Stage Door Review 2024

Three Sisters

Monday, March 11, 2024


by Inua Ellams, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu

Soulpepper & Obsidian, Young Centre, Toronto

March 7-24, 2024

Udo: “I woke up this morning and I realised the problem with my life. Purpose. I don’t have any.”

Soulpepper and the Obsidian Theatre Company have combined forces to present the Canadian premiere of Inua Ellams brilliant adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Ellams, a Nigerian-British playwright, has moved the action of the play from rural Russia in the late 19th century to Owerri, Nigeria, in the years 1967-70, a period corresponding with Biafra’s failed war of independence from Nigeria. Ellams has accomplished the remarkable task of remaining true to Chekhov’s play as well as using it as a means of exposing the continuing harm of colonialism in African nations even after they gained independence. Soulpepper and Obsidian have mustered a starry cast of Black Canadian actors who work together as a beautifully tight-knit ensemble.

Ellams’s Three Sisters, despite the radical change of period and location, adheres surprisingly closely to storyline and the characters of Chekhov’s play. The play initially focusses on the youngest the sisters, Udo (equivalent to Irinia in Chekhov). The oldest sister is the high school teacher Lolo (eq. Olga), and the middle sister is Nne Chukwu (eq. Masha). Nne Chukwu is married to the high school teacher Onyinyechukwu (eq. Kulygin) but is in loved with the married brigade commander Ikemba (eq. Vershinin). Both the good-natured lieutenant Nmeri Ora (eq. Tuzenbach) and the misfit captain Igwe (eq. Solyony) are in love with Udo, though she does not love Nmeri Ora and detests Igwe. The sisters’ brother Dimgba (eq. Andrey) marries a local girl Abosede (eq. Natasha) who gradually takes over the running of the family home and her husband’s life.

Chekhov’s play begins on Irina’s name-day (i.e., the day dedicated to the saint bearing her name), while Ellams’s play begins on Udo’s birthday. Just as Chekhov’s three sisters long to return to the cosmopolitan life of Moscow, so do Ellams’s three sisters long to return to Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, where they all grew up. As in Chekhov, in Ellams the love lives of all the major characters, including the love of the sister’s uncle Eze (eq. Chebutykin) for Lolo, are ruined. All the main characters, except the haughty Abosede, experience disappointment and suffering, and all wonder what their purpose is in life. Indeed, the very word “purpose” echoes throughout Ellams’s text.

Ellams’s transplanting the action to Nigeria in 1967 has several repercussions that bring out themes not in Chekhov. The characters in Chekhov are all Russians, separated from each other by rank and class but not ethnicity. This is not the case in Ellams. In Ellams, all the characters, except Abosede, belong to the Igbo people who live in the southeastern, coastal region of Nigeria. The Igbo view themselves as more highly educated than the Hausa or the Yoruba peoples who live in the northern part of Nigeria.

In Ellams’s play we hear how the British created the problem that the characters are now trying to deal with. As Ugochukwu Okoye explains in his useful note about the Historical Context of Ellams’s play, the British had two colonies where Nigeria is now – the Northern Nigeria Protectorate and the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria. The people in these two regions are “linguistically, religiously, and politically distinct”. However, in 1914 British combined the two into one colony and in 1960 that colony became independent as Nigeria. This arrangement might have been convenient for the British but did not reflect the will of the people. Ellams’s play begins, on May 30, 1967, the very day the former Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria declared itself the independent Republic of Biafra, thus setting off a civil war.

The effect this history has on Ellams’s version of Chekhov is that when the sisters long to return to Lagos, that city is now the capital of a country that has begun a genocidal war against them. As soon as Biafra separates and the Ellams’s characters pledge allegiance to Biafra, the dream of Lagos as the ideal city in the sisters’ minds vanishes. In Chekhov, the three sisters lose their lovers and their home. In Ellams, they also lose their country, Biafra, when in 1970 Biafra surrenders.

In Chekhov the three sisters make fun of Andrey’s fiancée and then wife Natasha because she is lower class and has poor taste. In Ellams this is also true but what is worse for the sisters is that Abosede is Yoruba and not Igbo. In Chekhov, Natasha’s taking over of the family home looks like her revenge against the sisters’ snobbism. In Ellams, Abosede’s similar actions look like her revenge against the sisters’ and all the Igbo people’s racism.

Ellams’s working of the Biafra War into the plot of Chekhov’s play makes Ellams’s version much more politically and ethically complex. The downside is that the interpersonal conflicts do not have as much weight as they do in Chekhov since they can hardly compete with a major political upheaval in importance.

Director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu manages to keep all of the play’s intermingling subplots absolutely clear. She draws performances of the highest calibre from the entire cast. Most notably, she has taken a group of actors, many of whom have played leading roles at major theatre elsewhere and molded them into wonderfully fine-tuned ensemble. If Otu’s direction has a flaw, it is in her oddly old-fashioned blocking. Chekhov is difficult in that he often has a large group of characters on stage only two of whom are having a conversation. Who those two are changes as if a spotlight were being cast on various members of the group. Otu’s solution is to have the two conversants step into centre stage to highlight their dialogue. Even when a single characters are meant to be addressing all those present, she will have them face forward to speak, when more realistically they should face the people they are addressing.

As the three sisters Akosua Amo-Adem, Virgilia Griffith and Makambe K. Simamba bring out the sisters’ very different personalities while still convincing us that they are sisters who share a common background. Amo-Adem shows Lolo as the most intellectual and most sensible of the three but also communicates Lolo’s unhappy resignation to a life without love. Virgilia Griffith has Nne Chukwu begin as a completely bored, cynical woman who only finds meaning in an affair with Ikemba that they both know is doomed to fail. Makambe K. Simamba is delightful as the young, idealistic Udo who gradually comes to know the suffering that has so marked the older characters’ lives.

Tony Ofori plays the sisters’ only brother Dimgba. Ofori brings out the pathetic weakness of this figure along with Dimgba’s own knowledge that he is pathetically weak. Ofori’s captures the gambling addict’s foolish self-deception that he will be lucky ‘next time’ despite all evidence to the contrary.

Oyin Oladejo gives what may be her best-ever performance as Dimgba’s wife Abosede. Oladejo perfectly delineates Abosede’s progress from a humble outcast and butt of jokes to a self-confident woman to a domineering woman to a haughty tyrant, more intolerant than the sisters ever were toward her. Her performance would be more chilling if designer Ming Wong had not overstated her search for glamour in the play’s last two acts.

Among the soldiers Daren A. Herbert makes a dashing, philosophical Ikemba. Herbert makes Ikemba’s frequent statements that everything will be better in 50 or a hundred years sound as if Ikemba is trying to convince himself of the idea as much as those he speaks to. Nmeri Ora is meant to be a good, ordinary man and that is how Ngabo Nabea plays him. One flaw with Ellams’s adaptation is that he alters the nature of the fight between Tuzenbach and Solyony from one that is sure to be lethal to one that is not. That means that Ellams deprives Nmeri Ora, the Tuzenbach figure, of the chance to depict utter despair beneath a façade of good cheer when Uma says she cannot love him.

In contrast to the general well-meaning natures of all the other characters except Abosede, the soldier Igwe is continually disruptive and abusive. Amaka Umeh lends the figure so much intensity it is hard to see how even those in the military can tolerate him.

It’s a pleasant surprise to see such strong actors as Tawiah M’Carthy and Sterling Jarvis play such weak characters as Nne Chukwu’s husband Onyinyechukwu and the sisters’ uncle Eze so well. Both are masterful at portraying figures who adopt a mask. Onyinyechukwu wears one of respectability to disguise his subservience. Eze wears one of good humour to hide his knowledge of his uselessness.

One of the play’s most enjoyable performance come from Ordena Stephens-Thompson as the aged servant Nma. Nma ia a woman who has given her life to caring for the three sisters and their brother. She treats them like her children, and they treat her like their mother. Stephens-Thompson plays Nma’s deafness as comic but without diminishing Nma’s sense of dignity. Stephens-Thompson makes Nma so loveable that Abosede’s wish to dismiss her feels like the mark of Abosede’s descent into villainy.

Ellams omits three characters from Chekhov’s play – two soldiers Fedotik and Rode and another elderly servant Ferapont. Ellams lends Nma Ferpont’s deafness but chooses quite a different substitute for the soldiers. He gives the sisters a younger female servant Oyiridiya, fiercely played by J.D. Leslie. His point in doing so is to demonstrate that the servants, unlike those in Chekhov, are capable of rage and action that surpasses some of those they serve.

Audience members need not think they need to know Chekhov’s play to understand Ellams’s play. Ellams’s Three Sisters stands perfectly well conceived on its own. If fact, those who know Chekhov’s play well may find their minds constantly flipping back to Chekhov for comparisons during Ellams’s play. Plays are verbal mechanisms for inquiry. Ellams has merely borrowed Chekhov’s mechanism to inquire into the history of his natal country and how that history has affected its citizens.

Ellams’s play has resonances of its own that he may not have intended. His description of the Nigerian forces bombing a marketplace full of women and children seemed shockingly like a scene from the current Israel-Hamas war. He has Lolo explain neo-colonialism as one country forcing another into indebtedness in order to control it. This sounds eerily like the very process China is currently employing throughout Africa in building up countries’ infrastructures to such an extent that the countries will never be able to repay the cost except through loyalty.

With its insight into African history, with its complex appeal both to the intellect and to emotion and with such an array of Canadian talent blazing so brightly, this Three Sisters is a production no theatre-lover can afford to miss.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Akosua Amo-Adem as Lolo, Makambe K. Simamba as Udo and Virgilia Griffith as Nne Chukwu; Tony Ofori as Dimgba and Oyin Oladejo as Abosede; Daren A. Herbert as Ikemba, Tawiah M’Carthy as Onyinyechukwu, Ngabo Nabea as Nmeri Ora and Amaka Umeh as Igwe. © 2024 Dahlia Katz.

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