Danny Hoyle's deft performance carries his solo show, Tings Dey Happen
Among the usual tidings of war and occupation, the recent holiday season brought news that hundreds of people had been burned alive in a pipeline explosion in Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria and its largest city. They were gathered around a section reportedly ruptured by a criminal gang of "bunkerers" siphoning petrol from the state-owned oil company prior to selling it on the black market.
In a cutting irony wasted on few in Nigeria, Africa's largest oil producer (the fifth largest importer to the United States and rising) has struggled for years with a serious fuel shortage. Within the crowded Abule Egba district of Lagos, where December's horrible scene took place, low-paid workers and their families often forgo caution in the event of a pipeline rupturing to fill pails and cans with the desperately needed liquid, either for use in their own vehicles and home generators or for resale on the black market, where a small amount can equal several weeks' wages.
To read the news reports on these accidents (if that's the right term for such acts of desperation) is usually to miss much of the complex picture lying behind the scenes in Africa's most populous and oil-rich country. The politics of oil in Nigeria reaches deep into an increasingly fractured society and far beyond its national borders.
Needless to say, it's a lot for a lone actor-playwright to take on, even one playing multiple characters over the course of two hours. But young solo performer Dan Hoyle seems to thrive on such challenges. Developed with and directed by veteran solo performer Charlie Varon, Tings Dey Happen brings the 25-year-old Hoyle's American theater audience a powerfully etched human-scale impression of the scope of oil politics in Nigeria as he discovered it during a 10-month trip in 2005 as a Fulbright scholar.
Without benefit of costume or scenery and with merely an atmospheric sound design (courtesy of David Hines) and some key lighting shifts (by Patti Meyer), Hoyle soon establishes his setting with a series of quick-change characterizations amid a bustling city street in Lagos. Affecting the pidgin English that is the lingua franca of Nigeria and smoothly transitioning through various postures and demeanors, Hoyle re-creates his reception as a white American sore thumb. From there we travel with him widely, from stops at the US Embassy and local bars frequented by expat oil workers to the network of swamps and streams in the delta known simply as "the creeks," the territory of dozens of militia groups at war with the state and one another for the liberation of the delta and a share of the oil money.
In all, Hoyle plays more than 20 characters based on people he met and interviewed. There's also a friendly Nigerian stage manager who does not hesitate in taking exception to the character Dan's sometimes overly downbeat treatment of the subject matter or spurring the crowd to let go of its Bay Area mind-set and try to adopt a more Nigerian one.
Hoyle also gained access to some highly placed people in Lagos. In addition to a somewhat unctuous US ambassador, for instance, Dan memorably meets the antigovernment rebel leader and Ijaw warlord Asari (a.k.a. Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, or Asari Dokubo), the Muslim militant whose forces have declared war on the Nigerian state and the oil companies who they (with justification) say have usurped and wreaked havoc on Ijaw land.
Throughout, Dan is glimpsed only in stories told by those he met. He's the young white American who's (remarkably) neither a Christian missionary nor a petrochemical engineer; who wants, crazily, to study oil politics (prompting one wag to advise him to practice ducking, as he's sure to be shot at); who, to one local's amazement and consternation, doesn't know how to fix a computer.
Tings is a history lesson and a political lesson even a geography lesson (the Niger Delta "is like your Mississippi Delta," the stage manager explains with knowing understatement, "but there are more guns"). But the show is also very much an entertainment and a display of performance prowess. Hoyle whose first solo endeavor, Circumnavigator, was followed by Florida 2004: The Big Bummer, a report from a front line in the last presidential election has made this multicharacter reportage-bricolage his forte, backing it with the limber facility of a physically disciplined actor and natural mimic.
There's a certain admirable audacity in Hoyle's Nigeria project, not just in his fearless reconnaissance of deeply troubled waters especially among the battle-hardened rebels of the creeks but in his willingness to boldly assume the voices and personae of ordinary Nigerians, to step inside their perspectives and encourage his American audiences to follow.
In what's perhaps an overly eager attempt to please, however, his characters tend to be eccentrics. And in some cases the characterizations feel more put on, along the lines of caricature, than fully embodied. While invariably absorbing, the sum of these parts may also lend a skewed impression of the average Nigerian. There's no mention, for example, of the nonviolent resistance led by women and student organizations against the exploitation of Nigerian people, land, and resources. (The only female character essayed in Tings is a sympathetically indignant prostitute.)
Moreover, the play's two hours could stand trimming and focusing (a malaria-fueled fever dream in which Dan is visited by competing advice givers Graham Greene and Richard Pryor, for example, is only weakly funny and hence all the more tangential). These quibbles aside, Hoyle's work brings a burgeoning talent to a still woefully neglected subject that, as presented here, is both absorbing in its dramatic complexity and urgent in its political import. *
TINGS DEY HAPPEN
Through Feb. 10
Thurs.Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 5 p.m., $15$22
1062 Valencia, SF