Tings Dey Happen
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 3, 2007
Tings Dey Happen is about Dan Hoyle's experiences in Nigeria. It's extraordinary and uncompromising. Hoyle plunges his audience into the world of his show and the very important themes he will explore almost as soon as the house lights go down, in the guise of a "stage manager" named Sylvanus:
You know, 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 5th grade. It is still there, eh? So Dan goes to West Africa, di part white people don't go. White people so much love East Africa, South Africa, dere are so many animals dere, plenty of whites. No, in Nigeria, we killed off all di animals, and di white people just died themselves. Malaria is a wonderful ting sometimes.
And almost before we can catch our breath following that slyly humorous introduction, so full of anger and bitterness, we find ourselves in Nigeria with Dan, trying to cope with its foreignness and its tragic dysfunction, much as he must have tried to do when he took this trip that he's chronicling here. Hoyle was on a Ulrich scholarship, examining oil and politics in the context of this, the most populous country in Africa; the show he created from his experience is a stark and startling distillation of it, told entirely in the words and voices of the people he met, with us in the audience playing the role of "Dan" ourselves. Talk about impressive theatre.
The people he shares with us are wondrously individual as realized by Hoyle; he's a likable, energetic, astonishingly elastic performer who can conjure characters miraculously. The range of voices, accents, and dialogues that he produces is outclassed only by the remarkable way his posture and movements transform his lean physique into other body types and styles—there is, for example, a scene involving a Nigerian tribal chief who is obviously immensely fat, and somehow Hoyle shows this to us vividly, puffing under the strain of this character's poundage, with his hands folded half a foot away from his middle to leave room for the oversized tummy. Tings Dey Happen is a tour de force for this young actor/performer, who is versatile, graceful, and innovative, bringing us into the hearts and minds of so many people with such deftness and economy.
But the real triumph of this play is how completely Hoyle lets his audience experience the deep trouble that Nigeria is in. In a nutshell: Nigeria sits on the Niger River delta, which is one of the most oil-rich areas of the world. In the '80s, an initial oil boom made the country prosperous, but subsequent deflation reversed that and now only a few Nigerians benefit from the investments of the foreign oil companies (Exxon, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell) who essentially control the government and the economy. (This is a very simplified version; Hoyle explicates with great clarity and sharpness exactly how the West managed to ruin this country, in stages, through systematized exploitation of its people and resources.)
Hoyle must be outraged by this; he wouldn't have written this show otherwise. But his characters are alternately rebellious, bitter, ironic, hopeful: some doing whatever makes sense to them to try to effect reform; some seeking only peace and respect. All—alas, Hoyle included, I fear—feel dwarfed and overwhelmed by the immensity of the problem. (So did I, after seeing Tings Dey Happen. How, ultimately, can individuals bring about the mammoth changes, attitudinal and otherwise, that are required to begin to rectify this situation?) "Tings Dey Happen" is the rallying cry of the powerless, after all; control over "tings" is what's called for, on all sides of this complex equation.
So, wow, what an impressive work of theatre this is, not least for its ability to teach and inspire, this audience member at least, about a crisis that, as Hoyle's alter ego Sylvanus knowingly chides us at the outset, we've been far too willing to ignore for far too long.