If you ever wondered how to capture the African diasporic experience in one evening, ask play writer Janice Okoh. Her play “Egusi soup” is an emotionally charged, funny, and beautiful play that depicts the inner struggles of an African family as they are about to go back to Nigeria.
It delivers an evening of laughter as we see the familiar antics many of us in the diaspora can attest to. The play is premised on a family and their hearty pastor, who never shy aways from a sermon.
The mother and two daughters struggle, a year on, to come to terms with the death of the family patriarch. As they prepare for the one year anniversary in Nigeria secrets are revealed. Okoh depicts the relentless fight between older and younger generations torn between adapting or remaining faithful to traditions. The two sisters, played by Gloria Onitiri and Ana- Maria Nabirye are both testimonies to the pressures of family expectations and traditions. We witness their struggle to be independent but also the constraining gender roles expected of them by family.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the play are the gender norms, albeit funny and light-hearted there is a sense of heaviness on the two sisters because of their sex. The depair and grief of both characters is implicitly linked to the lack of male guiding figure. As if suddenly despite their careers successes or newly found happiness, they could not be truly whole without the presence of a reassuring male figure. This is probably were the play might leave some puzzled. The mother, whom Lorna Gayle plays, in contrast is a strong figure despite her grief, who seems to have it more together than the daughters.
Okoh captures beautifully the rigid ways some African mothers are forced to adopt as a survival skill, when she scolds her eldest for her weakness in the face of grief. This is where the strength of the story lies. Okoh ’s play weaves complex layers of the African immigrant family life skilfully together. We see a mother’s enduring force and concern for her daughters to succeed in a country that is not hers. The men in this play are worth mentioning for their brilliant comic relief. They do more than just amuse their public, Dele played by Seun Shote married to Grace the youngest sister is an impressively performed character. He brings to life a unique display of Nigerian humour and banter, as a man who alos struggles with the expectations of gender roles, as we see him struggle to be “the man” of the family despite clearly being led by his wife. The pastor arouses similar sentiments, his character is on point and you will recognise family members easily in him.
The play would have not been complete without his presence and the actor Richard Pepple could have not “nailed it” better. There could be no better choice than these five actors to depict the sometimes complicated experience fraught with laughter of the African immigrant experience.
Praise should be given to the director Paul Bourne, as he has brought “Egusi Soup” to life in such way that it resonates deeply within those familiar with this particular experience.
Egusi Soup is at The Albany, Deptford until 28 March
Yovanka Paquete Perdigao