Russian play gets a Nigerian makeover for the Toronto stage

By Stephen Weir

In a ground-breaking fusion of classic Russian drama and Nigerian history, Toronto’s vibrant theatre scene is set to welcome a bold and innovative production presented by Soul Pepper and Obsidian Theatres on the last evening of Black History Month. A quirky adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s timeless classic, “Three Sisters,” will take centre-stage at the downtown Soul Pepper Theatre, reimagined as a Black version set against the backdrop of Nigeria during the Biafran War.

The cast

This avant-garde production first performed in the UK four years ago, makes its Canadian debut tonight with the first of five previews this evening. The 4-act play has its official opening on March 7th and closes March 24.

Written by London-based Nigerian poet and playwright Inua Ellams, his play promises to provide a fresh perspective on Chekhov’s exploration of spiritual emptiness and societal upheaval by transporting the narrative to a pivotal moment in African history.

“We have an incredible cast of 12 African characters, (performed by many well-known Obsidian and Soul Peppers stars).  Although the story is now set in Africa, we do stay true to the flow of the Chekhov story, Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, Director and Obsidian Theatre Artistic Director told the Caribbean Camera.

Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu

Some background on the play and what was happening in Nigeria in the 1960s may be needed to enjoy and understand the Obsidian production.

“Three Sisters” is a play by Anton Chekhov, a prominent. Russian playwright of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. His much-loved plays continue to captivate audiences worldwide, even 120 years after their initial performances. Chekhov’s enduring influence is evident in the enduring popularity of his works. “Three Sisters,” which first premiered in 1901, stands as a testament to his creative genius.

“Three Sisters” revolves around the lives of the Prozorov family, specifically the sisters Olga, Masha, and Irina. Set in rural Russia during the early 20th century, their tale unfolds over several years. The women, remnants of the privileged class in Russia, yearn to return to Moscow for a more fulfilling life and grapple with the passage of time, unfulfilled aspirations, and the complexities of human relationships, including duels, love, betrayals, and class distinctions. The play explores themes of nostalgia, loss, and the elusive pursuit of happiness.

Three Sisters

In Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu’s production, the story begins a year after the death of the patriarch of the family. The sisters – Lolo, Nne Chukwu, and Udo – still grapple with his loss. What’s more, they’re stuck in a small village in Owerri, Nigeria, and pine for the cosmopolitan city of their birth, Lagos. What they don’t know is that the Biafran Civil War is about to erupt and change their lives and their country.

The Nigerian Civil War, (the Biafran War), occurred from 1967 to 1970 and was a conflict rooted in ethnic, political, and economic tensions in post colonial Nigeria. The struggle arose primarily between the Yoruba, (government supporters), and break-away Biafra, led by Ebo (Igbo) leaders in the south. The war was marked by widespread atrocities and millions facing starvation. After three years of fighting and international pressure, Biafra surrendered leaving a lasting impact on Nigeria’s socio-political post colonial landscape.

The play features a highly decorated cast that includes Akosua Amo-Adem, Virgilia Griffith, Daren A. Herbert, Sterling Jarvis, JD Leslie, Tawiah M’Carthy, Ngabo Nabea, Makambe K. Simamba, Tony Ofori, Oyin Oladejo, Ordena Stephens-Thompson, and Amaka Umeh.

“We have kept Chekhov’s humour in the script,” continued the director. “We hit all the waves of big emotion.”

In the lead-up to tonight’s performance, the cast, many of whom have African roots, have been getting a crash course in Nigerian vernacular and mannerisms; so can all Saturday night ticket holders, who can get in the mood at an African market set up in the Soul Pepper lobby.