What do you think of when you think of Nigeria? If you’re like most Americans, odds are you think of the never ending flood of email scams or countless tales of kidnappings or the ever-present state department advisories. It certainly sounds like a dangerous place. Dangerous and so distant it disappears into faceless headlines.
That’s where Dan Hoyle’s virtuosic one man play Tings Dey Happen steps in. What his play does so expertly is show us the complexities of Africa’s most populous country through its people: “Media-savvy warlords, pacifist militants, Africanized Texas oilmen, and prostitutes turned anti-Chevron activists.” Having spent a year in Nigeria working to understand oil politics (10% of our oil comes from the country), he’s in a position to know a few characters, and he inhabits them with such passion that he damn near becomes them. The transformation is riveting.
Thankfully, the play balances tough issues with a sense of humor that’s just right — a sense of humor that, in many ways, seems to be the humor of the people portrayed rather than something bolted on to soften matters artificially. A central character, for example, explains Nigeria this way: “You know, in East Africa, South Africa the white people so much love to go there, there are so many animals there, there are so many whites… no, in Nigeria, we kill all the animals and the white people, they just die themselves.” Laughter, but biting at the same time.
Dan never plays himself, though nearly all the characters are talking to him. You’re left with the feeling that you’ve met so many of the people he has. And, ultimately, that’s what makes Tings Dey Happen special: it’s an act of journalism — profoundly humanizing journalism. Hoyle makes Nigeria’s people matter, their circumstances matter; he makes their dreams matter. And, in doing so, he makes Nigeria something you can’t just turn off like so many headlines. That’s what makes the play difficult and, at the same time, not to be missed.