Nollywood comes to the stage in Rotimi Babatunde’s adaptation of Lola Shoneyin’s bestselling novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. Set mainly in the city of Ibadan, Nigeria, the play tells the story of the arrival of rich patriarch Baba Segi’s fourth wife, a university graduate seeking to escape the hardships of life. As she navigates the difficulties of married life and the burden that comes with being the new wife on the block, she helps uncover a family secret that threatens to destroy Baba Segi’s life.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is authentically Nigerian in its humour, use of food related adages (“men are like yams” is a stand out) and frankness of language.  It does not shy away from difficult discussions such as rape or the external pressure on women to marry and have children by linking motherhood and marriage to one’s worth as a woman. Importantly, it does not shy away from using words such as “barren” or “spoilt” to describe women, which sent a non-PC shudder through the spines of some members of the audience but is a true representation of women’s experience of gender and sexual politics in Nigeria.

Whilst the plot may have seemed novel to some, the general gist of it was very familiar to those of us who spent our childhoods watching village dramas on VHS in our auntie’s living room. Familiar tropes such as: the lives of rich people, juju gone wrong, wives plotting, and the humiliation of an arrogant patriarch are littered throughout the piece, all that’s missing is end credits that say, “to God be the glory”. This, however, does not take away from the story.

There is some subversion of these tropes for example: the character Bolanle (Marcy Dolapo Oni) the wise and respectable university graduate who in years gone by would have been an arrogant upstart cautionary tale but is this story’s hero. Assertive and self-determining, her behaviour is respected and copied by the children of the house. There’s a whiff of an LGBTQ+ storyline that goes away almost as quickly as it comes. But most importantly Lola Shoneyin’s wives are meticulously and purposefully given time to introduce themselves and how they came to be married to Baba Segi. Each entered into the marriage for a different reason, each had a different motivation for remaining in the marriage and each coped with the stresses of being Baba Segi’s wife in a different way.

The ensemble cast is stellar and versatile, employing dance and the performance of traditional Nigerian songs to simulate scenes as diverse as the joy or joylessness of a traditional Nigerian marriage and the seediness of a strip club. Patrice Naiambana gives a winning performance as the larger than life Baba Segi who first enters the stage surrounded by his smiling dancing wives, only later to curse them. A sceptic of modern medicine, his scenes with the doctor and nurse are of particular hilarity. All the wives are phenomenal but Iya Femi the first wife (Layo-Christina Akinlunde) gives some of the best lines. The straw flooring is also a nice touch, evoking Nigerian sand.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives grants us a new window into feminism, the modern day female experience and gives us a number of new adages to try out on our friends.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives  is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 21 July

Photo: Idil Sukan