Content warning: the following article includes topics some readers may find triggering, including sexual assault.
How can art explore one’s culture and identity? Over the weekend, Hopkins students performed How Palm Wine Sours, a play written and co-directed by junior Similoluwa Aluko.
At its core, the play dealt with issues of belonging and history through an expansive, interdisciplinary exploration of the lives of Yoruba royalty in ancient Nigeria.
The play centers on two women: Adunni (sophomore Mariama Morray) and Folake (freshman Laeticia Jean Baptiste). Both are daughters of palm wine tappers, whose relationship turns antagonistic due to the actions of the Prince of Ife, who chooses to marry Folake despite professing his love to both her and Adunni.
Decades later, the prince has died, and it is prophesied that Folake’s daughter — Adesewa (sophomore Moufidatou Adedoyin) would be the first Queen of Ife. However, these plans, along with Adesewa’s wedding to the Prince of Benin, Ogbego (senior Awoenam Mauna-Woanya), are spoiled when Benin is invaded.
It turns out that the invasion was by Oduntan (sophomore Tobi Ogunbiyi), who we later find to be Adunni’s son and who demands Adesewa’s hand in marriage.
The play ends with Oduntan assaulting Adesewa at the behest of his mother, forcing her to marry him.
If Adesewa didn’t, he threatened that he would reveal that she was not a virgin. Thus, Adunni takes her revenge on Folake by taking her daughter’s throne and giving it to her son.
These storylines present an extremely insightful and even somewhat provocative consideration of ideas of feminism and power.
Additionally, the plot reveals the overarching role that patriarchal systems play even in relationships between women.
Aluko, the play’s author and co-director, spoke to The News-Letter about the decision to give the play a tragic ending.
“People don’t get happy endings and lots of the time bad things happen to everybody, but the way that people respond to that is what matters,” she said. “People are fond of judging a woman, and if you do something terrible to someone else you expect it not to hurt other[s]… but some things really shatter people.”
She connected the ending to the title of the play.
“The question is, how does palm wine sour? That is exactly how… it’s very simple — you leave it in the bucket too long, and it will sour… the concept is that you know what you are doing when you leave it in the bucket,” she said.
The play’s protagonist, Adesewa, dealt with many of these unique pressures faced by women.
For example, in a scene where Oduntan demands that she meet him so that he can propose marriage, she vows not to renege on the promise she had made to her fiancé Ogbego, despite her councillors telling her to appease Oduntan. Adesewa explains that her reasons for doing so are not just out of her love for Ogbego, but because she knew that marrying Oduntan would mean not only losing the independence of Ife but also losing her own liberty. She roars: “Ife will not be made to look weak... [while] I am the queen!” — a powerful and stirring call for the preservation of her freedom as an independent woman.
In many ways, the play focused on the idea of the vicissitudes of life not being mediated by random chance but rather through specific social interactions and social structures, particularly through the Prince of Ife acting as the absent yet all-powerful patriarch. However, the way the play did this was through a uniquely captivating amalgam of humour and gravity, a testament to the strength of the actors and the script.
For example, near the end of the play, Aduni is attempting to convince Oduntan, her own son, to force himself onto Adesewa, and there is a grim sort of humor in the physical and mental contortions that Oduntan goes through — he jumps around in almost a childish tantrum — in attempting to convince his mother that he did not want to, which only heightens the severity of the moment, encapsulated in his cold reply.
“If you [Aduni] want me to, I will do it,” he said.
Another strength of the play lies in its painstaking attempts at ensuring cultural awareness and in expanding the genre to make space for dance and music. The play is bookended by dances in traditional Yoruba costume accompanied by batá drums, and the Yoruba language is interspersed throughout the play. Aluko spoke about these issues of demonstrating cultural and linguistic authenticity while making a play for a largely Western audience.
“Actually I struggled with that a lot — when I first started writing the play I was writing for a Nigerian audience, and I still [did]. What I found was that the more consistent I was with the dialogue, audiences from different cultural backgrounds could figure out what was going on. The point wasn’t to pull out the Yoruba words but to be consistent and real with the dialogue,” she said.
Furthermore, she spoke about why she chose to use dances and music in order to demonstrate influence of Yoruba culture and Nigeria in general.
“Traditionally, Yoruba people are very theatrical and dramatic. So it’s seeped into our theater over time,” she said.
Even when it came to ensuring this authentic expression, great pains were taken. The dances in the play were Nigerian batá dances which were chosen and choreographed with legitimacy in mind.
“The costumes and jewelry were sent to us by my mom in Nigeria,” she said. “Wanting to represent the culture was the most important thing to me… There’s a lot you can learn about your history and your culture through theatre, and I really believe that theatre is a way that you can preserve people’s culture, and it unites people in appreciating different cultures.”
And to me, it truly was a celebration of culture; it proffered itself not just as a play, but as a means of cultural exchange, of understanding ideas of history and identity through the eyes of others.