The Fishermen, a play currently running at the Market Theatre until Sunday 4 August, in Johannesburg is a display of life’s complexities.
The play stirs up one’s core as it investigates universal values and principles of trust, love and bond in a witty, humourous way while displaying prophecies that cause unnecessary deaths, unwarranted sibling rivalry, intense passion and depth of chaotic and emotional upheaval ultimately obliterating the Agwu family throughout an intense dramatization and an execution of the highest note.
The play is narrated through the channels of two brothers – Ben and Obiema, the youngest of the four Agwu boys. The setting is the Omi-Ala River, Akure Town in Nigeria, and the two nostalgically reminisce about their bitter sweet family life during dictator Sani Abacha’s presidential militia regime.
The Fishermen was authored by Nigeria writer Chigozie Obioma, a Man Booker-shortlisted novel that raked in over 21 recognitions in the year it was published – 2015. The Fisherman has been translated into 24 languages in 26 countries and was adapted for the stage by award winning playwright Gbolahan Obisesan. It made its way to South Africa after Market Theatre artistic director, James Ngcobo who collided with the gripping plot in the text, read it and was sold on it.
The stage craft under Ngcobo’s stellar directorship is a seamlessly engaging transaction through the two actors – Siyanbonga Thwala and Warren Masemola who take a retrospective journey into their characters’ young lives, two decades later. They execute multiple characters transitioning from impersonating their parents and siblings, to playing the madman prophet and soldiers, even giving character to frantic chickens.
Thwala and Masemola masterfully interrogate parents’ hopes for their children and demonstrate that even young ones have minds of their own which could either be abiding or curiously explorative in uncharted waters. Working the script the two show that when trust is wavered, restoration becomes a tall order and where restoration fails a dark cloud dissipates even the slightest hope.
The Agwus family is a two parent household with a father who earns a living as a Bank of Nigeria executive and a mother who runs a vegetable stall. They are a middle class family with dreams for their children in professional careers, but when Ben and Obiema’s father gets transferred to a different state by the bank, only seeing the family quarterly, leaves a vacuum. The boys mother is left to single-handedly run the household and perpetuate the discipline their father had instilled.
Her failings are constantly accentuated by the boys’ misdemeanours, at one point fishing at the river they are even forbidden to cross. Providence would have them cross paths with Abulu the madman, prophesying that one of the brothers, Ikenna, would die at the hands of a fishermen. He points a finger at one of the brothers, shaking the bond that ties them as brothers and sowing division and rivalry, which ends tragically when one brother is murdered by his sibling who then commits suicide.
In rage and in an act of revenge against Abulu, the youngest brothers end up stabbing the mad prophet. One brother serves eight years for murder and another disappears after stabbing a soldier. Their mother also suffers mental illness and is admitted to an institution.
It is not clear whether or not it was the prediction that spelled the chaos and tragic end for the Agwu’s family and The Fishermen’s cliffhanger ending leaves the audience wondering.
Ngcobo said in a conversation with The Journalist, “The Fishermen is part of the Africa Project installment the Market Theatre deposits into its currency for the patrons benefit as a celebration of indigenous work.”
The director’s genius summoned the pounding bongos, heart piercing and painfully distant sound of Malian Ali Farke Toure, and liberating reverberation of popping and groovy strings of Nigerian Fela Kuti, leaving the audience bobbing and tapping.
The Fisherman is an absolute musical treat in the midst of a tear-jerking presentation – a soundtrack of unity par excellence.
If you missed the play read the book.
Images courtesy of The Market Theatre, photographer Thandile Zwelibanzi.