On an overcrowded Nigerian bus, a priest lowers his head in prayer: “In Jesus name we pray di bus makes it safely to Harcourt main town. In Jesus name we pray dere are no police checkpoints along di road. . . . In Jesus name we pray you protect di white man. We don’t know why di white man is here, but please protect him.”
The white man in question is Dan Hoyle, a youthful San Franciscan newly arrived in Nigeria in 2005 on a Fulbright scholarship. He had applied to study “oil politics and conflicts between communities and oil companies.” His successful application suggests he must have had some idea what he was getting into. His solo show, Tings Dey Happen, about the myriad devastations oil has wrought in Nigeria, proposes otherwise. Though Hoyle himself never appears as a character, the cacophony of voices he conjures around him indicates a young man perilously out of his depth.
If Hoyle elides himself, he does supply an authorial voice in the figure of Sylvanus, a stage manager. Hoyle opens the show as a vigilante, shouting, “No bullet go entah! Sky go black! We go scatta your body!” But he quickly transforms into a horrified Sylvanus, who spreads his arms and lips wide in apology and instructs an invisible Dan to behave more politely toward his audience: “You cannot just shove Niger Delta down their throats. You must ask them, as a very kind and lovely gentleman.” Sylvanus provides a bit of context and introduction, explaining, “One day Dan puts down di newspaper and goes to one of di places inside di newspaper. A place called Africa. You might have seen it before, probably in di fifth grade. It is still there, eh?”
Sylvanus reappears from time to time to reassure and gently rib the Culture Project audience. (As that audience tends toward the self-congratulatory, they are much in need of ribbing.) “You are meeting so many people,” he says, “they are telling you so many different tings. You know it’s not easy. In fact, you can just clap for yourselves. And you are following di whole story, so intelligent.”
Actually, we are not following the whole story. Except for an occasional NGO worker or ambassador (rendered every bit as proudly as the Africans), Tings Dey Happen plays out in pidgin English, Nigeria’s lingua franca. Sentences range from the quite recognizable to the utterly baffling, like a bus driver’s instruction, “Aggrey, Aggrey, waterline enta bus. Aggrey garrison waterline. Oebo enta now!” Sylvanus diagnoses our plight correctly when he says, “I know some of you are saying, Wow, I think I need to take a pidgin class. Is the New School offering?”
Hoyle deserves praise for avoiding the typical Africa narrative in which “there is one white man, he goes dere, he suffers so man tings, sweating from various camera angles, but he gets back on di plane, he has a cool soda, everybody claps for him. What about the people in Africa! Heh! They are still dere.” But in his desire to depict locals authentically, he often abandons narrative altogether. Documentarians like Anna Deavere Smith seem to have influenced him. He should note, however, that even in her work much structuring and shaping of text takes place. Lithe and lively, contorting his features in a positively rubberized way, Hoyle the actor gives himself over utterly to his characters. But Hoyle the writer might stand back a bit and better organize the text.
As his Fulbright credentials and numerous newspaper and journal articles on Nigeria attest, he’s capable of sophisticated analysis. Surely he can feed some of that back into the script without sacrificing genuineness. In fact, in one of his articles, Hoyle offers a thesis that could also serve his play. “Africa is poor, sure,” he writes, “but after nine months of living there and being routinely outwitted and outmaneuvered by ‘poor Africans,’ I learned that one pities Africa at one’s peril.”