On Sunday, August 6th, a predominantly young audience sat ready to be taken in by Abdul Karim Hakib’s stage adaptation of Bob Cole’s classic film, I Told You So. Those familiar with his work know that Abdul Karim usually uses artistic experimentation to re-familiarize his audience with the ordinariness of humanness that we seem to run from, especially the not-so-beautiful parts. I witnessed this when he staged Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, (twice in two years) at University of Ghana’s Efua Sutherland Drama Studio – he held the emotions of the audience at ransom, conducting it however he pleased.
Clad in their Kente the Hi-Life/Afrocentric band, Palm Wine, regaled the audience before the play began. Their melodies, like a good shepherd, guided the audience throughout the play. In this way a sort of unconscious tribute was paid to the chorus of Ancient Greek Tragedies. Yet, the play is not necessarily a Tragedy. It is probably closer to a Tragi-comedy than anything else.
Palm Wine’s contribution to the actual play as far as addressing events in it, was limited to musical fables. Songs that hang on folk music traditions; songs like “Ɛdwen Dɛ Ɛreyɛ Me” and those of Akan Nwomkrɔ traditions such as “Takoradi Police”. The few oldies among the audience could do nothing to wipe the nostalgic grins from off their faces.
Artistic experimentation, especially of the kind that Abdul Karim is known for, always wraps itself in a cloth of uncertainty. Many plays have been adapted for stage long before Abdul Karim, and some like August Wilson’s play, Fences, have been successfully made into stunning films. The challenges of adapting a film, especially a classic like I Told You So, are many. During one of the embryonic scenes, a relatively substantial number of characters flood the stage. They collectively play the role of customers at a restaurant. While it would have been easier for a smaller number to play this role, more numbers provided cover for those among them who stylistically doubled as stage hands.
In the same scene, these characters become involved in very articulate and deliberate dancing. The dramatic experience was here enhanced by the very fact that the dancers were many as opposed to few. By the simple tactic of inflating cast size, Abdul Karim conveniently tackled what would otherwise have been a loophole of stage adaptation – transition of scenes. So instead of the audience being bothered about characters they were expecting to act setting up a scene, their attention was fully arrested by this time-saving strategy. And once their attention had been surrendered, they were thoroughly amazed by the theatrical display that occurred.
In keeping with bringing to the fore the ordinariness of the human condition, the set of the play was bereft of any flamboyance. The use of the simple and plain reflected the penury of the majority of the characters, both in economic and psychological terms (Mr. Jones is a wealthy man and yet no time is wasted in redecorating the set to convey his wealth during those scenes that are clearly in his house). It also emphasized the pervasiveness of human ordinariness when all else is stripped away.
The play, in a subtle way, presents a reimagining of Henrik Ibsen’s modern realism ideas in a retro-Ghanaian setting. Like Ibsen, the characters in Abdul Karim’s adapted play are influenced by their environment and what society expects of them. Rosina considers herself worthy of a rich man, marriage with whom would up her social status and reputation in the eyes of her peers and the community at large. It is for this reason she aligns herself with her uncle, Esuoabroboɔ and her mother, Araba Stamp, to prepare for her marriage to Mr. Jones.
Again, in typical Ibsen realist fashion, the characters are psychologically motivated and their actions expose their socio-economic standing. Esuoabroboɔ and Araba Stamp see Rosina’s marriage to Mr. Jones as a way out of their poverty. They stop at nothing to ensure that the marriage goes through. In several instances the patriarchal set up of the times is alluded to. In a scene where Araba Stamp expresses her contradiction of Esuoabroboɔ’s opinion, the latter tells her, as more of a reminder, that women have brains but are not known for their thinking. This psychological disposition dictates how the women in the play are expected to behave. The cultural trait of matrilineal inheritance among the Akans, provides a kind of psychological boldness to Esuoabroboɔ. He is thus motivated to supersede his brother-in-law’s decision to not give his daughter Rosina’s hand in marriage to a rich man.
Regarding plot, there were causally related scenes, just like in Henrik Ibsen’s plays of Modern Realism. When the play began, those present seemed to be the typical non-responsive Ghanaian audience. In their defence, everything seemed rather hazy in the beginning as the audience was unsure whether this was a Ghanaian musical or something else entirely. As the play progressed however, everything made sense (Is that not how stories usually go?).
The songs the characters sang at the beginning were the same musical fables that guided the audience throughout the play. Scene after scene, the play kept getting better. The humor grew and the auditorium’s ricocheting laughter with it. Much like Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, the play floated on a steady crescendo until at the end there was an undeniable wave of immense satisfaction at what had transpired.
Perhaps the most ingenious element of Abdul Karim’s experimentation with Bob Cole’s I Told You So, was the way he employed anachronism. Throughout the play, Mr. Jones magnanimously doled out cash to anyone who would take it. While this may have served to provide a hint at the ill-gotten source of his wealth, it appeared to hold a more profound role. Mr. Jones was giving out modern Ghana Cedi. It could be that attempts at finding money from that era proved futile. But the brilliance of going ahead to use current Cedi notes is this: by so-doing Abdul Karim conveyed the idea that just like in those days, the psychological structure of our humanness has not changed. We are still motivated by money and many, especially the poor, are still too afraid to speak up for the things they believe in and would rather leave it to fate. These flaws define the ordinariness of our humanness. They are pervasive in our lives today as they were in the days of Esuoabroboɔ and Araba Stamp.
The play adaptation of I Told You So, was a well-executed endeavour. The themes and lessons portrayed are relevant for our time and will likely remain so for posterity. The boldness of the entire enterprise cannot be overstated and neither can the praiseworthiness of the performance.
Akyempo is a poet and writer whose poems and essays have been published by Brittle Paper, African Writer, Kpodola, Three Sixty Ghana and Circumspecte. His poems have also been anthologized by Afridiaspora. He is the 2016 winner of the Three Sixty Writers’ Challenge. His latest works are available on his personal literary website – greymural.com. He can be found on both Twitter & Instagram via the handle: @Akyempo