Lope de Vegas’s 14th century Spanish play, Fuenteojevuna, directed by Seyi Babalola, has resonance with the experiences of many African countries. It tells a counter-narrative and indicts African citizens on how they foolishly idolise clueless rulers, who have no sense of justice and ability to lead their people to prosperity in the midst of plenty.
The play was performed recently at Jos Festival of Theatre (JFT) 2018, organised by the Dr. Patrick Jude-Oteh-led Jos Repertoire Theatre (JRT).
Africa’s tag as a rich continent with the poorest number of people continues to haunt the people. But while the inhabitants of Fuenteojevuna rose up in arms to the leadership challenge of the day and categorically took action to free themselves, African people daily acquiesce to the humiliations that confront them.
Lack of protest as a legitimate weapon the people should deploy to hold their leaders accountable and demand good governance continues to undermine Africa’s quest for development. Even with the results such protests yielded in places like Tunisia and Egypt, with the Spring Uprising, and recently in Burkina Faso, the rest of the continent still sleeps on and dumbly allows a privileged few to continue to undermine their right to the good life.
The inhabitants of Fuenteojevuna, however, provide insight into the limits of tolerance leaders should be allowed before they are served notice of their misdeeds and from where people-power takes charge and turns the table for the good of the majority. It is what Africa largely lacks and why its leaders, tyrants and all, take the people for playthings.
Commander Fernan Gomez (Emmanuel Inyang Ekpe) has just returned from war with all the braggadocio of a conqueror. But he is a reprobate individual, without honour or shame. His appetite for women is scandalous; he indulges in sexual escapades with unmarried and married women alike and this becomes a scandal in Fuenteojevuna, as no woman is free from his inordinate desires. Although the townspeople appeal to the king to mediate, it doesn’t appear as if much would be donene.
The townspeople’s anger reaches a crescendo when Commander Gomez interrupts the wedding of Frondoso (Matthew Okechukwu Daniels) to Laurentia (Emily Joke Bello) and takes the groom captive, with the intention of hanging him so he can take his bride to his castle as his sex slave. The furious townspeople rise as one man and revolt against the excesses of Commander Gomez and kill him.
The king orders a trial, but the townspeople are not ready to come forward to testify. Eventually, the king finds Commander Gomez guilty of sundry crimes and grants Fuenteojevuna’s townspeople amnesty. This brings the era of tyranny to an end and the people begin to experience peace again after a harrowing time in the hands of their tormentor-in-chief!
Indeed, Fuenteojevuna is a dramatic study of power and position and what it could be put to, especially in the hands of capricious people with little moral standing. Commander Gomez certainly has the good wishes of the townspeople, who hold him in high esteem when he arrives from his military campaigns. But it soon dawns on them that Commander Gomez is a reprobate man, who lacks moral scruples when it comes to women. He takes them at will and brooks no resistance either from the women or from the people. He glowingly speaks of his sexual exploits with other people’s wives.
The ‘Director’s Note’ succinctly captures the abuse to which power can be put thus: “Power and position, when unchecked and mis-directed, often produce toxic elements in good men and women and they soon become tyrants. Our community is therefore in dire need of ‘surgery.’ The poor, downtrodden and disenfranchised masses must now form the ‘surgical team of Fuenteojevuna,’ who must perform the operation that will rid our common lives of the scourges of tyranny!”
It is the towns’ women, especially Laurentia, whose beloved’s life is hanging in the balance, who challenges the men in the town to rid themselves of the ‘women’ in their hearts when they quake before Commander Gomez and fight to recover their manhood. With household appliances – pans, pots, spoons, mops, and other domestic stuffs converted to weapons – they confront Gomez and his sword and have him defeated.
Fuenteojevuna provides a keen study in protests against mis-rule by ordinary townspeople, who would have had enough of tyranny and are ready to recover their stolen humanity, either under jackboots or political and democratic guises and subterfuge. It evokes the will of ordinary people when they bunch together and how much they can accomplish in overthrowing the yoke of servitude in whatever guise it may come.
The director and his cast performed well in bringing to Jos’ audience a 14th century play that mirrors power wrongly applied and how it continues to play out centuries later, with its equivalent in many parts of modern-day Africa. Nigeria’s 19 years of democratic rule and its lack of direction are classic examples and a direct challenge to citizens’ docility. It shows they have abdicated their position as vanguards of their own destiny. The result is that they will continue to endure harsher times if they fail to rise up like the ancient town’s folks of Fuenteojevuna!