CATHARTIC COMEDY IN SEGUN OYEKUNLE’S KATAKATA FOR SOFAHEAD By Maik Ortserga

Segun Oyekunle’s play comes as a medium through which the reader purges his emotion and purifies his/her soul. The concept of Aristotelian Catharsis is a process of purgation in which the emotions of pity and fear are aroused by tragic circumstances of a play. Drawing on this understanding, catharsis is often viewed today beyond the conforms of tragedy, suggesting that literature, on the whole, functions within the scheme of Aristotelian Catharsis, and thus all forms of Literature, including poetry and prose, just like tragic theatrical performances to which Aristotelian Catharsis was initially applied, have purgatory effects for both author and spectator / reader perspectives.

Oyekunle’s Katakata for Sofaheadachieves its satiric best in its witty Pidgin dialogue and linguistic experimentation and also in bringing meaning through the dramatic use of every item in the prison cell which becomes the lens through which the characters look at the larger society. Durudapo in welcoming Lateef in the play makes no doubt about the import of the place as he says “Dis college na de proper school wey you go learn plenty-plenty; de tin wey no dey hinside book, de ting wey no professor fit lecture you.(6)

The cell thus becomes a small microcosm for the Nigerian society. Nigeria is thus a prison, though not a criminal prison, since the Buharis, the Okolos and the Jangidis of this cell are not criminals, it is a prison of socio- economic struggles in the face of a judicial system that is only too eager to inflict ‘justice’ on the poor. Okolo’s crime, for instance, is his quarrel with a wealthy man’s daughter. Through his prison characters, Oyekunle reveal that the criminal justice system in Nigeria appears to be merely for the poor since big thieves are obscenely celebrated while small ones are sent to prison. Even where there seems to be a semblance of justice, the ‘big thief’receives a light sentence, while the common petty thieves receive the full weight of their punishment and are treated as if the crimes they have committed invalidate their humanity.

There are also the tales of the characters’ struggle for survival under inflation. The spiraling inflation has brought intolerable levels of hardship on Nigerians. The constantly broke Ndem could not sustain the feeding of his friend as he declared:

NDEM: Me I don tire for to dey feed that applicant. E don chop my food finis. The money wey I de get no do for me alone. How much I de get self wey fit do person for hinside this town!

This sounds familiar to readers beyond Oyekunle’s immediate audience; it is because Katakata for Sofahead’s total meaning reaches at an economic system the world over which has been able to keep the world’s major population in the perpetual penury.

Lateef  represents the over 20 million  graduates that are unemployed in Nigeria in the face of the expanding graduate manufacturing ‘factories’ at the expense of the shrinking  graduate employing. So, the moment the other inmates insist that Lateef should “put his palava for ground,” he says: “I am no thief or killer. I don finished my secondary school, I have been looking for job but no hope.” Oyekunle makes the inmates in Katakata for Sofahead to act spontaneously, as a demonstration of their humanity in the play.  They must show that they can utter a predictable piece of information (such as data about their social status) in a tearful, emotional tone, for example where a character like Lateef imagines himself crushed by the realization that he will not get a job for a long time and says:

LATEEF: …What is all this? With a certificate and yet no hope whatsoever in the world. See me here housed by layabouts. They are even more secure than I am. After all they have a job and places to lay their heads. Here I am – no food to eat…(29)

Lateef’s  plight is a perfect demonstration of a society that is mortgaging its future by not taking its youths seriously.

The inmates’ performance in the play is the playwright’s way of highlighting the analogy between their play-acting in the text and the socio/political background of the society which the prison represents. Oyekunle’s play is symbolic in a number of ways. Not only does it organize theatre’s powers of empathy, it treads the troubling line between art and direct personal experiences of ordinary Nigerians. The rot within the police is also heavily parodied, especially the penchant of the police for handing out plausible charges thus, Okolo who acts the investigating police officer at the police charge office reports to his boss about Lateef in the following words:

OKOLO: (salutes again) Sorry sir, Mr. Lateef Olabisi, sir, of no fixed address are guilty of four offences, sir, (Reads from his notebook) Cheating; cheating by personation; fighting, and disturbance of public peace…(35)

Following this kind of report, the unemployed youth who should attract compassion for eating without paying due to the theft of his purse, is maltreated as if the crime he has committed takes away his humanity. The double standards in the policing system is bemoaned by Ndem who says “ Na for poor man case police fit make katakata. Dem no see all the big man dem wey the chop chop gofment money every day” (34)

Obviously, we see the inmates not as professional actors, yet in their prison performance they give voice to events from their extended society. The grumble by Ndem that “poor man no get brother’  (13) appears to be the complaint of the Nigerian populace that is relentlessly being exploited by those in control. The level of societal degeneration is carried further in the play where Lateef’s constant plea to the police for mercy in the name of God attracts the following reproach from Ndem:

NDEM: Look. No bring God in here. God no dey come for police station at all, You understand…you no know anybody who fit come see  oga? Dis kind beg-beg no go do o. I tell you! So so world no de fill belle o!

This brings out the issue of bribery which pervades our society in the sense that at all levels and in every development, bribes are given and taken. This has become common place and is known under euphemisms like ‘at all at all na im be witch,’ ‘bring white,’ dash, kola, egunje and so forth. It is never called by its real name yet it is easily understood when it is intended.

On the whole, to relate serious scenes in such a humorous manner, indeed, leaves the audience confused as to whether they should shed tears or laugh: (cathartic comedy) but that is the tragic in the comic. The purpose is to allow us to see and to feel with greater clarity. That is catharsis.

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