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Avant-Garde Theatre: Segun Adefila’s Dis Loyal Judas

by Bestman Michael Osemudiamen

I was recently spellbound by the unusual creativity and the radical-revisionist re-portrayal of the Passion of Christ play, Segun Adefila’s Dis Loyal Judas—described as an “Easter Opera”—at The Marquee, National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, performed by the Crown Troupe of Africa and produced by Oluwanishola Adenugba, which lasted from Friday, April 15 to Easter Monday, April 18. It remains in my mind, as in others’, I believe, a tinge of humour, subtlety, and a remarkable degree of performative depth.

As I sat, trying to configure every move, song, language choice, costume, and musical interlude, I reminisced about the first time I heard the name “Crown Troupe.” I was in secondary school. We had a drama competition, and our director, Mr Rasheed, made us watch their stage performances. One time, at Aj House of Poetry; another, at Freedom Park. I recount how much Oko Owi Ocho, Seyi Lasisi, Babs Olaseni Ayandayo, and I made reference to them whenever we spoke about performance and of how they inspired us. But, seeing them after seven years was different. I witnessed a creative unveiling, even as I was critical at the same time about every detail.

The last time I saw The Passion of Christ, I was still a child. It was on screen—Mel Gibson’s biblical epic released in 2004 that had fed my childhood memories and Christian background. Now, Segun Adefila’s play brought it closer to home. But in his dramatisation, it is de-nativised, decolonised, and anachronistic. As I sat in the audience appreciating the play, Wole Soyinka’s Lion and the Jewel kept coming to mind. This time, it wasn’t Lakunle or Baroka. Rather, it was the question of modernity. In Soyinka’s play, Baroka’s triumph over Lakunle, a semi-illiterate of urban traits with a petit-bourgeois vocabulary and Western jargons, can be seen as Soyinka’s way of preserving a totem of the traditional (a people’s cultural remains), and maybe values. In Segun Adefila’s play, we see the re-enactment of a Christian story, supposedly foreign, but in a rather localised rendition.

Thus, we are forced to ask what Adefila preserves: Christianity or tradition (through Christianity?). Or he, perhaps, attempts to blend both the fates of our past and present towards an uncertain future? Does it challenge us to write our history or re-enact our African stories or oral traditions into creative pieces that are closer to us, to make us unsee our traditional religions or stories as diabolical, obsolete, or strange? Adefila’s Dis Loyal Judas leaves one to ponder about these things without the play losing its entertaining element.

The title’s double entendre interrogates the destinies of Jesus Christ and his disciple Judas Iscariot. Without Judas’ disloyalty—what has today become a rather infamous, unsolvable historical paradox—would there be Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, all in fulfillment of prophecy? Inversely, Judas’ betrayal was a moral triumph in disloyalty. Because Jesus himself predicted the betrayal by one of his own. Doesn’t this make Judas loyal, as every other disciple, working for the utmost good of the salvation ministry? Hence, Adefila’s title, Dis Loyal Judas (“dis loyal Judas,” “this loyal Judas,” “disloyal Judas”), fulfils these underlying, paradoxical, historical, and controversial twists.

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In Naija Times, Adefila gave a director’s note: “The story of Judas and Jesus offers us a pivotal platform to further explore the place of choice in destiny. Had Judas chosen differently, would it have altered the fate of the Saviour?” Would the play Dis Loyal Judas even be possible? Would there be a Passion of Christ or Easter in the world today? What would have become Christianity’s trajectory? What gospel, if not the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, would there be? What global character would Christianity have today? What kind of tool would it have been in the colonisation of Africans? These questions emphasise the centrality of Judas to Christ.

Moving from such dialectics, Adefila’s directorial gaze—to match his rather avant-garde recast of the Passion of Christ story—costumes Jesus, Judas, the Pharisees, and Disciples, with earrings, exorbitant glasses, and rugged and modern outfits. A pleasantly anachronistic spectacle accentuating the time and setting of the play closer to a contemporary discourse on culture, dressing, gender, and a lot more. On cue, the characters Jesus and Judas, particularly, are spotted in hipster fashion; they bling with ornamental rings and earrings, designer shirts, shredded jeans, and dreadlocks. In today’s Nigeria where such style in dressing has led to police officers profiling younger male Nigerians as internet fraudsters (yahoo boys), it gives the play a political and symbolic twist: that, if the Messiah had been born in Nigeria, in our time, he could have been a victim of police brutality.

A twist further exploited by Adefila in unraveling more ways of interpreting his play, as well as exploring a historical intersection in relation to the current social ailment of “yahoo boys.” When he incorporates the line “30 billion for the account o” from a Davido song “If,” Judas sells Jesus, not for 30 pieces of silver, but for 30 billion naira to a group of Pharisees bent over laptops. The same line Judas and the Pharisees sing to rejoice to the success of their scheme.

Further experimentations include casting Pontius Pilate as an Oba, just as the Pharisees and disciples are a blend of men and women, unlike the predominantly, popular male figures in the Gospels. There was also a blend of Yoruba, Pidgin, and English language by the cast; Kate Odiong’s choreography was central to the progress of the play’s plot (like the choreography of Judas Iscariot when he commits suicide by hanging); and the matching soundtracks with scenes at various parts of the performance. Adefila has said, “We are all storytellers. We seek stories that question answers.” I think Dis Loyal Judas achieves this. It is a patchwork in revising the Passion of Christ in the imagination of the present day. It is one thing to watch. It is another to be left with questions.

Bestman Michael Osemudiamen writes from Lagos, and Benin. He is a lover of art and criticism. He enjoys deep conversations, music, and simplicity.