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Ibi Kontein’s Back For Ground Satisfies An Itch For Stage Drama

Back for Ground by Sabi Creations, written and directed by Ibi Kontein is a Nigerian play that was shown at His Dulce in Victoria Island Lagos on the 10th and 11th of September, 2022. Without giving away too much, the show is centred around Ijeoma, a prostitute living in a pastor’s house. Ijeoma tries to reconcile her past with new opportunities present in her life. While the pastor and his wife experience issues in their marriage that parallels Ijeoma’s predicament, eventually intersecting. 


Offering commentary on purity culture, the Nigerian-religion dynamic, patriarchy, and various idiosyncrasies that will feel at home in an Ola Rotimi play. It is a one set, small cast drama that is unapologetic about its politics and while it shies away from going overboard with sexual display. Risque activities are well implied through the use of stage lighting and broad expressive language. It isn’t lewd, nor raunchy– but clear and defined. 


The play presents a fresh cast of talented actors who complement the efforts of the production team. The main character, Ijeoma, played by Mercy Jackson fills her role with a boisterous charisma carved for the big stage. Jules Omonizua plays Akhan, Ijeoma’s quixotic love interest. He is burly and his baritone booms and bounces across the room. Jules’ performance as Akhan might be jarring at first, but definitely grows on you. And moments where he puts his size to use were crowd favorites during the play. 


Acting is animated and body language is used as much as vocal kinds were, probably even more. Wilfred Uzoma, who plays Pastor Solomon portrays a charismatic pentecostal preacher. He moves like so, and speaks that way too. His wife, Fehintoluwa, acted by Ifeoluwa Odejayi is naive, ‘virtuous’, submissive and judgemental. I couldn’t stop thinking about Taooma when Obanijesu Akinbobola, who played Akhan’s mum came on screen. In Back for Ground, the Nigerian caricatures were whittled down to a tee.


The writing helps pass the point across as it is tight, humorous, dramatic and observant. There are numerous jokes, most of which land. Many references to our current landscape which makes Back for Ground a bespoke experience for Nigerians. The balance between Akhan’s muscular frame, and tendency for overblown romantic profession is a nice touch. And the writing in Akhan and Ijeoma scenes are passionate and overblown, yet not spurious. There are references to Bridgerton, romance novels and pop culture here; and they never failed to tug on the audience’s feelings. 


Memorable lines include:

“Ijeoma: You are flirting with danger

Akhan: I will flirt all night for you”


Or Ijeoma’s motif through the show:

“Ijeoma spread your legs

I spread my legs.

Ijeoma go low,

I go low.” 

The motif especially bares to the fore an urgent commentary on self esteem, and the feelings of a modern woman navigating a traditional world. And it all just comes together performances-wise. 


Theme and plotwise, the conflict was evident, there were many elements of contrasts that the viewer could munch on during, and after the fact. And while the play does not lean into profoundness, it challenges through interpersonal politics in a vehicle of lighthearted jokes. We could see how the ‘slut’ interacted with her love interest and compare with how the pastor and his wife did in the same breath. It is a trope; a cliche. But the thing about cliches is that they are overused for a reason, and when done well, they are mighty effective. 


While I have very high praises for this play, I found the stage lighting a little disorienting to the senses. Extreme controls like these might trigger seizures and it is advisable to at least warn the audience about this earlier or maybe… just ease in on the rapid flickering. Another pet peeve I had was loud commentary from the audience, while the atmosphere provided was an intimate one that welcomed expression, a lot of the audience heckled their thoughts at the performers and it was distracting for myself and probably the actors. I believe a play isn’t a conversation, but a statement– and it is rude to interrupt while the point is being conveyed. I also don’t think murmurs would be helpful if the show was recorded so it would be nice to call for decorum next time it is showing.


Back for Ground would however benefit from a larger budget to not only host more people at once, but also to change sets for added believability. Mummy Akhan’s numerous visits to Pastor’s house for example isn’t realistic, especially since Pastor never actually sits down to have a conversation with her and warn her off. Surely, he must have heard about it one way or another. But this doesn’t take away from the play, rather it highlights the efforts taken to pull this show together on a shoestring. 


The event buzzed with creativity and resource management. Even the warmup acts, Broda Kulture impressed with a small laptop, soundcard and speaker setup to serenade the audience. It is difficult to manage such a small space at His Dulce, one time when Akhan and Ijeoma entered from a date. Ijeoma stuck her slippers under an attendee’s seat and almost tripped. Akhan just ran with it and took the slippers like the loverboy his character has been made to be. Or that one time I stepped outside for a moment and I saw Adewale Okunola, who plays Friday peeping through the door just like his character as a gateman would do. He probably was waiting for his cue, but it keyed into the moment and made it more satisfying. 


These moments hammer in on cast chemistry and is a major highlight in Back for Ground. The actors ease into their characters, and are as aware of happenings with the audience as with the play. At a point mid performance, the MC wanted to draw attention to a particular Lexus driver outside who needed to move their car and the drama ceased, with actors frozen for over 10 seconds while this announcement was made. And just as he sat down, the play continued without skipping a beat. Admirable.


Casting was superb, with each actor playing their roles in physicality and gesticulations. To be Frank, I had no intention to review this play. Going as a guest through an invite from a mutual friend, I was excited simply because I wanted to see a play, good or bad. Midway through Ijeoma’s opening monologue I knew I had to write about the show, and after the first act– I begun to jot down key points I noted.


This is what attention to detail, and excellence does. It draws us in. IbiKontein’s Back for Ground is a well-rounded play that almost seemed effortless, which shows real effort on the part of the team behind this endeavor. It doesn’t overstay its welcome. It leans into its strengths and uses cast chemistry to make up for the budget it lacked. I am confident this isn’t the last time this play will be shown and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as a breath of fresh air.


Oyedele Alokan writes and edits for theblotted. Engage on Instagram @omoalokan.