At the Lagos Fringe 2019, the prison warder (Segun Adefila) sat patiently until the strictly numbered audience gathered. Only 12 persons were needed for the drama to start. Based on the real-life story of Ada Esther Johnson, Esther’s Revenge is an experimental one-act play which tells a true life story of a crime of passion.
The 22-year old Esther is a Nigerian who killed her white lover, Mark Hall, a British railway worker, after finding out that Mark had married a British wife. Not only that, Mark had borrowed £400 from Esther to procure a taxi for his new wife. Esther became enraged at the news that she grabbed a pair of scissors and stabbed Mark. But that’s only a part of the oral history told about this 1953 event that is considered as one of the most sensational news of the period.
History was relived as the play was staged at its actual locale, the Freedom Park, Lagos where Esther was imprisoned and placed on death row. Freedom Park was formerly built as Her Majesty Prison also known as Old Broad Street Prison.
The performance started with the warder’s aggressive warning that no one should give Esther anything. He led the audience upstairs to the museum which served as the performance space. He opened the door to the solitary confinement that Esther (Bolanle Stephen Atitebi) was kept.
Traumatised with teary eyes, Esther spoke with flies, the only company she had got since she was behind the bars. Quickly, she adjusted to seeing the different people around her. Esther led the audience to a bigger space to recount the events that led to the ugly outcome of a mixed-race romance in a colonial period.
According to her, Mark was a charming middle-aged man who became an abusive lover. Apparently, it was in self-defence that she killed Mark. What is particularly interesting about this performance is how the actress made the role believable as well as her clever and careful use of space. She buried herself in grief to interprete the role which is one of the most emblematic in colonial history in Nigeria.
There was no room for the audience to be mere passive observers. The actress’ creative energy was fuelled by the reaction of the audience. Occasionally, she stared into faces, paced around the space and wailed in horror of the judgment that awaited her.
The 12-man juror decided her lot at the end of the play through a heated debate. Finally, she got a state pardon and her death sentence was changed to life imprisonment as it was in the real life story.
Watching the show takes the effort of a lady in heels during a prolonged cocktail. There was no room for sitting; all were required to be consumed in the heat of the narration but still be able to rationalise the crime of the embittered lover to give sound judgment. Asides the torn-prison wear and unkempt hair, the play didn’t require much technical details for its execution.
Esther’s Revenge is short and emotionally eclipsing with Bolanle Stephen giving a good account of her Stanislavski techniques. She later displayed a newsprint with a cover story on the trial of Esther and the news of the state pardon granted by the Head of State, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwewhich was widely celebrated in the papers to her applauding audience. Esther’s Revenge was directed by Kenneth Uphopho and was performed at the Brystaat Arts Festival held at the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein Campus earlier this year.