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A Fulbright in Nigeria That Turned Into a Show

November 15, 2009

Many things have happened since Dan Hoyle performed in the premiere of “Tings Dey Happen,” his incendiary and brilliant solo show about Nigerian oil politics, nearly three years ago at the compact theater the Marsh in San Francisco.

His career has been on the rise. “Tings Dey Happen” won the Will Glickman Award for best new play in the Bay Area and was featured, to critical acclaim, in 2007 at the Culture Project in New York. (Wilborn Hampton in The New York Times called Mr. Hoyle “a first-rate reporter and actor.”) Last month the State Department invited Mr. Hoyle to return to Nigeria to perform “Tings Dey Happen” as part of an official diplomatic tour. Now back in San Francisco, he is reprising his production at the much grander Marines Memorial Theater.

Meanwhile, Nigeria — the land where Mr. Hoyle spent 10 months in 2005-6 as a Fulbright scholar researching his project — has spiraled downward. Known as much for its corruption, kidnappings and violence as for its ample oil reserves (Nigeria is the fifth-largest oil supplier to the United States), the country has been hemorrhaging blood and money like crude from a plundered pipeline. In the most recent wave of unrest this summer, clashes between Islamic militants and the police led to dozens of deaths. Olabode George, a prominent figure in Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party, was convicted of corruption charges in October.

Bizarrely, few of these events make it into the latest iteration of “Tings Dey Happen.” Besides the slicker lighting and sound effects, minor textual cuts and the addition of supertitles to help audiences understand some of the Nigerian characters’ Pidgin, the present production is pretty much like the past. Getting the most from this latest version requires attending a post-performance discussion or reading an as-yet-unpublished essay by Mr. Hoyle. But he misses an opportunity to address the inadvertent impact of well-meaning outsiders like himself on the lives of the Nigerian insiders.

As a performance, Mr. Hoyle’s theatrical journey through the Niger Delta’s remote and lawless hinterlands continues to arrest audiences, even in this less intimate setting. Over 90 minutes he embodies a variety of African and other foreign characters with warmth and energy.

Foremost among his sharply drawn creations are a warlord who wields multiple cellphones and whose Jabba-the-Hutt-like aspect belies a sentimental side (he keeps a photo album); a loutish Scottish oil industry worker; and a physically awkward, slow-spoken 23-year-old sniper who dreams of going to a university. Mr. Hoyle captures these characters so vividly that he seems to disappear inside their stories, much as Anna Deavere Smith (“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” “Fires in the Mirror”) does in her stenographically precise reproductions of real-life characters.

Yet Mr. Hoyle still maintains a shadowy presence onstage despite a desire to remove himself from the narrative. When asked in a 2007 interview with The Huffington Post about the most important decision he had made while creating the work, he replied, “Taking myself out of it.” His characters address their invisible interlocutor directly and even poke fun at him: “No, Dan, please sit down. Let us dance for you,” some Nigerian characters jovially insist when this Westerner takes ham-footedly to the dance floor. Try as he might to remain an outside observer, Mr. Hoyle can’t help putting himself in the frame.

His relationship with his interview subjects is particularly complex in the case of Okosi, the young sniper. Okosi is based on Williams Ajayi, a real-life militant whom Mr. Hoyle befriended during his first visit to Nigeria. In the play Mr. Hoyle grippingly recounts Okosi’s decision to throw his guns away to pursue his undergraduate ambitions. What Mr. Hoyle doesn’t address onstage is the impact he himself has on the character’s life. Only one desperate utterance from Okosi — “Dan, please, when are you coming back?” — hints at the American’s influence on the Nigerian.

Only beyond the realm of the play do you start to get a sense of Mr. Hoyle’s true agency in the Niger Delta. In prose and conversation he tells of being reunited with Mr. Ajayi in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, during his recent visit. At the meeting Mr. Hoyle learned that the real-life Okosi narrowly escaped being killed by gang members for turning his back on a life of crime. These days, Mr. Hoyle said, the former militant lives a life of poverty, “a sometime day laborer, sometimes just wandering the streets hoping to run into old friends who will buy him a meal.”

As demoralizing as this story is, discovering Mr. Hoyle’s role in shaping Mr. Ajayi’s life is even more unnerving: “When he met me,” the performer writes in his essay of being reunited with Mr. Ajayi, “it was like a light to his life. After hundreds of performances in the U.S., I couldn’t really point to any impact my show had made on the Niger Delta. But during my research I had impacted Williams enough to change his life.”

The fortunes of individuals and nations rise and fall every day. The genius of “Tings Dey Happen” is its ability to help us understand how filling the tanks of our cars here in the United States might spark countless wars in a far-off land. If only Mr. Hoyle, full of fresh insights from his recent trip, would confront the consequences of his presence in Nigeria more openly, instead of through his characters’ oblique references to an invisible white guy named Dan.

Correction: November 16, 2009
In a previous version of this article, a quote was incorrectly attributed. The playwright, Dan Hoyle, did not say, "When he met me, it was like a light to his life." The man he was writing about, Williams Ajayi, said it. Also, a passage may have left the incorrect impression that the author interviewed Mr. Hoyle about his reunion with Mr. Ajayi. The author heard the story at a post-performance discussion, not in a personal conversation with Mr. Hoyle.


  • It's a shame you failed to understand that Dan did not intend to revise the show after the Nigeria tour. Furthermore, he is not an activist, he is a performer. The beauty of the show is that he lets us draw our own conclusions...

    In taking himself out it means that he is not an actual character. It seems somewhat obvious to me that he will be present in the show based on the other characters reactions and interactions. He just never actually plays himself! A brilliantly subtle approach in my opinion.

    By Blogger kmh, At November 16, 2009 at 9:58 AM  

  • Yes, I love the way Dan is both present and absent from the show. I wrote about this at length in the piece I did about Tings Dey Happen for SF Weekly when Dan first produced the show three years ago. See
    This time around, I was interested in exploring questions of agency - Dan's potential real-world impact as a theatre-maker and researcher gathering material in Nigeria. His liminal position vis-a-vis the interview subjects in the piece offers up some challenging questions regarding this question of agency which I tried to dig into. I wish I had had more space to do the subject more justice. It's a great show and Mr Hoyle is a formidable performer.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At November 16, 2009 at 10:06 AM  

  • I understand that you sought to examine his impact on the individuals in the play, but it seems to me that you have not checked all of your understanding is that he has actually had profound positive impact on some of the characters-- in particular Okosi!

    By Blogger kmh, At November 16, 2009 at 11:42 AM  

  • I neglected to mention that I read your initial review when it first came out and found that you grasped what Dan was offering with a sharp intelligence....this is also why I was surprised by this second review.

    By Blogger kmh, At November 16, 2009 at 11:49 AM  

  • yes: okosi told dan that dan had made a major impact on his life. i mentioned that in the article. whether the impact was positive or negative is a subjective matter and i suppose in some ways remains to be seen. one could of course argue that his getting away from the gang is a positive thing, absolutely. but as dan reports, okosi's daily living situation has been very hard since he gave up being a sniper. he's often reduced to beggarly circumstances. this is not an overwhelmingly positive outcome in my view, though of course it's better than making a living through killing others :)

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At November 16, 2009 at 11:51 AM  

  • While the question of, as you say, "liminal position" is certainly one which could facilitate considerable discussion in the right forum, I have to question whether it was appropriate to this "review," especially considering, as you've noted, there were considerable space limitations.

    The admittedly powerful questions relating to Mr. Hoyle's subjectivity/objectivity and the perspectival structure of his performance remain undeveloped, muted in your review; your judgement, on the other hand, is not. Whether or not you intended to write a piece that was deeply critical, that is certainly how it reads.

    The ambivalent attitude towards Mr. Hoyle's narratology belies a larger problem with the article, namely that its purpose and argument is nearly incomprehensible. Are you saying that "Tings Dey Happen" is too interactive? Or not enough? Why linger so long over the question of Mr. Ajayi? What's the relevance? Why is revision a necessity, as you imply, in the wake of recent events?

    Your intentions have become so garbled by the end of the review that the only lucid argument I took away from it was that Mr. Hoyle was somehow responsible for the fact that Mr. Ajayi is homeless and impoverished. The effect of this conclusion is palpable, even if the evidence isn't. Is he responsible due to some rapacious colonizing appetite which the structuring of his performance obscures? Are you asserting that the guerrillas provide a stabilizing, even instructional service, which Mr. Hoyle somehow denied Mr. Ajayi by encouraging his educational aspirations?

    I will admit that I am quite a fan of the show, but my problem with this article is not so much that you're choosing to be critical, but that I don't understand what you're being critical of.

    By Blogger Hippeaux, At November 16, 2009 at 1:35 PM  

  • Thanks for weighing in, Hippeaux. Actually, my mandate for the NY Times isn't specifically to write "reviews" -- at least not in the traditional sense of the word. As a columnist, I am employed to write opinion-led pieces which, inasmuch as they are centered on works of art / Bay Area culture, generally possess elements you might find in a regular review. But the articles will generally try to use a work of art as a jumping off point from which to consider larger issues, in this case, the question of agency when it comes to artists and journalists interfacing with individuals in very different cultures as Mr. Hoyle did. As far as the review part of the article goes, i think calling 'Tings Dey Happen' "incendiary and brilliant" should tell you what i think of Mr. Hoyle's terrific play from a theatrical perspective.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At November 16, 2009 at 2:46 PM  

  • I found your article confusing and a misrepresentation of Mr. Hoyle's show and post discussion talkback. You state that Mr. Ajayi's life is no better off now that he is no longer a sniper as he is reduced to "beggarly circumstances". In the article you used even stronger language calling his story "demoralizing". I attended the current run of Mr. Hoyle's show last weekend and attended his talkback as well. I did not take his comments about Mr. Ajayi to mean that his life is reduced to that of a beggar or that Mr. Ajayi in any way regrets his decision to leave the militia. It sounds like you have not had experience with challenging topics such as this, but often when someone makes a major life decision like leaving the militia or a gang or a violent partner, unfortunately aspects of life continue to be a struggle. Does that make the decision to leave and subsequent life circumstances demoralizing? Or just an unfortunate and disheartening reality?

    Furthermore, as someone who has lived and worked in a third world country, as sad as it may be, many people around the world live day to day and sometimes rely on friends for food. I have not been to Africa myself, but from work I have done in other developing countries, figuring out how to living on less than $1.00 a day is not unusual. I find your commentary on Mr. Ajayi's life circumstances and your view of Mr. Hoyle's roll in shaping his current life circumstance to be Eurocentric and uniformed.

    You write here that your articles will look at art as a jumping off point to discuss larger topics. You mention here the question of agency, and “Dan’s potential real-world impact as a theater-maker and researcher gathering material in Nigeria.” From listening to Mr. Hoyle discuss Mr. Ajayi’s life in his talkback, it seems that you got his “potential real-world impact” quite wrong. And if you wished to discuss the larger question of agency, why then did your article only speak of Mr. Hoyle and his play? The article never "jumps off" to address the larger topic of agency, but stays focused on Mr. Hoyle and his play, an unnerving view of Mr. Ajayi's life, and a poorly constructed commentary on Mr. Hoyle's role in it all.

    By Blogger Abbie, At November 16, 2009 at 10:44 PM  

  • I guess I found the reality of Mr. Ajayi's situation demoralizing. It seems that this is the case for many people in his position. When they decide to leave the gangs, they don't have many choices. I find this to be a demoralizing state of affairs.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At November 16, 2009 at 10:50 PM  

  • I agree with you that poverty, violence, and hunger themselves are demoralizing. I’m not arguing that those are good things. But, I think that for someone to chose to leave a life of violence when that person knows first hand the hardships of poverty, that is not in any way demoralizing. I find that inspiring.
    Which is also why I found Mr. Hoyle's agency, or potential for real-world impact positive, not only in his role as a researcher but as a performer, exposing audiences around the world to the complexities of oil politics in Nigeria and all the different viewpoints that he brilliantly brings together in his show.
    But that is my opinion and you are obviously entitled to your opinion and critique.

    By Blogger Abbie, At November 18, 2009 at 7:38 PM  

  • It occurs to me that one of the greatest things a "reviewer" can do is to spark discussion about issues. I believe that Mr. Hoyle's work is in itself somewhat designed to do that - what kind of artist does not want their work to continue after the actual physical presence of the piece has passed? The greatest works are works where we are actually allowed/made to "feel" something.

    Ms. Veltman's observations ne "review" have raised some key points to consider. I am looking forward to seeing Dan's work this Sunday and will take Ms. Veltman's insights with me as an augmentation to the work itself.

    By Blogger Dave Greenberg, At November 19, 2009 at 9:13 AM  

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