By the end of the over an hour musical performance of ‘Boney Manilli’ by visiting artists from Edgar Arceneaux Studios, most members of the audience gathered at the theatre hall of Terra Kulture in Victoria Island, Lagos, grappled with the direction of the show. But they were too shy to voice their curiosity. The daring ones however queried the intent of the playwright and filmmaker Edgar Arceneaux.
On the surface, ‘Boney Manilli’ chronicles the downfall of the popular German disco group ‘Milli Vanilli’ of the 90s, with more attention on Rob Pilatus, one half of the duo who died in 1998 from a drug overdose. While the musical attempts to mirror Pilatus’ fight for redemption after the hiccup at an MTV event in 1989 exposed the group’s lip-syncing act, it also cast the spotlight on the German record producer and songwriter who founded the group Frank Farian. Farian’s first experiment, Boney M, the 70s pop group known for hits like ‘Daddy Cool’ were also featured.
A performance, exhibition and film rolled into one, the theatre hall was delicately deployed to accommodate an elevated screen on stage and a swinging light strobe which in different scenes took the shape of a church, a burial ceremony and a discotheque. For most part of the performance, the audience interacted with the seven-man cast who pleaded their indulgence in some scenes.
The performance opened with a broken Pilatus, wondering how to right his wrongs while seeking the embrace of the world. Arceneaux depiction of the world is that of a mother. He painted Pilatus as a prodigal son seeking the warmth of a mother. The following scene shows the effervescent Farian, interacting with the audience as he prepared to showcase his golden talents to them.
Frank Lawson, a black American stage actor was peerless in his interpretation of Farian. He sang, mocked and showed his deceitful nature with every move he made on stage. Be it when he is pushing the Milli Vanilli boys to go beyond their strength, bask in the momentous fame, or when in his moment of weakness, he realised that he was born in the wrong body, as he prepared to make a name for himself with Boney M, he was entertaining to watch.
‘Boney Manilli’ is mostly satirical. It mocks Pilatus’ pain through its dialogues. When Pilatus overwhelmed by guilt sought for a way out, his friend and other half of the group Fab Morvan reminded him of his heritage.
“You are a descendant of Pontius Pilate”, he told a weak Pilatus, emphasising that he can be as defiant as the Roman prefect who is known for adjudicating on the trial and crucifixion of the Son of the Supreme God, Jesus Christ.
Most of the dialogues mocks the church as characterised by the Russian monk Rasputin, ( a song by Boney M bears similar name). His jest of the religious way the church handles issues was depicted in a scene where Rasputin told Pilatus that his redemption will not come from resurrection but from revolution.
It was important for Arceneaux to paint that imagery there, going by the recent sexual allegations against Catholic priests.
“I wanted people to see that duality of religion, that it can be a powerful tool to unite as well as a strong weapon to destroy,” he explained to his rapt audience at the end of the show.
But the audience was more concerned about the end of the play. Who was the villain? Who was the hero? They weren’t going to get a direct answer from Arceneaux.
Known for his love for history, Arceneaux said that his play was structured in such a way that both Milli Vanilli and Farian were responsible for their choices. In real life, the Milli Vanilli boys claimed they were deceived by Farian who encouraged them to lip-sync.
The duo was so popular for the song ‘Girl, You Know It’s True’ which fetched them several awards including a Grammy. But on discovering that they were not the original singers, they were stripped of their awards and fame.
While the show which screening in Lagos was made possible by the U.S Consulate in Lagos, was challenging for the audience, they however were entertained by the score of songs performed by the female singers of the fictional Boney M. At least, they memorised the catchy song ‘Mama, you gotta go’.