other hangers on, also echoed in Chekhov. Three Sistersis based on Chekhov but this Three Sisters is definitely Inua Ellams’ creation.

 Inua Ellams’ play works beautifully in this political sense.  History is full of animosity in secession. It’s about the effect of colonial power.  The animosity of one ethnicity/language over another again is something we know about in our own world. So while Inua Ellams is making a specific reference to Nigeria, we bring out own perspective to the play to broaden it to mean whatever situation and language we want to focus on. Inua Ellams’ dialogue is bracing, gripping and at times even poetic (Ellams is also a poet along with being a playwright).

The argument of Lolo’s in explaining the diabolical hold the British had over Nigeria, is chilling. The impassioned way that actor Akosua Amo-Adem as Lolo gives the speech is compelling. Usually, Lolo is the quiet voice of reason, thanks to Akosua Amo-Adem’s understated, calm playing of her. She is watchful and knowing.

The production is terrific in almost every single way. The three sisters are impressive, starting with Akosua Amo-Adem as Lolo, as I already said. Virgilia Griffith plays Nne Chukwu, the middle sister unhappily married to a dull, but good man. She is bored, frustrated and unhappy until she meets Ikemba, the commanding officer of the garrison played by Daren A. Herbert who is always compelling in whoever he plays. Then Nne Chukwu seems to live in his presence, she is alive, curious and even flirty.

The youngest sister is Udo played with effervescence and a youthfulness by Makame K. Simamba. Her emotions are on the surface. She loathes the volatile soldier Igwe (Amaka Umeh), and feels sorry for the other suitor, Nmeri Ora (Ngabo Nabea).

The character of Abosede (Oyin Oladejo) is fascinating—she is the brother’s (Dimgba) girlfriend and then his wife. Initially she is awkward—her clothes clash with various patterns and don’t fit properly. She slumps so her posture is bad. But when she marries, she assumes a confidence bordering on entitlement. She has put herself as the head of the household, giving orders to the three sisters. And she uses that power to cement her place in that family. They make her feel awkward and left out, but she fights to claim her position. It’s a wonderful performance. The production is directed with a sure hand and a keen eye for detail by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu. It’s a funny, emotional, gripping production with a powerhouse cast. There are such wonderful touches to the production, from ‘kissing the teeth’ to suggest contempt, to an over reaction when a sister hears something startling.

Joanna Yu’s set of the outside of the house in some scenes and the well appointed inside of the house, suggest that this is a place that welcomes visitors and company. It’s neatly kept. And generally I thought Ming Wong’s costumes spoke volumes about those sisters. Initially the three sisters dress in clothes closer to European styling than traditional Nigerian. That makes sense since they long for the days of Lagos with its cosmopolitan ways. Towards the end of the play the design of the material of the clothes seems to echo Nigeria but it still looks European. I thought a more decisiveness was in order here.

But I have a concern about Ming Wong’s costume designs regarding the character of Abosede—the brother’s wife. She first appears with clashing patterns of her clothes and perhaps the fit seems inappropriate.

As Abosede gets more confident her clothes get more and more flamboyant but not in a traditional Nigerian way, but in a European way. I think that’s a missed opportunity. Abosede is a proud Nigerian who flaunts her ethnicity to the sisters. Since her Yoruba people won the conflict I would have thought that her clothes would represent the winning side and in a way flaunt the success by dressing in traditional Nigerian clothes and designs. I thought it a missed opportunity to make a point. That’s my concern. Not earth shattering.

It’s still a terrific production. 

A Soulpepper & Obsidian Theatre Co-production:

Runs until March 24, 2024

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