Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Between Art and Topicality in Yerima's Little Drops ...

Isaac Attah Ogezi

Perhaps the most vital and topical issue in Nigeria today apart from the acts of our political leaders is the seemingly endless Niger Delta crisis. This is not surprising because oil is the mainstay of the Nigerian economy. Remove oil from its economy, and the so-called giant of Africa will come tottering to the ground in a great fall which may end the chequered reign of one indivisible and indissoluble entity called Nigeria. In a critical situation such as Nigeria’s, the writers cannot stand aloof without playing an interventionist role. In the words of Chinua Achebe, “an African writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant - like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames…” This talks about social commitment in the writer’s art. Interestingly enough, most Nigerian writers are protest writers, adept at handling the big social and political issues of the day. Any wonder that our writers have found the Niger Delta crisis a honey-pot theme to expend their creative energies on, with little or indifferent craft. The crisis has birthed several titles such as Agary’s NLNG Award-winning Yellow-Yellow, Oguchukwu’s Outrage , Adinoyi-Ojo Onukaba’s NLNG-shortlisted Killing Swamp, Yerima’s NLNG Award-winning Hard Ground and NLNG-shortlisted Little Drops …, the list is endless. In fact, because of the preponderance of works on the Niger Delta, even writers very far from the theatre of violence now strain their creative energies to contribute to the Niger Delta literature. A reader need not possess the gift of clairvoyance to predict that Helon Habila’s latest, thematically-overt novel, Oil on Water, is centred on the Niger Delta crisis. One does fervently hope that this sudden romance with this big social and political issue of the Niger Delta is not predicated with an NLNG Prize in the mind. It is not unusual that in a country where writers labour under acute poverty and relative obscurity, a huge monetary prize with its concomitant glitz and blitz like the NLNG Prize will sooner act as a form of censorship on our literature, where writers will now abdicate the high call of the muse and their passions to pander to the whims and caprices of a five-man oligarchy of judges.
The pertinent question that urgently begs for an answer is: how has the writer fared aesthetically in balancing topicality with art in his works on the Niger Delta? Or does he fall foul of what the critic, Charles Larson, calls tending “to cater for the rather transitional reader, more interested in the sensational and the momentary than that which gives an indication of literary pretence at all?” We shall attempt to answer these vexed questions in our examination of Yerima’s Little Drops …
Set in the Niger Delta, Yerima’s Little Drops … is a thesis play on the effect of crises or wars on women and children, the often-neglected victims. The playwright made this very clear from the outset in his Author’s Note, when he stated: “My new play is about people. People who touch my heart and draw me so close towards shedding little drops of tears. In their uniquely fearsome life they shed more … of blood … of Ogogoro … of rain … and of life. And yet sadly, no one talks about them. They are the women. These are the people in my new sad … very dark play.” The play opens at the home of a 70-year-old Memekize, a cleared space by the riverbank, surrounded by a swampy forest. We hear a sound of gunshots from afar, suggestive that all is not well. One after the other, three women on the run from the JTF (Joint Task Force) soldiers and the militants find a temporary refuge at the old woman’s home. We meet Mukume who was raped thrice a day after she had “just got married, four days ago.” (p. 17) but was torn from her husband, Ovievie, because of an internal fight among the militants. Azue, the young queen on the run with the baby prince, after her husband, “the king died like an animal at the shrines.” (p. 23) with the eyes of his headless body still twitching with life. And then Bonuwo, in her mid-forties, who had witnessed forty-one school children between the ages of seven and eight blown to smithereens in the fracas. All these three women find ephemeral shelter in the home of this agile woman of seventy who too has her own gory tale of losing both her husband and two sons in a day during the Nigerian Civil War, “A shell. It tore them to pieces. I never picked one complete. I found a head there … a limb here … a toe … a finger … manacled trunks.” (p. 34). The rhythm of violence in the Niger Delta is well captured in this play. The endless kidnappings of white men and big officials of multinational oil companies, attacks on cargo ships, blowing up of oil refineries and rigs, fight with JTF soldiers and raping of women and little girls, portray the Niger Delta as a place of savagery, debauchery, violence, betrayals, intrigues, etc. In the midst of this holocaust, the innocent victims are the women and children. Like J. P. Clark’s Wives’ Revolt, Yerima champions the cause of the voiceless women in the Niger Delta in this play. He depicts a patriarchal society where the women are always at the receiving end both during peacetime and war periods. Memekize narrates how women are treated as exemplified by the king who was later beheaded by the militants: “He sent his wives packing. Those who started life with him, now smelt of age when his wealth arrived. Their only crime was that they all had female children. By the time the little girl had a son … the prince … the heir-apparent … his madness was complete.” (p. 24). And during war times, Memekize continues: “women and the innocent children will always lose their lives.” (p. 63) and when they do not, they must contend with loneliness like the young queen whose husband and little prince (son) were killed, “They killed my men. Now I am naked … naked for the common world to jeer at “(p. 32). Despite these odds, Yerima celebrates the indefatigable spirit of women in the face of the greatest calamity. Single-handedly, Memekize buried her husband and two sons during the Biafran War, removes two bullets from a militant’s body, Kuru’s, and refuses to run away but stay put in her home: “No. I have all I need here. And besides my home is here … remember?” (p. 65). Like most feminists, Yerima portrays the male, often-offstage characters to be very weak. Ovievie ran away when the rival militants came for him, leaving his new wife at their mercy. The men are only bullies and not strong like the militant Kuru, who “charged in like a lion and fell like a twig” (p. 56), “once most powerful man in the swamp, lying on the mat, helpless” (p.57). Memekize crowns this humiliation of the menfolks when she says: “Hold him. Now, women, this is the time to become real mothers of the clan. See a man groan in raw pain” (p. 55). As if this humiliation is not enough, the women characters round it off with a victory song, forcing Kuru to sing or die, in an apparent display of the dictatorship of women! The women’s position in this war is very clear – they want peace in the Niger Delta. Azue reaffirms this stand by forcing Kuru to swear with the knife that slit her husband’s throat that he will never kill anyone again. Enough is enough to this mad, senseless violence in the Niger Delta, the women seem to be saying to both the JTF soldiers and the militants; sheathe your blood-red swords and allow peace chance. As Yerima put it in the mouth of his character, the inimitable Memekize, “We have not sent anyone to kill and die for us. We want peace. We are tired of burying our beloved ones … Your cause has become a selfish one, and we don’t want you any more … This masquerade has outlived his usefulness” (pp. 52 – 54).
In this socially-committed play, Yerima makes no secret of the topical issues that he addresses. He paints a horrifying picture of the environmental ogre that the Niger Delta has become as a result of oil prospecting and drilling. Before this degradation began, fishing, as Memekize describes, is one of the major means of sustenance of the people of the Niger Delta, “My family were fishermen before the other war took them. And I was the best fish seller in this part of the Creek (sic), but now the water is polluted. Oil kills the fishes before we get there” (pp. 61 -62). This marked the genesis of the Niger Delta crisis, where the present-day scenario is rape, blowing up of oil rigs or refineries, blackmail, intrigues and kidnapping, “I hear they are after a gang of boys who blew up an oil refinery. They have released the kidnapped white men, and are having a party with the young women who live there” (p. 21), laments Azue, the young, widowed queen. These seemingly endless feuds between the oil companies, the government, local chiefs can hardly be described better than directly from the mouth of the militant, Kuru, in the following instructive words:
People must be part of the division of wealth. The oil companies are playing a game of divide and rule with us. They think they are smart. There are some people in government and in high places who believe that the Niger Delta people must be taught a lesson, so each law is against us. Each law is without us. Even our big men are covered with too much tea drinking that they forget the true cause of their people. But they will see. We shall destroy everything … everything …everything. Total break up!” (p. 63).

Perhaps, it was because of the failure of the refined treading on the dialogue path which led to the hanging of Ken Saro Wiwa and the other Ogoni men, culminating in this “they will see” kind of militancy in the Niger Delta. The topicality of this play can be so unsophiscated at times to the point of nausea like when the case of Dokumo Asari is described by Ovievie thus:
Our leader had been arrested by government to advise them on how to solve the Niger Delta region conflict. He had trusted the president, but when he was arrested, we became restless. We became worried. And when we saw his picture in handcuffs we ran mad. Each with a plan of vengeance. Before I realized it, the boys had broken up into a different camps with no leader. We lost total control. I am sorry. The boys who came for me … us … were from one of those rebel camps.” (p. 48)

It is quite appalling how literature can be used as a political tract, bereft of literary finesse and subtlety. Perhaps, Yerima feels that being overtly political will strike home his message, tinged with cynicism when he made his militant character Kuru to lampoon the amnesty programme of the federal government thus: “The amnesty could not sell. There was no consultation with us who were to be granted the amnesty. Just a few men sat in the capital and worked out a one-sided agreement some of our leaders rejected it. “(p. 60). Can Yerima be acquitted of having struck an equitable balance between the topicality of his play and his art as a playwright in this work?
Modelled after Ibsenian dramaturgy, the characters’ past is retold as the audience meets them. However, unlike the great Norwegian playwright’s plays, the plot of this play is not sustained farther after the audience is introduced to the characters’ past. For example, in a bid to save her dear life, Mukume runs to Memekize’s home, and tells how she was celebrating honeymoon with her new husband “when all of a sudden, a loud gunshot noise came into the compound” (p.17) and then she was deserted by her husband and was raped by the three men. The young queen appears at Memekize’s home with a gory tale of how her king husband was killed like an animal at the shrines, “his stomach rising and falling as blood gushed out from his headless neck” (p. 23). So are Bonuwo and Kuru. The characters narrate how the crisis affected them before their appearance onstage, and after this the plot progresses no further except for the escape of Mukume, Azue, Bonuwa and Kuru through a canoe to a jetty. Granted that the conflict in this play is the crisis which mostly took place offstage, the play lacks a resolution and thus without a denouement. Nothing significant happens after all the major five characters meet except the retelling of their recent past and the trifles and bickering among one another; no any significant movement save for the characters’ unnerving holding of talks which the playwright used to deliver his sermon on the Niger Delta crisis. Secondly, in order not to appear as a prophet of doom, the play ends with an unrealistic optimism, rather forced. It is an escapist ending usually adopted by writers when the conflict created cannot be resolved. This is what happens to a work where the writer fails to listen to the creative muse within himself, but tends to please the readers and possibly judges of mouth-watering literary prizes who emphasize on social relevance that is not so gloomy like Ayi Kwei Armah”s The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born. Thirdly, for a long-time theatre practitioner like Yerima, one is saddened to find that there is no unique speech pattern for each character. Almost all the characters use the expressions “by the gods” and “Ayiba”, which shows that this is a hastily produced work to meet a certain deadline. The play also suffers from poor editing in consequence, riddled with grammatical and typographical errors such as: “a painting … hunting me always” (p. 6), “all these madness” (p. 15), “winding nights” (p.19), “the palace of the king … raised it to the ground” (p. 28), “been ordained the looser…” (p.35) and “no one could seat on the fence” (p. 48).
Based on the foregoing, there is no gainsaying the fact that in Yerima’s Little Drops …, art becomes the scapegoat, crucified on the altar of topicality. Entertainment as the primary goal of art is jettisoned in favour of the momentary and the sensational. Writing on why entertainment is not an unworthy art, W. H. Auden stated that: “It demands a higher standard of technique and a greater lack of self-regard than the average man is prepared to attempt... there have been and are many writers of excellent sensibility whose work is spoiled by a bogus vision which deprives it of the entertainment value it otherwise would have had …” The same thing can be said of almost all the works on the Niger Delta crisis daily churned out by our writers. Very soon, our literature will be littered with many unreadable political tracts on the Niger Delta under the guise of art and ours shall be the tragic fate of the Ancient Mariner:
Water, water, everywhere
Nor any drop to drink.

Re-creating Shakespeare's Othello in Yerima's Otaelo

By Isaac Attah Ogezi
In a moving tribute to his friend, William Shakespeare, in 1623, the English writer, Ben Jonson, in his poem “To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author”, prophesied the timeless influence of the former when he penned thus: “He was not of an age, but for all time!’ The universality of Shakespeare’s mind is so great that Dr. Samuel Johnson, writing a century later, said that “We owe Shakespeare everything” because he has taught us through his immortal works how to understand the human nature, the inherent heart of darkness that is man, the good, bad and ugly sides of humanity. Shakespeare’s importance to world literature cannot be over-emphasized. This is evident in the endless translations of his works into several languages of the world and the countless adaptations birthed by his works. One of such latest efforts is Ahmed Yerima’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s arguably most topical and accessible tragedy, Othello, under the title Otaelo.
Yerima’s fascination with Shakespeare dates back several decades ago, as he wrote in the Author’s Notes, “When I first encountered the genius called William Shakespeare through his works, I wondered sometimes with childish envy how God had endowed one man with such a profound creative mind … It was for me and millions of dramatists like me to translate his works into our language, into our cultural reality, into our human, social and religious sensibility” (p. 6). Otaelo is the brain child of this fascination; Yerima’s own version or stage adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello.
Set in the Igbo village of Umuagu, south-eastern Nigeria, Yerima’s Otaelo is based, like Shakespeare’s Othello, on the themes of love, jealousy, deception, prejudice and destruction. It tells the story of Chinyere, the only child of the Igwe, who turns down all eligible suitors only to nurse some intense, “abominable” feelings for an osu, Otaelo. Interestingly, these feelings are reciprocated such that upon the victorious return of the Igwe along with the warlords from the war, the Igwe, like King Herod the tetrarch in the Bible, raises his ofor, places it on Otaelo’s shoulder, and then his chest, kisses the ofor and says: “By the gods, I swear whatever you wish, I shall grant” (p. 16). To the greatest shock of everybody in the palace, Otaelo asks for the hand of the Igwe’s only child Chinyere in marriage. The rest is pandemonium. In a word, this indecent request by an osu almost causes an upheaval in the village of Umuagu, but there is no turning back. The Igwe’s word is law except only if the daredevil osu could reverse his sacrilegious request. Much against the popular will of the people and the gods, the Igwe gives out the hand of his willing daughter in marriage to Otaelo on the gods’ condition that they never set foot on the soil of Umuagu again after their marriage. Going into a trance, Okaramuo warns: “The gods decree, to save the throne let the Osu (Otaelo) and your daughter marry in three days’ time. His god Ala protects him. Both the Osu and his wife must never set foot on the soil of Umuagu again after they are married” (p. 28.). A marriage to an osu wittingly or unwittingly automatically makes the freeborn partner like Chinyere an osu, the same way as running into a shrine of a god for protection. Based on the gods’ stringent condition, the lovers’ fate is sealed and after their marriage, they leave the village of Umuagu. Unfortunately for them, they have reckoned without the betrayals, intrigues, jealousies and destruction of life, thence the harvest of deaths that marks their tragic end in the play.
In this adaptation, Yerima took his raw material from Shakespeare’s Othello, to address the lingering, decadent and outlandish osu caste system in Igboland which is viewed even worse than racism (mere differences in colour between dark Othello and the lily-white Desdemona). He has used his dramatic licence very effectively in this play to use the Igbo as his fictive people, their culture as his culture, their gods and practice as the backdrop of this tragedy. The choice of the osu caste system is very apt as this is perhaps the most traumatic, dogged practice among the Igbo people which separates man from his fellow man, sets other people apart for the gods, even worse than slaves. This evil practice like racial prejudice has torn friends and lovers apart as in Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, where Obi and Clara fall victims of this evil practice. Yerima has been able to recreate the Igbo world-views, atmosphere, the flora and fauna of its people, the idioms and proverbs, etc., in this play. His deliberate use of language and imagery to impose his vision on the older work and to situate it within the Igbo social reality is worthy of commendation. The effective use of jigida, waist-beads, is more emotional and significant to his Igbo, nay, African audiences than the trite, rather highbrow, Western and unsentimental handkerchief in Othello. According to the playwright:

My adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Othello which I titled Otaelo is based only on Shakespeare’s theme of jealousy and intrigues. The adaptation is based on the Igbo Osu tradition, and the characters’ names change, the situation changes, the sensibilities change but the “jigida” which is the new symbol of love which represents the handkerchief of Shakespeare’s original play still serves as the destructive metaphor in the adaptation. (p. 124, Ahmed Yerima: Basic Techniques in Playwriting, 2003)

Yerima’s thematic pre-occupation in this play, like his elder compatriot, Chinua Achebe in No Longer at Ease, is to draw a critical and urgent attention to the inherent harm in this evil practice among the Igbo. He cannot imagine the traditional sanctioning of ostracization of a certain section of the society for what their ancestors knowingly or unknowingly committed, akin to the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children right up to the last generation. Otaelo’s case, like many cases in Igboland, is particularly touching. His mother killed his father by mistake while he was still in her womb. In a bid to run away from the punishment of death, she “ran to the shrine of Ala for protection. There she became an Osu, and after I was born, she was still used for sacrifice to the gods she ran to for protection” (pp. 34 and 35). Otaelo seems to be speaking the minds of all those ostracized for no fault of their own in the unholy name of a tradition that has long outlived its importance, when he poignantly cries:

Does blood not flow in my veins? Do I not cry, laugh or feel the pangs of pain like anybody? … Let her! Let her share in the chorus of pain which I sing all my life. What did I do wrong? Did I ask to be born by her? In obeying the nature of birth and passing through her passage of life, I offended the earth. That singular act, though no fault of mine makes me today an untouchable” (pp. 34 and 35).

However, the question is: how successful is Yerima’s Otaelo as a tragedy? Otaelo as the central character has all the attributes of a tragic hero – his grass-to-grace success story like Shakespeare’s Othello and Rotimi’s Odewale in The Gods are Not to Blame, his bravery, and, of course, the tragic flaw of vaulting jealousy and the penchant for hasty actions. But do these attributes alone qualify Otaelo as a great tragedy in the class of Shakespeare’s or even the Greek tragedies? Methinks, the answer must be in the negative. For one thing, Yerima’s Otaelo lacks the elevated language of Shakespeare’s Othello enough to make it a full-scale tragedy of great grandeur. No one can satisfactorily discuss tragedies without recourse being had to language at its most sublime, the intensity of emotions which can only and aptly be captured by a dexterous use of sublime language. When Shakespeare’s Othello discovers his folly in killing an innocent Desdemona, he cries lyrically thus:
O cursed, cursed slave! Whip me, ye devils,
From the possession of this heavenly sight!
Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulphur,
Wash me in steep-down gulf of liquid fire!
O Desdemon! Dead Desdemon: dead! O, O!
(p. 130, William Shakespeare: Othello, Wordsworth Classics edition, 2003).
This kind of heightened language is lacking in Yerima’s Otaelo. Placed in a similar circumstance, when Otaelo discovers his folly, he walks slowly to the lifeless body of Chinyere and says: “Oh the gods have pity on my soul. Wait Chinyere, my princess, my wife, don’t go too far” (p 56). Yerima’s language in this play is cliché-ridden in most emotional scenes where sublime poetry should be able to express the emotions of the characters better. Earlier in the play, Otaelo and Chinyere meet after the elders of the land, the Ndiche, have decided on the course of action to take, Otaelo prosaically tells Chinyere in a rather threadbare, melodramatic and childish language that: “I love you, too more than life. For in you I have the freedom of heart. Not because you are a princess, but because, you control the air that I breathe” (p. 36). To compensate for this dearth of enough highly poetic language to express their emotions effectively, the playwright made Chinyere raise her right arm slowly and says: “This is my love I want to express, and I want to keep with you and in you, forever. Here … cut” (p. 36). And amateurishly, Otaelo brings out his right arm, cuts her, and cuts him and they both suck in a blood-oath! (p. 36). Secondly, when pathos is not well evoked in a play to attain the cathartic level of a high tragedy called purgation, such a tragedy cannot be said to be a success. Thence marks the inadequacy of Yerima’s Otaelo as a tragedy and a work of art. Writing on the inadequacy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a work of art, the poet-critic T. S. Eliot in a famous essay in 1919, submitted: “Hamlet, like the sonnets is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art … in the character Hamlet, it is the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action; in the dramatist it is the buffoonery of an emotion which he cannot express in art.” The same can be said of Yerima’s Otaelo. For example, the choice of Chinyere, the Igwe’s only child and daughter by the playwright to break so serious a traditional taboo such as the osu caste system instead of heightening the emotional intensity of the play, rather does the opposite, as it trivializes the magnitude and seriousness of the osu caste system among the Igbo, and exposes how little the playwright knows about the Igbo traditions. Thus, the reaction of the Igwe as the custodian of his people’s culture to such an abomination is most unrealistic. Perhaps if the playwright had used an elder statesman’s daughter in the society rather than the Igwe’s as in Shakespeare’s Othello, it would have added some verisimilitude to the work. Besides, in an egalitarian and highly ultra-democratic society such as the Igbo, the Igwe’s word is not law like Ezeulu in Achebe’s Arrow of God. In consequence, it is manifestly wrong for Chinyere to say that: “Since my father has sworn by his Ofor, his word is law” (p. 25). The Igwe’s ofor as the symbol of authority cannot be used to break a time-hallowed tradition like the osu caste system, enough for the Igwe to say to an osu: “By the gods, I swear, whatever you wish, I shall grant. Speak, my honour is before you” (p. 16). The violation of a sacrilege by the Igwe is not a personal matter but communal in nature. In writing about a culture that is not one’s, it behooves on the writer embarking on such a task to undertake an in-depth research into the traditions of such people, their world-views, belief system, mores, norms and values which it obviously appears Yerima has not done enough in this play.
Be that as it may, Yerima’s Otaelo is a great contribution to the perennial fight against the social anathema among the Igbo called the osu caste system. It is socially committed and may perhaps force some die-hard practitioners to have a rethink despite the failings of the play as a tragedy and a work of art. The problem with adapting the work of a great dramatist like Shakespeare is that the later work will more often than not pale into insignificance when compared to the supreme art of the former like a midget before a giant.