“Madmen and Specialists”
UM School of Music, Theatre and Dance
The Arthur Miller Theatre
Oct. 9 to 19
Body parts are the wagers for the twisted gambling game that is the beginning tableau of “Madmen and Specialists,” the season opener for the School of Music, Theatre and Dance. This is one of many gruesome parodies that inhabit the world of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s tragic satire.
Inspired by the events of the Nigerian Civil War, the play brings in aspects of Soyinka’s 22-month experience in detention for antiwar activity. Directed by Prof. Mbala Nkanga, “Madmen and Specialists” is an absurdist play attacking the abuse of power and man’s inhumanity. Shocking, pessimistic and symbolic, “Madmen and Specialists” is ultimately a universal work that reaches beyond its African setting and 1960s time period.
“When you look at the configuration of the student body in our department, sometimes it’s very difficult to stage an African play,” Nkanga said. “ ‘Madmen and Specialists’ could easily be transposed to the American context, in that we can easily use white students as actors without compromising or affecting the message.”
“The fact that it’s a color blind cast makes the ideas seem more universal,” actor and senior Seth Moore said.
As there are no allusions to Africa throughout the text, Nkanga chose to break from the sense of African exoticism that normally infuses the way people think about African plays. By tearing it from its setting, he allows the audience to focus on the play’s message and the issues raised that go beyond time and place.
“When the audience comes to see (an African) play, they are more attracted and sometimes distracted by the exotic aspect, instead of looking at the content and paying attention to what the play says,” Nkanga said.
But the play retains remnants of its African origin. The play is full of Yoruba rituals of chants and songs, accompanied by African instruments. This music, when combined with the set design, makes it hard to forget the context in which the play was written. Plus, there are little reminders throughout, like the names and superstitious, ritualistic elements such as references to the ‘evil eye.’ But these aspects merely add an African flavor without detracting from its global message.
The play focuses on Dr. Bero, who goes to war with idealist intentions of helping the wounded. But when power corrupts, he becomes the “specialist” of the title — a torturer. One of the play’s “madmen” is his father, who, in an attempt to show the military officers the horrific nature of their actions, tricks them into eating the flesh of their victims. But his experiment fails, as they find they have developed a taste for it. From there, the play spirals into a sequence of bloodcurdling events, where neither the good nor the evil are spared.
“Madmen and Specialists” is also extremely symbolic, with a strong sense of satire, rife with puns and little parodies of unspeakable crimes. There are scenes making fun of torture, of the thirst for power; comedy is often present even when discussing the darkest of subjects. The play examines man’s destructive nature, and could be set anywhere and anytime, even in our own backyard.
“Some of the issues treated in the play are very close to America today — when you think about all the pictures that were posted from Iraq with the Abu Ghraib prison, for example. When you think about all these issues that were discussed in Congress not long ago about waterboarding, in terms of torture,” Nkanga said. “Sometimes we destroy lives for personal gain, for personal power, for just personal interest. And so the play attacks that — how we become madmen and we become specialists, not in saving, but in destroying others.”