In 2016, the Beeta Universal Arts Foundation, founded by Bikiya Graham-Douglas, launched the Beeta Playwright Competition to give a voice and create opportunities for emerging writers. Our Son the Minister, a political satire, back for a second run from 9 through 11, November 2018 at the Terra Kulture Arena, was the inaugural winner. Written by Paul Ugbede, Our Son the Minister beat out 159 other entries and was published by Paperworth books, a creative enterprise headed by Ibiso Graham-Douglas.
Makoji Ejembi (an excellent Patrick Diabuah) is a young idealistic medical practitioner who runs his own hospital and lives a seemingly content life. His world as he knows it is about to change though as the President, acting on a recommendation from Ejembi’s kinsmen, has just appointed him minister of the Federal Republic. Our Son the Minister plays out over the course of a single day, a couple of hours actually, as Makoji prepares for his swearing in.
Success has too many friends. A child belongs not just to his family, but the entire community that formed him as well. So news of Makoji’s impending change in status brings everyone who has ever been associated with him crawling out of the woodwork. These parasites are represented in his immediate and extended family. Every person, from Makoji’s widowed mother to the distant uncle he never knew existed, sees this appointment for what it truly is, their ticket to wealth and kiss off to poverty.
And so the circus begins. Mother (Bola Stephen-Atitebi) commissions a renovation of their property to bring it up to standards befitting of a minister. Uncle (Soibifaa Dokubo) assigns to himself the right to make decisions for and on behalf of the minister. Aunt (Inna Erizia) shows up, seeking favours for her own children. And his best friend (Ikpomwosa Gold) appoints himself special assistant to the minister. Between them, they have rented a crowd of sycophants to accompany Makoji as he makes his triumphant entry into the State House. The larger the crowd, the juicier the ministry assignment, a character observes shrewdly.
Disillusioned by the unravelling of his clan and feeling hustled by the naked greed that is on display, Makoji in a moment of clarity, surprises everyone when he turns down the appointment. Clearly, serving his country to the best of his abilities would be an impossibility considering the scale of hypocrisy that he is surrounded by.
It is at this juncture that Our Son the Minister shows its weight in gold and begins to shine both as a finely imagined performance piece and as a biting reflection of Nigerian society. Directed by PAWS’ studios Kenneth Uphopho, perhaps the hardest working man in theatre, Our Son the Minister makes use of brilliant wordplay and a cohesive ensemble to hold a mirror to society. But absent the lazy preaching. It is easy to rail at corrupt leaders and the uselessness of the political class every day, Ugbede observes, but these people do not exist in a vacuum. They are drawn up from society and their behaviour merely reflects socialisation.
Makoji for instance wants to do the right thing as much as he can, but it is made clear to him from the get go, that the appointment is first and foremost a seat at the table for him and his kinsmen. And what is on the menu? The national cake.
Only a madman turns down such an opportunity and the kinsmen begin to question Makoji’s sanity the moment he fails to play by their rules. Through a series of hilarious gags that are timed appropriately and delivered by a succession of characters, Ugbede and director Uphoho guide audiences into a probe of Makoji’s mentality. Is he really a basket case or is he the only sane person in the room? It isn’t quite open and shut as Makoji at some point finds that surviving in the political space is an extreme sport and sometimes only the insane make it out alive. No one is a totally innocent and to get out, one must first eventually have to descend into the pits.
Our Son the Minister isn’t a cynical production despite drops of pessimism scattered around and the tidy ending is proof. The director adopts a hopeful if trite pose that speaks of the importance of being virtuous and standing one’s ground while placing all the burden on one person. This ultimately absolves the larger society of responsibility. As Nigerian history has shown, repeatedly, heroes are admirable but they burn out too fast, and leave too soon. They stay long enough, then they become part of the problem. The rot is ours to fix collectively. We don’t need another hero.