James Ene Henshaw

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James Ene Henshaw’s influence, impact, and success as a dramatist in Nigeria stem from the fact that he is a very direct, matter-of-fact dramatic artist. Compared with such contemporary Nigerian writers as Wole Soyinka and John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, Henshaw’s work is less intellectually oriented. His plays are straightforward, not bookishly philosophical, and are written in simple language. Most of the works are aimed both at the adult reader and at schoolchildren. The beguiling simplicity of plot and style facilitates the staging of his plays, making him one of the most frequently produced playwrights in West Africa. He is also adept at stagecraft (although some critics have complained of implausibility in this regard), giving precise, detailed directions and analysis as to how his work is to be produced at every stage, whether for a school production or for adults.

Henshaw’s dramatic philosophy contributes greatly to his popularity. His subject matter, which deals directly with African culture and traditions, focuses on major issues familiar to both his African and his Western audience. For this reason, Henshaw prefaces most of his plays, in the manner of George Bernard Shaw, with elaborate introductions that discuss thematic concerns and other ancillary matters connected with the work. Thus, both the foreign and African producer/reader are helped to see the proper perspective from which the work is to be approached, studied, analyzed, and evaluated. Henshaw himself views the function of his drama, in part, as providing a positive impact on his society. Joseph Bruchac believes that Henshaw’s cardinal aim in writing is to forge, through the dramatic medium, a unity and understanding among Africans, who share closely related traditions and heritage, rather than “explaining the African to the non-African.”

This Is Our Chance

Most of Henshaw’s early, short plays share two thematic threads: tradition and its conflict with modern life and the worldwide problems of corruption, crime, and materialism. This Is Our Chance, one of Henshaw’s most popular plays, revolves around Kudaro, the Crown Princess; her father, Chief Damba; her mother, Ansa; her suitor, Prince Ndamu; her tutor, Bambulu; and other village folk whose offices bring them into the story. Set in the royal household and village-kingdom of Koloro and in the rival village of Udura, the play addresses the typically Henshawian preoccupation with the conflict between tradition and modernity and the need to assimilate the best of both African and Western cultures.

From the outset of the play, Chief Damba’s obsession with tradition is clear: Tradition compels him to keep the fortune-teller at court, to forbid extravillage marriages, to opt for age-old customs instead of experimenting with new ideas. In Damba’s opinion, Koloro’s strict adherence to tradition is the key to the village’s superiority. He will declare war on any village that threatens traditional values. Yet when the conflict of interest compels him to take his daughter’s life—in eloping with Ndamu, the prince of the rival village, Udura, she has broken one of the most important tenets of Koloro tradition—Damba bends tradition to fit the circumstances, thereby opening new avenues for progress in his village.

Ajugo, Damba’s prime minister, is a diehard protector of tradition, convinced that the old ways must never succumb to new ideas, no matter what the cost. Ajugo states categorically that matrimonial links outside the village of Koloro are punishable, in the case of the commoner, by banishment, and, in the case of royalty, by death. Damba, faced with the options of war, his daughter’s death, or his own loss of life, must choose. Ajugo, ever faithful to tradition, prepares the hemlock for Damba’s punishment. Damba’s life is spared, however, by...

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the sudden arrival of Princess Kudaro. Even though tradition now dictates Ajugo’s death, the prime minister is spared and a new prime minister, Enusi, appointed. Ajugo remains the uncompromising custodian of the indigenous culture.

There is a dichotomy between those characters who favor modernity (Enusi, Bambulu, Princess Kudaro, Ansa, Ayi the maid, Udura’s ambassador, and Prince Ndamu) and those who stand for tradition (Damba, Ajugo, and Chief Mboli of Udura). Princess Kudaro, having lived in the city while attending school, is at once sophisticated and down to earth. Although she is the Crown Princess, she frequently states how much she detests village life. Her elopement with Prince Ndamu is one of the greatest of village taboos. As a character, she represents progress. Princess Kudaro’s elopement and the subsequent events, especially her use of Bambulu’s antivenom serum, help to bring about peace between the perennially feuding villages.

The bombastic Bambulu, although a foreigner, wields great influence in the village. An accomplished scientist, educated in the Western tradition, and a good teacher, Bambulu the radical is always dressed in Western style. He refers to himself as the catalyst in the village. Under the cloak of teaching about vitamins, he succeeds in sowing the seeds of revolution, which undermine the traditional values of Koloro. He is opposed to the blind adherence to tradition that breeds ignorance, hatred, war, disease, bigotry, poverty, and backwardness. As an apostle of progress, good-neighborliness, and reconciliation, Bambulu is mainly responsible for introducing Western ideas and civilization to the village. With Chief Damba’s support, he opens more schools and is given full autonomy to teach basic scientific skills, reading, and writing, as well as agriculture.

Chief Damba thus rises out of adversity and seizes the chance to bring peace, progress, and prosperity to his village. Enusi’s metaphoric description of their tradition being a sword of Damocles ties in neatly with the problems raised by tradition in the village of Koloro.

A Man of Character

A Man of Character foreshadows in its thematic concerns many of the issues addressed in contemporary African writing. One of the most urgent of these is the problem of corruption. In the play, an honest, sincere, dedicated man—a man of character—who refuses to be corrupted in a corrupt society must suffer the consequences of his decision.

As in most Henshaw plays, with the exception of Magic in the Blood, when the protagonist runs into an intricate problem, he manages both to extricate and to vindicate himself. In this play, the serene, happy family life of Kobina and his wife, Ayodele, is disrupted by the negative influence of Ayodele’s mercenary, domineering sister, Serinya, and her venal husband, Anosse. Kobina, a God-fearing man, refuses to be influenced by Anosse’s offer of a bribe. His moral position is that West African society needs people of conscience and that appointments and promotions should be based on merit, not on nepotism or bribery. His refusal to enter into this system of institutionalized corruption breaks apart the family, since Serinya’s values have influenced the once content Ayodele. Ayodele now desires a house of her own, new clothes, money for trips abroad, and security for their child, Ibitam. Kobina obviously cannot afford all of these luxuries because his modest income is being used to educate his daughter. After a quarrel, Ayodele and Ibitam leave Kobina, whose misfortunes are compounded by the suspicious loss of five hundred pounds from his office safe. He becomes the prime suspect, and the onus of proof of innocence rests on him. In fact, Seboh, Kobina’s servant, together with Seboh’s crooked, vicious-looking brother, has engineered the entire plot. Seboh, who is referred to as the “stranger” in the play, attempts to blackmail Kobina and his associates (the lawyer Diyego, the magistrate Kopechi, and Sergeant Mbedu), but the judge’s quick thinking neutralizes the stranger’s malevolent plan. Seboh, the servant, filled with remorse, is apprehended by the police as he attempts to return the money. The two Seboh brothers are hauled off to prison, with the stranger’s strong avowal to turn over a new leaf.

The series of coincidences in the play dilutes the plausibility of the plot somewhat because it is unlikely that all of Kobina’s important associates would suddenly and simultaneously converge, uninvited, on his home. The moral preoccupations of the protagonist render him rather too saintly, even somewhat self-righteous, although his depression and subsequent drinking do indicate that he is indeed human and vulnerable.

As many critics have remarked, the language in the play is inflated and bookish; the characters hardly speak as typical Nigerians do. The ending, as in Henshaw’s Companion for a Chief, Children of the Goddess, Dinner for Promotion, and This Is Our Chance, takes the form of a happy reconciliation. Equilibrium is restored. The moral lesson that A Man of Character teaches is the age-old adage that crime does not pay. The upright are vindicated, truth stands, and honesty is shown to be the best policy. The characters become wiser and more determined to continue living in an upright way.

Medicine for Love

Medicine for Love, subtitled A Comedy in Three Acts, is a humorous examination of politics, politicians, and political practices in modern West Africa. It also explores the concept of the African marriage system, examining the issue of traditional wives and arranged marriages—an ancient custom being forced on a modern city-dweller, Ewia Ekunyah. Henshaw, in his introduction to the piece, succinctly sums up these motifs: monogamy, polygamy, medicine men, tradition, and the African.

Ewia Ekunyah, the hero of the play and would-be politician, finds his life complicated by the unexpected arrival in the city of no less than three traditional wives, Bekin Wari, Ibiere Sua, and Nene Katsina, married to him through the agency of various relatives. According to tradition, these wives cannot be returned. Naturally, rivalry and suspicion are rampant among the three women and their assorted relatives, who resort to medicine for love in order to win Ewia Ekunyah’s favor. The machinations begin when Ibiere Sua and Bekin Wari team up against Nene Katsina, the youngest, best educated, and most beautiful of the three. Apart from Nene Katsina, who displays the characteristics of good humor, romance, and seriousness, the women are eminently unsuitable as wives of a prospective politician. Auntie Dupeh, a dowager-duchess type, is too domineering and aggressive in trying to push Ewia’s interests. Auntie Dupeh’s imposition as chairperson of Ewia’s political planning committee and her recommendation of Agatarata the medicine man as spiritual adviser destroy Ewia’s political career.

The array of Ewia’s dishonest advisers clearly indicates that the political policymakers active in urban affairs are no better than the candidates themselves. Mr. Joss, Ewia’s political agent, using his Machiavellian expertise, spends eighty-one hundred pounds and manages to swindle the poor Ewia into selling his last house to finance the campaign. The Reverend Sanctus Kyei cannot, in times of trouble, give Ewia any sensible advice regarding Ewia’s concrete, everyday problems; Agatarata’s ignorance of the chemical composition of the ink that becomes invisible on Ewia’s application form leads to Ewia’s downfall. Henshaw touches here on the very delicate interconnection between Christianity, tradition, and politics. That a modern educated African politician such as Ewia Ekunyah thinks he can win an election or solve his marital entanglements through a juju priest or a Christian minister is preposterous and ironic; these services, in fact, cost Ewia the election.

Henshaw has given a comic look at the operation of politics in contemporary Africa. The fundamental concept of democracy does not seem to be fully understood by the politicians, who tend to think that the survival of the fittest, by any means, foul or fair, is a more appropriate tenet. Instead of honest people of integrity and dignity, there is a multiplicity of crooked, politically self-serving, corrupt candidates and political advisers. The unqualified Ewia resorts to bribery to edge out honest, sincere, and dedicated rivals such as Mr. Sonrillo.

There is no poetic justice in Medicine for Love. At the end, all characters, good or bad, gain: Ewia and Nene Katsina gain marital bliss; Auntie Dupeh marries a VIP, Kiudu Bonga; Bekin Wari marries Ewia Ekunya’s secretary, Olu Ita, who finds a new job; and Ibiere Sua marries Dr. Sigismond Marsey. Finally, Papa Garuka marries Mama Ebunde, Ibiere Sua’s mother. The matrimonial ceremony of the entire cast is presided over by the Reverend Kyei.

Dinner for Promotion

Dinner for Promotion, as the title implies, centers on the plans of Tikku and Seyil, two young and ambitious employees of Sipo Amalgamated, to get to the top. In the play, promotion depends on a sumptuous dinner for the Sipo family and on marrying the boss’s daughter rather than on merit. Dinner for Promotion thus touches on the relationships between employer and employee, between friends, between parents and children, and between in-laws, and deals with the life of the young, educated urban group. Through Dinner for Promotion, Henshaw portrays the callous disregard for decency or ethical behavior or even loyalty among friends when personal interests are at stake.

Each character seems to have an ulterior motive. Tikku has his eye on Sharia, the boss’s daughter, but his interest is purely selfish; he sees her only as a means for promotion. Seyil, not knowing Sharia’s family connections, courts Sharia and takes the advice of Tikku to speak ill of Mr. Sipo, their employer. Naturally, Sharia takes offense as Seyil heaps insults on her father’s head, then promptly walks into Tikku’s waiting arms. Through a series of deceptive moves, Seyil plots Tikku’s downfall both as suitor to Sharia and as prospective executive in Sipo Amalgamated by sabotaging Tikku’s “dinner for promotion,” but his plans backfire. In spite of all this confusion and hostility, the ending of the play is typically amicable: The two sisters-in-law, Madam Pamphilia Sipo and Madam Una, are reconciled; Tikku and Sharia, blessed by their parents, are about to be married; Tikku does get his promotion and material gain; and even Seyil gains by being offered a much better job elsewhere. A form of equity reigns.

Enough Is Enough

Enough Is Enough is a contemporary drama set in a detention camp during the last weeks of the Nigerian Civil War. The play documents the incarceration and plight, both psychological and physical, of six detainees and their guards. Henshaw’s introduction to the work concentrates on the personal attitudes and feelings of the detainees, the reactions of Nigerians to the war, and the complex human emotions that permeated the detainees’ existence.

Set against the prison backdrop, Enough Is Enough centers on the notion of reconciliation, the woes and gloom of the war, and the role of charitable and relief organizations at that time. The outcry “genocide and pogrom,” which became the Biafran slogan during the course of the war, is alluded to throughout the work.

Apart from Ufanko, Bisong, and the disembodied voice of Nwakego, the major characters enacting the drama are Peter Emeribe, a very important member of Parliament; the lawyer Linus Nosikeh; Dr. Dagogo, a politician and medical practitioner; and the arrogant Professor Ezuba, who apparently masterminded the rebellion against the revolution. The remaining characters—the Superintendent, the warder, Mother Cecilia, Sister Lucinda, Major Maxy, and others—serve to highlight the suffering and anguish of the main characters. Referred to as detainees, saboteurs, and criminals, the incarcerated men seem to have rebelled against those advocating war and secession. This rebellion is regarded as treason and is the cause of their detention.

Divided into four acts, each with a distinct thematic concern, Enough Is Enough gives a concrete insight into the ravages of war, which claims the lives of healthy, innocent, able-bodied people (sometimes civilians). Although all wars are destructive, this war is especially so: It is a civil war, with relatives killing one another, creating a generation of orphans and cripples.

Henshaw is here concerned with the brutal treatment of the detainees, the resultant psychological problems of both the long-term detainees and their guards, the economic difficulties, and ecological destruction. There is a general lack of trust, a lack of freedom to speak or even to remain silent, and a very real lack of decent food and water. The detainees are denied such amenities as radios and the right to receive visitors or uncensored mail. Everyone in the camp is vulnerable to the constant attacks from bombing and disease. Survival becomes a critical issue; the detainees, in spite of their former privileged positions, have had to resort to sordid, subservient practices to survive. Part of the irony of Peter Emeribe’s case is that the warder is his former houseboy.

The psychological problems range from insanity to alcoholism. The Superintendent, for example, a brilliant zoologist in civilian life, unsure of his competence in his present position, ends up a nervous, alcoholic wreck. Dr. Dagogo becomes moody, embittered, and mentally unstable after four years of detention at Umudali camp. Ufanko has turned into a cynic, while Peter Emeribe burns with a strong sense of injustice. The lack of privacy and the constant harassment to which they are subject cause the prisoners, understandably, to lash out at one another. As for Professor Ezuba, his arrogance leads to the eventual destruction of most of the group. Treating the warders as a pack of ignorant, unqualified upstarts, he insults his captors without considering the consequences for his fellow prisoners, always reminding the world of his former importance. On the other side, the presence of Major Maxy—a mere child trying to behave as an adult soldier, a boy who, at the age of fourteen, functions as an undercover agent—points out the absurdity and unprepared nature of the revolutionaries. Ironically, Maxy, in contrast with his dead brothers, displays filial devotion by trying to protect his father.

One important motif present in this drama is that of peace and reconciliation. The war, having taken its impartial toll of destruction, ends with the signing of the Lagos peace treaty. Umudali Camp is disbanded, and some of the detainees are released. As a consequence of the personal vengeance of the Superintendent, however, the most vocal of the detainees are killed, although, unbeknown to them, the war has already been over for four days.

The play’s title, Enough Is Enough, fittingly expresses a yearning for peace, unity, reconciliation, and a return to normal life; as the first voice in act 3 cries, “Let’s waste no further time. Let’s spill no further blood. Let’s rebuild the nation anew.” Dagogo poignantly replies that the fighting should cease because there has been enough of brother killing brother, of suffering, of dying from bullets, of hunger and disease—enough of everything connected with the war and the prisoners’ detention. The emotional demands of such a painful, historical moment give this later play an uncharacteristic slant in the Henshaw canon. The language itself strikes a note of pathos and patriotism, while the imagery constantly reverts to horror and bestiality (references to vampires, lizards, boa constrictors, hawks) to underscore the reality of human suffering.