‘Girls’ by young Nigerian playwright Theresa Ikoko is a harrowing production which highlights the role of diasporas in thinking about the issues in our countries of origin. Modern references to hashtags on social media and Beyoncé songs are seamlessly blended with traditional Nigerian colloquialisms and the Pidgin dialect. Although no direct reference to Boko Haram was made, it quickly became clear both by the names of the characters and subtle cultural cues employed within the play that the 2014 kidnapping of nearly 300 girls from Northern Nigeria was a key source of inspiration.
As we sat through the unfolding narrative, empathy was the likely human response to a play so powerful and imposing. While one can simply tune away from news stories (during the short time that they are considered newsworthy, as the play addresses), or refuse to think about global situations if they become too emotionally draining, the dark realities that the play confronted were unavoidable. Unless willing to go to the extent of leaving the show prematurely, at the risk of being hated by the people who would be disturbed in the process, one is forced to endure powerful, very memorable scenes depicting traumatic experiences of physical suffering, mental anguish and strained relationships.
Yet while the play is definitely emotionally exhausting and deflating in parts, it is not at all exaggerated or vulgar – it is necessarily sober. It is at many points hopeful. The writing is poetic. The play is not preoccupied with the spectacular but is rather attuned to the mundane, from which so much can be deduced. The settings are few and the set design is simple. There are no unnecessary and insensitive visual displays of violence apart from allusions like the sound of gunfire and the presence of wounds which provide important context. There is no sickening and potentially triggering depiction of the activity that would have been required to lead to the pregnancy of one of the young abducted girls; there could not be, practically, given the fact that the three abducted girls are the only characters. Indeed, the entire 90 minutes of the play is sustained solely by the conversation between these girls, whose musings on sex, mockery of political leaders, designing of makeshift games for entertainment and ponderings about the fates of their families will make one think deeply, laugh heartily and quite possibly, cry unashamedly.
While certainly grievous and ultimately tragic, the brilliance of the play apart from its simplicity is that is does not dwell incessantly on grief. Acknowledging the full range of emotion and experience including kinship, laughter, desire and even boredom respects the complete humanity of those represented. Theresa Ikoko wisely does not seek to impose her opinions from what she acknowledges is her relatively privileged, geographically detached standpoint. Instead, Girls is an excellent, thoughtful and reverent exploration of possibility and a humanising portrayal of sufferers who otherwise would remain anonymous or abstract. It immortalises the people who Ikoko resents were so quickly forgotten in the media and in public consciousness.