The Woyingi Blog

Play Review: Burned to Nothing by Rex Obano

Recently, I got to listen to BBC Radio 4’s Afternoon Play entitled Burned to Nothing by Rex Obano. The BBC Radio 4’s synopsis of the play states:

Matthew returns to Nigeria, the land of his birth. He has come to secure the release of his son who has become caught up in the politics of a land in turmoil; a land he has fallen in love with.

The cast of the play is as follows:

Matthew …. Lucian Msamati

The General …. Jude Akuwudike

Medina …. Lorraine Burroughs

Keith …. David Ajala

Sunday …. Obi Abili

Inenevwerha …. Gbemisola Ikumelo

Director: Femi Elufowoju Jr.

The story begins in Britain with couple Matthew and Medina being interrupted by a telephone call from Nigeria. The scene changes rapidly to an airport in Port Harcourt in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Medina is upset because thieves have run off with her bag and the houseboy, Sunday, did nothing to stop them. Matthew doesn’t seem to really care; he is more concerned with why he and Medina have come to Nigeria-to find his teenage son who is missing after reportedly been involved in an oil fire that has killed many people. He speaks with local Area Boys in order to find someone who can help him locate his son and they direct him to The General. From the General, Matthew learns that his son has become an activist for the rights of the people negatively affected by oil drilling and has joined the group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). He demands that Matthew bring money in order to continue the search for his son and bribe the police who are also searching for his son because of his involvement in the fire. 

As the story progresses, we learn that Matthew, a British Nigerian widower and engineer who grew up in Warri but left when he was 10, sent his then 13 year old son, Keith, to live with his aunt in Warri after his son shot him. His son Keith was getting involved with local gangs in Peckham and also was very unhappy about his father’s relationship with British Jamaican Medina. Five years later, and Keith has gone missing.

Medina is very uncomfortable in Nigeria and looks for comfort and advice from her father who used to work in the Jamaican Embassy in Nigeria. Matthew asks Medina for the money to give to the General, some $20,000, and her father helps her get it into the country. After reading a news article about the devastation of the oil fire which is blamed on Keith, Medina concludes that Keith is dead but Matthew doesn’t believe her. According to the article, Keith, as well as other Niger Delta militants, was involved in illegal oil bunkering, basically stealing oil from oil pipelines. As many of the local people can’t get access to or afford fuel, they often try to come and collect some of this oil as well, although most of the oil is collected by militants in order to pay for supplies and arms in their struggle. Fires often break out at these pipelines, as had happened in this case, and many people died. Matthew and Medina go to visit the site of the oil fire with Sunday and they meet Inenevwerha, who lives in abject poverty and whose brother died in the fire. Matthew was told that she had seen his son but she doesn’t speak of him and instead breaks down after talking about the devastation of the oil fire which burned people down to their bones. Medina is deeply moved by Inenevwerha’s story.

Matthew is still convince that his son did not die in the fire. He confronts the General who admits that Keith is not dead and that he is actually hiding him from the police. It is the General who indoctrinated Keith into the resistance movement of the Niger Delta. The General considers Keith to be like his son, as he and his wife have been unable to have children due to infertility produced by oil pollution. Matthew gets to see Keith, who now wants to be called by his Nigerian name Keefay. Keith tells his father how abandoned he felt when he was sent to Nigeria but he is also happy because it is in Nigeria that he learned to be a man. Matthew learns that Keith is actually in a relationship with Inenevwerha and they are expecting a child. Matthew asks for Keith’s forgiveness and the father and son are reconciled. Matthew leaves the money with Keith and says that he will stay in Port Harcourt as he wishes to see the birth of his grandchild.

Personal Reflections:

The play explores identity as we see through out that Matthew is trying to assert his “Nigerianness” but constantly fails because he is out of touch with the political situation and can’t even really understand the local language anymore, apart from pidgin English. When he finally meets his son, he has to demand that he speak to him in English. Medina and Matthew’s relationship seems to fracture also because of identity. Medina, although Black, isn’t African or Nigerian and feels very out of place in the Niger Delta. Matthew doesn’t seem to appreciate the situation he’s put her in and goes on to demand to borrow a large sum of money from her. At the end of the play, he dismisses Keith’s concerns that Medina might not be happy to learn that Matthew wants to stay in Nigeria. Matthew’s lack of consideration for Medina upset me and seemed completely disrespectful, particularly after he borrowed the money from her. It’s as if in reclaiming his Nigerian identity and thus being able to connect with his son, he feels he must reject Medina and her Black British identity. It seems that Matthew is asked to choose between Medina and what she represents and his son, the choice which Keith had demanded his father make five years earlier when he shot him. Medina’s character is not played or written to be unlikable, quite the opposite, which makes Matthew’s treatment of her even more troubling.

The injustices facing the peoples of the Niger Delta are very clearly laid out in the play and will hopefully draw Westerners’ attention to the ever worsening situation in the area.

Further Reading:

Interview (2009) with Rex Obano available online

Interview (2010) with Rex Obano available online

Interview with Lorraine Burroughs available online

Interview (2010) with Lorraine Burroughs available online

Interview with Gbemisola Ikumelo available online

Interview (2003) with Femi Elufowoju Jr.available online

Interview (2009) with Femi Elufowoju Jr. available online

Interview (2010) with Femi Elufowouju Jr. avaialble online

Blood Oil dripping from Nigeria by A. Walker (BBC article available online)

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