The play: “When Big Masquerades Dance Naked (Noirledge, 2023),” is Olubunmi Familoni’s latest offering. Familoni is a multi-award winning playwright, poet, children’s book and short fiction writer, who has to his name, the ANA/Abubakar Gimba Prize for Short Stories in 2015 with his work, Smithereens of Death; the ANA Prize for Children’s literature in 2020, with his work, I’ll Call My Brother For You, among others.
Thus it is not surprising that Familoni’s play is on the longlist for the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2023.
The work, When Big Masquerades Dance Naked, is a ten-act play with deep satirical portrayal of society’s political intrigues. It is set in a fictional town of Ilekoro, and it is a commentary on the political landscape of a nation where politicians become elusive after elections only to resurface when next elections are close. This is the case with Jagun, a politician elected to represent Ilekoro. He shows up in the palace of the king to report that the youth leader is aligning with the opposition to campaign against him. But he is confronted by the king and his chiefs. They scold him for making false promises and deceiving the people into voting him into office in the last election only for him to leave the people disappointed.
Lashing heavily at Jagun the politician, the king says: “You became a ghost, one that only appeared on television, on and off; somebody they could not touch, could not reach, ensconced in the softness of the capital city while your people languished under the burden of the hardship created by a government you are part of.” (Act One, p14)
The irony of the King’s hypocrisy however betrays his pro-people stance when the politician reminds him that the monthly largesse the king gets from him is sourced from the education subvention that ought to benefit the entire community. This is a direct indictment of the collaborative thievery of politicians and traditional institutions in the land. So at this point, the politician turns to blackmail. He presses the king to come to his rescue in the coming election. He demands that the king should influence the town’s youth leader in his favour.
In this play, we see Adebori, the youngest wife of the king. She makes a visit to Ijoba the youth leader and reveals to him the plan to offer him money to abandon his campaign against Jagun the politician. She makes him an offer to take the money and elope with her. In their conversation, Adebori attempts to convince Ijoba to choose love over activism and the people, telling him that good life is sweeter than squalor.
Meanwhile the high chiefs, suspicious of an unholy alliance between the king and Honourable Jagun, hatch a plan to expose the king and rescue their land.
It is instructive to note that the elite in power and their cohorts always instinctively assume that every activist or critic is against them. This plays out again in this play, When Big Masquerades Dance Naked. The king invites Ijoba the community’s youth leader for a secret meeting in the palace. The king asks why Ijoba is campaigning against Jagun, the honourable. But Ijoba insists that he is not campaigning against anybody, but for accountability, progress and better life for the people. Indeed, the play is a thesis on how the powerful elite in power view power and the people, how they perceive money and wealth and how they see every good governance advocate as purchasable in the power mix. So for Jagun the politician, getting another term of office is a do-or-die affair and any perceived roadblock would be bought over or eliminated. Then he drags the king into the desperate design of eliminating Monday Ijoba, using Queen Adebori to achieve the agenda, then to eliminate her too afterwards.
In this play, Olubunmi Familoni infuses Marxist tendencies to comment on the leadership travails of African nations. The conversation between the king and Ijoba brings this to the fore, with the king querying the socialist bent of Ijoba while offering him a seat among the few elite who feed fat on the resources of state at the expense of the whole community.
The play also brings to the fore, how the traditional African woman is perceived by her society. In the King’s conversation with Ijoba, we see the King’s willingness to trade away his young queen in order to buy his political salvation and keep the oil of corruption flowing in the palace. He offers to buy over Ijoba and make him work for the perpetuation of the corrupt politician. And the currency of exchange is Adebori, the queen whom he had earlier snatched from Ijoba. This commodification of the woman is also strongly played up in the meeting between the queen and the high chiefs. The woman seems to be viewed as a ready tool in the power play of treachery between the chiefs and the king.
In the voice of the queen, we see through the mind of society, the irony of the perception of the woman. She lampoons the traditional elevation of the woman solely for her aesthetic function. Hear her: ‘The queens have nothing! They’re just part of the royal ornamentation, fixtures to enhance the aesthetic element of the palace; they have no say on anything or power over anybody! … I’m tired of sitting around being a thing of beauty for men’s pleasure, I want power for myself.’ (Act Seven, p55)
Obviously, Queen Adebori has her plans. She has seen the deceitful designs of both the king and Honourable Jagungbade on one hand, and the high chiefs on the other. And she is bent on pulling the rug under their feet. So she asks for what seems to be impossible.
Of course, the play strongly plays out the rot and corruption that have gripped the traditional institutions. The kingmakers have abandoned the voice of the gods, and have embraced the voice of cash in the choice of kings and chiefs. The ones with money and political muscles muzzle the gods and get the throne.
In the final analysis, the play is a satire on socio-political intrigues and the perpetual battle between the forces of light and darkness in society. It is a beautifully crafted work of art. The work derives its strength in the playwright’s deployment of dialogues to great effect. It is not therefore surprising that Olubunmi Familoni gets a slot among the best entries for this year’s Nigeria NLNG-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature.
. Olatunbosun is a broadcast journalist and fact-checker at Splash FM 105.5, Ibadan, Oyo State.