by Sabo Kpade
Liberian Girl is about a 14-year-old called Martha set during the second Liberian civil war (1999 – 2003) which brought Charles Taylor to power. To escape advancing rebels Martha and her grandma Mammie Esther flee into the bushes but are captured by members of the Small Boy’s Unit, a feeder arm of child soldiers. Among their captors are Double Trouble (Michael Ajao) and Killer (Valentine Olukoga). Mammie Esther makes an unwise comment about the depravity of the pair and as punishment is dragged away by Killer. He returns alone and encourages a distraught Martha to forget her grandma as she is conscripted by the pair, they themselves minions further down in the food chain and only too happy to exercise what power they have on the weak and defenceless.
Playwright Ms Atuona has gone to the effort of giving Double Trouble and Killer both layers of character so that they are not just one homogenous band of drug addled and happy trigger rebels, but young boys who – themselves conscripts – are like other boys their age who exude bravery and “manliness” but really just want the approval of their commander, Frazer James, and most importantly Charles Taylor affectionately referred to as “Papay”. Of the two, Killer is the most ambitious about rising through the ranks and is prepared to kill and maim to do so. Along with money, cars and women promised upon victory, an eventual meeting with Taylor is all he is looking forward to.
It is made clear that Martha is a girl who, to protect her from rape, is masquerading as a boy. She is nicknamed Frisky by the pair as they welcome her with glee and terror. To further inculcate her Killer, after raping a newer captor, coerces Frisky into doing the same. The pair cheer her on but somehow do not notice that Frisky is missing male genitals (in an earlier scene Killer playfully assaults Martha by grabbing her groin but, incredibly, does not detect that something is wrong). Crucially, we see Martha, a scared teenage girl, morph into Frisky, a child soldier who proves herself enough to her captors to be accepted as an equal.
I can accept that Ms Atuoma is most interested in showing to her audience the brutality of war, and she succeeded in eliciting true empathy from some of the audience in the performance I watched. The necessity for artifice required to stage a play can rightfully override depictions of reality but it has to be done with a deft hand. Audiences wilfully suspend disbelief but will not assume credulity no matter how plausible the situation.
Ms Atuona has Nigerian parents and was raised in Peckham which is fast losing its status as a Nigerian stronghold, so it is understandable that the rhythms of West African speech with which she is most familiar are Nigerian English. She may well have researched Liberian pidgin and could convincingly write full sentences in it, but to produce an entire play requires deeper levels of immersion or an uncanny ability for mimicry, the fruits of which are not always on display here.
There are overlaps in the Pidgin English spoken across countries in West Africa. The differences are notable (accents, syntax) but a speaker from Sierra Leone could very well understand another from Liberia or Nigeria. If you were to draw a Venn Diagram of the language used in the play – Nigerian pidgin in set A, Liberian pidgin in set B – the intersection will choke with similarities. Next will be set A with recognisable Nigerianisms like ending sentences with the suffix “-o” with fewer Liberianisms in set B.
There is also the jumble of accents. Cecilia Noble’s Mammie Esther, otherwise world weary as if suffering is her life’s work, occasionally lapses into her English accent. Valentine Olukoga’s Killer has an accent that is steadily Nigerian auguring better with Nigerian pidgin of the text than with the Liberian of the character as intended. James Fraser appears to be relishing his role as the unit commander, barking instructions and whipping his soldiers into a killing frenzy. For a newcomer in her first professional stage debut, Juma Sharkan is a revelation. Her progression (retrogression perhaps?) from Martha to Frisky is played with touching eloquence. Hers is a child who is no stranger to the debilitating effects of war but young enough to still have the transparent innocence of youth.
Audiences are warned on entering the theatre that they will be standing for the duration of the performance and may be moved around by the cast. And this they did, yelling at us to make room for set changes. It is a refreshing gimmick that invites audience involvement but not input. What is a little discomfort anyway when there is all this genocide and rape happening right before you?
Detractors might see Liberian Girl as yet another tale of Africa’s woes. It is a subject matter that is sure to bring the writer some recognition, whether by the Alfred Fagon award (which Ms Atuona won in 2013) or the Caine Prize for African writing, whose winning stories have often been ostensibly about the continent’s ills. But overexposure to a subject matter like this does nothing to diminish its prevalence. These problems still persist and if the continent’s writers do not document it, who will? Since these challenges will not just vanish and ought to be recorded it is up to us as consumers of such works to increase our threshold.
Ms Atuona’s willingness to tackle such a serious issue is commendable. It is a confident debut that is matched by a fluid production by director Matthew Dunstner making for a very promising start of the year for the Royal Court.
Liberian Girl is at the Royal Court Theatre until January 31st. Further info
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Sabo Kpade’s stories have been published in Verdad, Glasschord, The Writer’s Room, Sable and Gertrude Press. His play Have Mercy On Liverpool Street was staged by Talawa Theatre Company. He is currently at work on his first novel Anyone’s Ghost.
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