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One Actor in Many Roles Examines Nigerian Oil Politics


In the last 15 years, a new kind of journalistic theater has emerged: plays based on interviews, with multiple characters, all performed by the playwright. At 27, Dan Hoyle is one of the youngest and, critics say, most promising of these journalist-playwright-actors. His latest play,“Tings Dey Happen," Nigerian pidgin for “Things are Happening,” has won rave reviews during runs in New York and San Francisco.

Dan Hoyle's third solo play, "Tings Dey Happen," is based on his year in Nigeria studying oil politics. It is on stage at New York’s Culture Project, with Hoyle playing each of the more than 15 characters.

"We have everyone from the boys in Escravos,” he said, referring to an area in the Niger Delta, “the guys that really speak the pidgin English. And then you have the diplomats: 'Hi, Dan, yes, uh-uh…' You have the oil workers in the bars: 'Hey, Dan, oh yeah, I've been kidnapped plenty of times.' And we bring all these people to life in front of audiences, and let them decide what is really happening."

One of the lead characters is a community relation’s officer in a village in the Delta: "You know, when I was a young man like you, Nigeria was a big place,” the character says. “We were oil-rich Nigeria, everybody was drinking champagne and eating rice, and I'm thinking, at last the black man will be rich. But then oil price falls, and we clear away the bottles and have to drink dirty water again."

"These are characters that aren't easy to classify as good or bad. They're very conflicted,” Hoyle says. “I think that's the reality in most of the world. I think in the U.S. we kind of have the privilege to have absolutes, but I think in a lot of the world, your cousin is a militant, and your uncle is in the government and so you're kind of a mix of these things. And everyday there's a negotiation that happens, what choices you make."

A young mercenary sniper in the play throws away his guns, but later takes up arms again. "See, my dream is to go to university, so I need the money,” he says. “This is the Niger Delta, okay? Sometimes you have to kill some people to have your own dreams."

Hoyle's other characters include a prominent warlord, an American ambassador, and an adviser to an oil company.

"Look, Dan, I'm former military,” the latter man introduces himself. “Now I'm working for Exxon, security adviser. I got ex-military buddies getting hired for oil companies all over. You know why? We're not just pumping oil, Dan. We're managing war. Because nobody wants to piss off the Nigerian government, [expletive], we need their oil too bad. Oil companies making too much money. You wouldn't know it from Bob's suit here. Buy a suit, Bob."

The warlord also comes across as human, and even humorous. “Warlord is very busy job, I don't recommend it,” he says in a mimed phone conversation. “No, he doesn't know Arnold Schwarzenegger, he's not a big actor,’” he says, referring to Hoyle. “‘His face? Bah!’ Everyone thinks you're such a big man, eh. They haven't seen you yet. You say we are stealing oil! My dear, how can we steal oil which belongs to us? Anyone who threatens the free flow of the blood money of our people -- you call me a terrorist? That I work for al-Qaida, eh? Sooner or later we will repossess the resources, whether they like it or not! Tell that to your ambassador!"

The lights change, and Hoyle shifts into the character of the American ambassador: "Hi, Dan, you don't need to call me Mr. Ambassador, that's quite all right. Please, have a seat. Cheryl, can you take some notes?"

The playwright sees international oil companies as a “proxy for a larger battle between government and citizens in Nigeria. I think what most people have decided is that they really have no recourse with their government,” Hoyle says. “They try to petition their government, nothing happens. They try to protest their government, they might get hurt. And unlike when they protest against an oil company, there's no Western media attention that that attracts. So, I think people are very savvy, and they've realized the way to get attention is by engaging with the oil companies."

“See what is really happening. Maybe you are scared to see, but you must try," the community relations officer urges Hoyle towards the end of the play. Hoyle says he hopes to return to Nigeria to perform the play, which he developed with director Charlie Varon. "Tings Dey Happen" had an earlier run in San Francisco, where writer-actor Dan Hoyle is based. His next play will probably be about small-town America, he says.

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