Death is a debt that every one must pay. Though the how and when, unlike debts owed a bank or some magnanimous benefactor, we may not know. Yet, we still must pay. And the why, for sure, is different from one debtor to another. However, there can be nothing as dispiriting as knowing that you are going to die, as well as the manner and time of death.

For Kenule Saro Wiwa, the Nigerian writer, theatre producer, and environmentalist, it was a mixture of all, as re-enacted in Adinoyi Ojo Onukaba’s play ‘The Killing Swamp’, where the playwright, using his creative licence, digs dramatically into the final moments of the late Ogoni activist’s life.

The play, directed by Chidi Ukwu, was staged in Abuja on Saturday, November 13, by an Abuja-based theatre company, Arojah Royal Theatre. It was to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of that execution, spearheaded by the then military ruler, Sani Abacha, an act that was widely condemned by the international community.

Patrick Otoro is Ken Saro Wiwa

The audience in Abuja, largely populated by members of the international community, was held spellbound by the delivery and interpretation of Patrick Otoro, who played the role of Kenule.

“The performance was so real that I felt like I was witnessing the exact incident as it happened… Kenule is a very strong character and the actor succeeded in arresting the audience,” said Yoash, an Isreali in the audience.

He revealed that it was his first time watching a stage play since arriving Nigeria; and added that the lady sitting beside him was close to tears and murmuring repeatedly: “Did they really did that to him?”

Otoro, who endured the passing away of his father just days before, put up such a heart rendering performance. He could be described as a veteran of Adinoyi Onukaba’s plays, having at various times produced, directed, or acted in some of the playwright’s pieces. Among Otoro’s earlier involvement in Onukaba’s plays, are: ‘A Resting Place’, ‘Tower of Babel’, and ‘Her Majesty’s Visit’.

“It’s a great honour been given the responsibility of re-enacting the lifetime of such a great personality like Saro Wiwa. I am glad, however, that I did not disappoint. This will no doubt remain for me as one of the highest point of my active career as a theatre practitioner,” he said of playing the lead in ‘The Killing Swamp’.

Other players in the four-man cast play were: Jibrin Ahmed as Major; Ikponmwonsa Gold; Seun Odukoya; and Adetutu Adebambo, who played Asabe in the first and second performances respectively.

Gaming with death

Though a dramatic imagination of the playwright, the last moments of the late Ken Saro Wiwa, as depicted onstage, moved the audience to tears. Kenule engaged in what Major refers to in the play as ‘buying time’ with various demands.

The highpoint of the play was the late discovery by Kenule that his cousin is the Major who has been assigned to carry out his execution. This revelation was followed up by a long drawn argument about the real reasons behind his predicament, the foundation set up in the name of Bera’s father, and the possibility that money must have exchanged hands. Having failed to talk him out of avenging his father’s death, Kenule gave up his antics and orders Bera (Major) to carry out the execution, saying, “Go on, do what you are here to do.”

The play opens and ends at a clearing in the bush, where Kenule and the Ogoni eight are executed. It employs a flashback at some point to re-enact the meeting of Asabe and Kenule at an audition and then the court scene, which had both players switching roles. The same technique was employed in the court tribunal scene, where Major assumed the role of the judge.

‘The Killing Swamp’ offers fresh insight into the Niger Delta issue, especially as it relates to the intrigues behind the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa. The playwright, however, in his wisdom, employs humour in his treatment of some of the most salient issues in the play.

Commenting on the production, the playwright, Adinoyi Onukaba, praised the high quality of work put into the production by the actors and director.

“While it is right to say this is my play, what you have seen here today is beyond me. It is the interpretation of the director and his artists. You don’t always have much influence on how your play is produced. Once the book leaves your hand and goes into the hand of a director, he gives it whatever interpretation that suites him, and in this case, I must say that the director, Chidi Ukwu, is very good and has done a good job.”