My rating: * * * *
On stage, Yomi cooks a tomato stew for his mother while discussing his reluctance to return to Nigeria for his grandmother’s funeral. Following the dissolution of her marriage, Yomi’s mother immigrated with her son to London when he was nine years old. Consequently, Yomi’s upbringing uneasily straddled two continents. As Yomi cuts, combines and cooks the ingredients, he journeys through time, reenacting key memories from his conflicted adolescence through fragments of dialogue and flashes of spoken-word poetry. Yomi highlights the moments when the clash between African and English culture threatened to split him in two.
Despite being a one-man performance, Sode’s play remains prismatic. Through his comical impersonations of various friends and family members, Yomi unveils the many faces who unwittingly fuelled his personal feelings of inadequacy, shaming him for his inability to smoothly congeal Nigerian and English culture;
“…I was the butt of jokes to many, judged for being a Londoner like I’m judged for being Black in London. If it’s not random stop and searches, it’s being Black but not African enough”.
One particularly commendable aspect of COAT, is Sode’s dynamic representation of Nigeria and England. In this refreshing depiction, Africa is not simply a land of destitution and tradition to be contrasted with England – a modern, consumerist hub. Rather, Sode blends the stereotypes of each by showing poverty and luxury to exist in both spaces. For example, Sode contends the hyperbolic media-image of Africa as a place of violence and deprivation. Rather, COAT favours a more quieted and realistic portrayal which includes hardship, but is by no means defined by it;
“You hear all this Boko Haram, Juju stuff, but I didn’t see anything. Went three days without electricity one time.”
Further, Sode shows Nigeria to be a bustling global economy in its own right;
“Visited the mall in Lagos, saw Black baby faces on the Huggies nappies! Heard Chinese, Spanish folks speaking Yoruba.”
Yomi’s playdate in an English household likewise depicts the lavish elements of London lifestyle. However, Yomi’s humorous admiration of Airwick, processed food and hot showers simultaneously hints at his own family’s struggling financial situation, speaking to a broader issue of poverty in London’s immigrant communities;
“[My mother] speaks to London-based Nigerians who cussed the bastards that sold them the dream of England”.
The issue of language also arises on both continents. During one of his childhood visits, Yomi is teased by his Nigerian Uncle, who challenges him to say something in Yoruba “other than Jollof rice”. Back in London, Yomi is frustrated by his teacher’s stuttered mispronunciation of his name, complaining that others too often “Stretch [his] name to the ends of the Earth without permission”.
Finally, patriarchal rule poses a problem in both Nigeria and London. In Nigeria, Yomi’s mother leaves her unfaithful husband; in London, an intimidating sexual encounter at the age of fifteen shows Yomi the dangers of toxic masculinity.
“Picture this: I know what alone feels like.
It’s sitting on a dining room table, eating and laughing
like everything is fine!”
The microcosmic dining room space concentrates all Yomi’s feelings of personal and cultural alienation. Therefore, cooking the perfect tomato stew means much more to Yomi than simply proving his culinary skills. Rather, the success of the meal symbolises a sense of cultural harmony: the validation of his split identity to his Nigerian mother. Yomi insists, “Once I make this obe, she will be proud of me.”
However, the finished product is not perfect: Yomi forgets to add rodo, and there is a secret ingredient that he never reveals. This seems to suggest that, like the tomato stew, Yomi’s identity will never be a seamless integration, only a clumsy amalgamation of different ingredients. However, the incompleteness and mystery of the stew leaves open the possibility of individuality, enabling the creation of an adapted, negotiated self.
The play programme is not a programme at all, but a recipe for Yomi’s stew containing two stapled cubes of Maggi. The recipe balances delicately on every chair, awaiting each audience member as they filter into the auditorium. This unique programme extends a hand to the audience, inviting viewers to initiate their own conversations across the dinner table. Rather than the African diaspora being founded on feelings of alienation, anger and ostracisation, Sode aims to forge a community based on inclusion, openness and acceptance. The key to forming a more welcoming African diaspora is thus rooted within domesticity. As COAT demonstrates, mending the bridge between the two continents need not be a grand political venture, but can be as simple as cooking a pot of tomato stew.