Where is that darned stage manager when you need him? Dan Hoyle’s entertaining and eye-opening one-man show, “Tings Dey Happen,” which comes out of his experiences as a Fulbright Fellow studying the oil economy of Nigeria, bristles with keen impressions of life and (frequently violent) death in the Niger Delta. But the chaotic political scene begs for an expanded role for the canny “stage manager” that Hoyle has thoughtfully written into his script but failed to utilize fully. No big overhaul is needed — just enough clarification to ensure show’s safe journey through the academic theater pipeline.
“You cannot just shove Niger Delta down their throats,” the self-designated “stage manager” named Sylvanus protests, when Hoyle opens his monologue in the threatening persona of a rebel militant who declares himself at war with the Royal Dutch Shell oil company.
All phony smiles and attitude, this know-it-all takes over the stage from the menacing gunslinger and assures the audience he will ease them into the foreign culture that is about to engulf them.
With cutting irony, he explains that the oil-rich Niger Delta (“like your Mississippi Delta, only more guns”) is run by international oil companies, in collusion with the kleptocrats in government. He describes the flow stations where oil is collected and breathlessly summarizes the tribal wars, industrial sabotage and kidnapping trade that occupy the impoverished and angry population.
That Sylvanus is one vibrant character. As are all the bush fighters, tribal warlords, oilmen, politicians, prostitutes and ex-pats depicted in this offbeat, but highly theatrical travelogue. They don’t go deep, like the people we meet in Anna Deavere Smith’s reality-based monologues. But even without benefit of costumes or props, they are well observed and sharply delineated by Hoyle in a presentational style that draws a lot on body language.
For a while, Hoyle follows his own advice about not shoving the Niger Delta down our throats. No program notes are necessary for the surreal scene in a bar where a jovial Scotsman introduces “Dan the student man” to all the foreign nationals (“I’m Shell, there’s Chevron, Halliburton over there, Exxon’s takin’ a piss”). They, in turn, wise him up about the local kidnapping racket that makes them all sitting ducks.
Among the many people Hoyle meets on his travels, the tea-drinking American ambassador and a savvy warlord are especially clear in extended scenes. But even minor characters, black and white alike, take on definition from Hoyle’s vocal mannerisms and stylized gestures and add their bit to the expanding national portrait.
It’s only when Hoyle gets into the bush — where everyone speaks the Nigerian version of Pidgin English — that we wish Sylvanus would come out of hiding and guide us through the linguistic thickets.
Hoyle’s strongest sympathies seem to lie with the bush people, those weary fighters who want to get out of the war business, and the young folks so eager to replace them. The irony is, until scribe and his collaborator, director Charlie Varon, devise a way to incorporate their elaborate program notes into the play proper, these voiceless Nigerians are the least well-served by the play.