Feminism, Sexuality and Power-play in ‘The Cleansing’


Yinka Olatunbosun

A debut play by a young stage director, Adetokunbo Shittu titled, ‘The Cleansing’ is a true Nigerian story told through fictitious characters. Its central theme of corruption makes it qualify as a satire hewed out the socio-political realities in Nigeria using the tool of comedy. Shittu, a graduate of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife taps his creative energy for this play from the ancient Greek comedy, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. In the classical comedy, the women withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers as a way of negotiating peace to end the Peloponnesian War between the Greek city states.

In ‘The Cleansing’, set in a fictitious Yoruba Kingdom of Iregbe, the women unite against the patriarchal and corrupt political system to assert their right to humanity, equity and justice. Rooted in code-switching, the play is rich in the use of oral tradition which speaks volumes about the depth of researchand painstaking effort that the playwright had undertaken to complete the work.

Shittu drew upon the Ifa chants he recorded during an Ifa ceremony in Osogbo with the permission of the IfaPriest, Babalawo Oosaniyi Adeniyi and still made this body of work accessible to non-Yoruba readers by providing English interpretations as well as glossary for the benefit of the producer and director to ease their understanding.

This African adaptation of ‘Lysistrata’ is reminiscent of what Prof. Ola Rotimi did with the Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus Rex’ when he wrote his most popular play, ‘The Gods are Not to Blame’but more importantly, the feminist thrust in Sophocles’ Antigone which Prof. Femi Osofisan adapted into his play, ‘Tegonni: An African Antigone.’

The story in ‘The Cleansing’ shows a community that is divided along gender lines by virtue of the greed of the ruling class. Shittu asserts his feministic slant in the play by the quick introduction of a female Ifa priest, Iyanifa whose warnings against the impending danger for corrupt men and women of Iregbe are ignored by the arrogant king, Oba Adejekun Adejebutu Akanbi and his sycophantic chiefs. Iyalode, the representative of women in the ruling council loses her sanity as her gambling husband Akanbi rips her off her money and takes off with the children. This marks the starting point of the revolution by the women using the power of their sexuality.

Making an adaptation of a previous play is not exactly a walk in the park as the playwright has to reconstruct some elements of the original to highlight its universal relevance. For instance, Shittu sees the parallel in the male-dominated society in 411 B.C. Greece and present-day Nigeria; the sexual nature of human irrespective of the age, race and gender and the universal truth about the gross abuse of power. Shittu’s use of strong language and graphic phallic references situates the play in the adult category.

Also, the oath taken by the women in Lysistrata and ‘The Cleansing’ signifies the shared belief in the supernatural. However, towards the play’s end, Shittu shifted the attention of the conflict resolution from the women to the youths which raises questions about his own shade of feminism. In his attempt to tell that Nigerian story using the Greek rearview mirror, he has shared the steering power between the women and the Youth leader, a man in his 30s, bringing the reader back to the realisation that for there to be a just human society, power must be evenly shared. ‘The Cleansing’ is not just an easy-read; it creates a whole spectacle with its tickling characters, contextual cross-pollination and humorous punchlines.