Religion is close to theatre; much of its power comes from the effects of staging and framing. And in a play about a preacher, theatre easily becomes religion. The performance of Wole Soyinka’s 1964 farce “The Trials of Brother Jero,” which I saw recently in Lagos, was not dissimilar to my experience at a Pentecostal church about two weeks later. “The Trials of Brother Jero” centers on a prophet, one of the many freelance Christian clerics of dubious authority that have proliferated in Nigeria. Charlatans are not charlatans all the way through: if they didn’t believe at least a little in what they were selling, it would be difficult for them to persuade others. “In fact, there are eggs and there are eggs,” Brother Jero proclaims in his first soliloquy of the play. “Same thing with prophets. I was born a prophet.”
This element of make-believe is true of both prophets and actors, and so in a play like “Brother Jero” the point is doubled: both acting and religion have an imprecise relationship with the truth. The performance I saw was at a beautiful independent theatre called Terra Kulture, on Victoria Island, an upscale neighborhood of the city. Brother Jero—“Velvet-hearted Jeroboam, Immaculate Jero, Articulate Hero of Christ’s Crusade”—was played with slinky, mellifluous deviousness by Patrick Diabuah as equal parts Hamlet and Wile E. Coyote. The play was fast, funny, wordy, and physical, and it sent up deception for the two-way street that it was: an eyes-half-open transaction between the deceiver and the deceived. “Go and practice your fraudulences on another person of greater gullibility,” says one of Jero’s marks shortly before he, too, is flattered—drawn in with sweet words and gleefully defrauded.