Photo: Esther (Bola Haastrup)
By Anote Ajeluorou
DECEPTION. Betrayal. Violence. Extreme Cruelty. These are some unflattering hallmarks of romantic relationships heading for the rocks, no matter the culture of those romantically linked. But when a black woman and a white man are involved, with the woman believing she has landed mother luck, and the man carries about him a sense of entitlement to black feminine flesh he can treat as he likes, because he believes in the superiority of his ‘white’ skin, what he gets is revenge that bothers on insanity. Thirty-seven knife stabs settle the matter, one way or the other. And of course, the colonial law would always be skewed against the living and ensure she dies for daring to lift a hand against the son of an empire soon to crumble.
The concept of ‘419’, as a form of crime, would almost be years away from the colonial period and experience, but the Mark-Esther story bears out those who argue that 419 scam, a Nigerian legal code for obtaining money from someone by false pretence, is a disgraceful colonial heritage which is now flipped against the white men that originated it. And they are right. Otherwise, how does a white man obtain money from his black lover, disappears and not only sets up business offshore but marries a white wife with the money, and then returns to tell his lover that her black skin is an obvious barrier to their love, and what gave her the idea that they were ever going to marry anyway? It’s exactly the reverse playbook of young African males who promise white women marriage, and then she begins to invest in them in the hope of marriage, but things soon go south, just as her money!
Esther’s Revenge, a love story gone sour, describes the classic relationship between the colonialists and the colonial subjects, with its starting point in Africa’s tragic encounter with Europe that culminated in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade that morphed into colonialism upon which all manners of injustices were built. A bar fracas throws a thriving young businesswoman, Esther (Bola Haastrop), and a white blackguard, Mark, together on a steamy night. Mark acts the gentleman and rescues the hapless woman who is set upon by the barman. Mark takes her and her friend home, but she’s smitten, believing she has found a man she could spend her life with. As she yields her body to him, Mark has other sinister ideas. For him, Esther will serve as his sex slave. In any case, Mark is a serial womaniser of black women in Lagos. Esther is just one among them.
Mark is a truck driver, but he sells the lie to Esther that they should both set up transport business as part of their future plans. They need £1,000 but both had only saved £600. Mark wants Esther to come up with the rest; she does so by demeaning herself to be a hooker. Mark does not mind; he even passes her over to his friends. Her belief in Mark is totally irrational, the sort of love where the lover does no wrong. But the tide begins to turn. Mark introduces violence as part of their love life; he would tie her up and perform all manners of unthinkable things to her. She doesn’t exactly like this phase of their life together, but she is powerless against Mark, and blinded by love. And she refuses to listen to her friend who begs her to leave Mark.
After Esther has come up with the £400 to complete the £1,000 for their transport business, Mark travels to Britain but marries himself his English rose and remains behind to bask in their honeymoon for almost a year, invests the money in business, but without Esther in the picture. Rumours, however, reach Esther about Mark’s escapade in Britain. When he manages to return, he is not remorseful, doesn’t even mention it or lie about it. Esther is stoical in the face of his betrayal but remains mum. Then one day he owns up but tells her in the lost brutal manner why she ever thought they could be husband and wife, if she’d forgotten their skin colour difference! As though that wasn’t enough, Mark pounces on Esther and begins a systematic violation of her person with the sort of violence only a demented man can conjure. Esther then passes out in the sheer force of Mark’s violence, but when she comes to, she discovers that Mark has branded her with a searing hot metal reminiscent of slave owners during the infamous Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to mark their ownership of slaves. What is worse, she sees a satisfactory grin on Mark’s smug face as ultimate triumph of his devilry. When he comes at her again, in self-defence and insane rage, she begins her epic butchery of the man in equal measure of insanity that prompted the colonial beast in Mark. By the time Esther is through with Mark, he is long gone.
Of course, Esther is charged for murder and sentenced to die and kept in solitary confinement at the Lagos Colonial Prison. But Esther has a slight chance of having her life back. A delegation is visiting the prison; their aim is to see Esther. The warder is livid. Why can’t the meddlesome visitors visit orphanage homes or hospitals instead? Why come to prison to see a murder, a criminal? This visit gives Esther a fighting chance, as she reenacts her life’s story before her visitors who have been warned by the warder not to offer or take anything from Esther. After their encounter with Esther, the warder asks the visitors to form a jury to retry Esther. One of her cries is that the colonial judicial system did not take the particulars of her own side of the case into consideration before giving a damning verdict. The unexpected turn of events therefore offers her a chance; the visitors have not only listened to her, she takes her time to reenact every raw, bestial and intimate details of her epic romantic relationship with Mark and its devious, convoluting paths it took that landed her on the death row. What will the jury decide? Life or affirmation of death for Esther?
Esther’s Revenge brings into sharp focus what constitutes the justice system, whether colonial or current, and in all climes where miscarriage has almost become a norm, where hard evidence sometimes is not enough to set a ‘criminal’ free, where the race to assuaging the seeming outrage of a case trumps the merit of the accused person’s case. Why the justice system failed to see the killing of Mark as self-defence if only with the evidence of the branding on her back was logic stood on its head. And for that Esther spent 10 long years in jail.
Esther’s Revenge is a great performance act that makes monolgue seem like dialogue, the unseen character seeming to come alive in the performers dexterous conjuration of the past the audience also lives through it. In it, Haastrop shows great performance skills, as her one-woman performance act turns out a searing, gut-wrenching narrative that brings absentee Mark into the centre of the performance as though he was there in person, his brutish actions all too clear, his absentee-silence condemning him over and over. Haastrop’s superb performance vividly brings to life the protagonist’s 10 years of awaiting death over a crime of passion and her struggle in prison. It’s her efforts to assert her humanity and innocence against the brutish Mark who deserves nowhere else but the grave she was constrained to send him, since he abjured the humanity in him and succumbed to his base, sadistic instinct of a failed white slave owner. What makes Esther’s Revenge a highly passionate and successful performance is its co-option of the audience into the performance fabric. An innocent group’s trip to see a famous prisoner on death row for the crime of passion turns them into making perhaps one of the most important legal decision of their lives, in just a few hours before she is hanged.
The Warder Pelumi Lawal also performs true to type as prison warders are wont to behave, employing all the known intimidation tactics in the book. The visitors are not spared his brand of braggadocio: ‘if you do any how, you go see any how!’ With his life and death power over prisoners, it is he who also sets the train in motion for the remote possibility of redemption for Esther, a possibility a judge had denied Esther.
Esther’s Revenge has become a constant feature of the Kenneth Uphopho-led PAWStudios’ Lagos and Abuja Fringe Festivals where delighted audiences regularly see the performance and ponder the nature of justice, then and now. It’s written and directed also by Uphopho.
Of course, Esther was imprisoned at the old Colonial Prison on Broad Street, Lagos now turned into a major cultural hub in the Lagos Island landscape called Freedom Park, where a block Esther’s Lounge, is dedicated to her memory in the recreation of the old prison into a culture theme park. Freedom Park is easily a lovers’ nest too with its enticing cultural and culinary offerings also in memory of Esther’s love and the freedom it now offers its many patrons from around the world as against its colonial past of shackling freedom.
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