Saturday, September 19, 2015

Jallo, Abba, and Egwuda: Three New Exciting Voices in Nigerian Drama

By Isaac Attah Ogezi Nigerian literature in the 21st century could be said to be at its golden age if proliferation of texts is the sole criterion to go by. However, the only genre that lags behind in this age of proliferation of literary production is inarguably drama. This lacklustre state of the Nigeria’s world of the stage prompted Osofisan, a seasoned playwright and drama scholar, to lament thus: ‘Plays and playwrights are too obviously in short supply…twwdci phvbkm Whereas prose fiction shows a more or less robust growth, and poems are proliferating like water hyacinths, plays do not seem to inspire an equal devotion or enthusiasm among our writers. Mention Ahmed Yerima, Stella Oyedepo, Oguntokun, Julie Okoh, ChimaUtoh, and Irene Salami, and you exhaust the list.’ One cannot agree less with that assertion. This paucity of plays and playwrights could be attributed to many factors, which do not form the raison d’etre of this discourse. Unfortunately, the few plays available are of indifferent, if not mediocre, quality. It is salutary that despite this vegetable state of modern Nigerian drama, there are a few negligible exciting voices. Zainabu Jallo, Friday John Abba and EmekaEgwuda are obviously the silver linings behind this apparently gloomy cloud. In this work, the present writer shall examine the plays of each of these playwrights which he considers his or her best and the stagecraft deployed therein to warrant their induction into this hall of fame. The three plays are: Jallo’sOnions Make us Cry, Abba’sAlekwu Night Dance andEgwuda’s Esoteric Dialogue. Jallo’sfascinating and original play, Onions Make us Cry, tells the story of a 36-year-old Malinda, a patient of post-traumatic stress disorder who is standing trial for the murder of her husband. Through the adroit use of Ibsenian retrospective technique, the reader gets to know the accumulation of stress which precipitated the homicide. Perhaps what makes Onions Make us Cry captivating is the astonishingly blissful marriage of form and content in a most satisfying manner. The heroine Malinda who is being investigated for a catatonic schizophrenia is invested with the unique language that is in consonance with her traumatic state, a hybrid of the poetic and the absurd like Professor in Soyinka’s The Road. In narrating how she met her husband DJ, Malinda says on page 37: ‘If I am asked, “Who really are you Malinda?” I should like to say, “I am what I want to be.” Can’t be too sure now … see? Fate’s arrows got me wounded badly. Shame. In Club Havana, we met between silly giggles and a few drinks; the stage was set.’ After marriage, Malinda watches ‘DJ’s venom spread faster’ (p. 3) than she could control. Despite this absence of joy in the family, exacerbated, no doubt, by the theatrics of politics and ‘campaign strains’ (p. 37), the world only saw the glistening shell while she felt like ‘the bane of being a puppet on a falling string. I often was stone’. It is in this agitated and schizophrenic mind that she dreaded he was going to kill her: ‘He wasn’t DJ any more. His eyes told me so. He’d been completely possessed. The goblin who got his soul was the worst type. ’ (p. 38) Onions Make us Cry is not only about Jallo’s central character Malinda, but also about Lola Gambari, the clinical psychologist attending to the former who ironically needs help in a pure case of the physician being the patient in a reversal of roles. Concerning psycho talk, Malinda tells Lola: ‘You need one yourself you know’ (p. 30). The undercurrent of violence against women permeates through the work in a rather subtle, albeit devastating manner. Married for the second time to Ali, Lola shows her patient Malinda a handful of hair rooted out by her husband: ‘Rooted them out last day I was here. It gave me a wild migraine. I had to call in sick.’ (p. 39) Touched, the patient Malinda playing the role of a physician now prescribes: ‘How I detest the psycho talk… You need one yourself You know… I know, because I was you… Hmm, my panoramic view tells me the melodrama will swallow you up … like Jonah and the mysterious whale … not like you aren’t aware. You know what to do Lola Gambari… you could be smarter than me.’ (p. 30) Jallo in this work seems to be saying that most women’s psychological trauma is male-induced like Malinda’s, Lola’s and the other female inmate’s in the next room to Malinda’s. As the writer aptly put it in the mouth of her character Malinda: ‘Ellen is the name of the lady who stays in the next room, right? [Lola nods] Well, she keeps yelling into my sleep at someone called Joe, who lured her into believing they both will take on the roles of man and wife. On her finger, he put a diamond ring, in her head, crystal hopes. He is married to another… She talks like Joe is sitting there with her. When she begins to scream, I guess it’s Zipporah – you know, the other lady Joe ran off with – she sees!’ (p. 17) Using the canvas of the stage, Jallo paints a universal world where the border between sanity and insanity is blurred. Malinda’s last statement in Situation Four sums up the pathetic state of humanity squirming in the muck of insanity: ‘Well, everyone is a patient of something!’ (p. 33). She tells her clinical psychologist Lola, ‘You’d need to check yourself in here as well Lola Gambari’ (p. 21). This maze of a world that the entire humanity helplessly finds itself, ‘stuck in a situation’ (p. 17) that is beyond it, that it does not want to be in, ‘jumbled labyrinth. An uncanny invisible ensemble plays’ (p. 44) like the two tramps waiting for a phantom being in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In this slim play, Jallo has shown that feminism can still be aesthetically and subtly championed without recourse to the overt propaganda tracts that spew violence against women on every page. In delving into the minds of her characters, she has been able to go beyond mere story-telling into the realm of psychology that the reader or viewer might think that she is a trained clinical psychologist herself like her character Lola. Arguably,the only Nigerian playwright who has attempted a similar hybrid of the theatre and psychology apart from Jallo is RasheedGbadamosi in his Behold, my Redeemer. The modern Nigerian theatre does not only need new names but also experimental, avant-garde voices like Jallo that will boot awake the apparently comatose stage from the tiny corners of our ivory towers. On the other hand, Abba’s crime play, Alekwu Night Dance, stands out from many new Nigerian plays for its successful blend of a suspenseful plot, set in motion by a murder,and the role of the Alekwu myth in the punishment of such desecrations. Set in the rustic Idoma village of O’lano, Alekwy Night Dance tells the story of a young Iganya, ravished and brutally murdered.Oyilo, blood-splattered, is discovered by three men holding a dagger with the woman’s lifeless body lying in the pool of her blood beneath him. Circumstantially, the villagers are agreed that he is the culprit but Oche, the village head, refuses to be drawn into the general conclusion and advises caution. Like OvonramweninRotimi’sOvonramwenNogbaisi, Oche finds himself in a great dilemma when his people want him to act instead of soliciting for patience: ‘I have not gone through this kind of experience before now. It never even crossed my mind that a situation like the one I face today could come near me. Ochanya, this is hard. I have consulted with Alekwu through Obialekwu and what they have asked for is patience. But how can I remain patient when I am under pressure from my people to act?’ (pp. 40-41) The question is who killed Iganya? Is it Oyilo who is seemingly caught red-handed or who? This gives rise to conspiracy theories culminating in the angry youth who feel Oche and Oyilo are in collusion and pounce on the duo, killing them in a most heinous manner. Unfortunately, they have reckoned without the wrath of Alekwu. The seeming return of peace to Ol’ano after the gruesome murder of Oyilo and Oche by the mob is however short-lived as one mysterious catastrophe follows hot upon the heels of another in the village – flooding, snake-bites, epidemics and many others. To expiate this calamity, fingers are pointed at one another resulting in a pandemonium of uncontrolled rage and reprisals before Obialekwu steps in to reveal rather belatedly and most astoundingly the culprit behind Iganya’s murder. In this breathtakingly suspenseful tragedy, Abba espouses the Idoma world-views, mores and values only equalled by SamshudeenAmali’s bilingual plays. He has done to the Idoma race what older compatriots such as Achebe, Soyinka, Rotimi and Amali have done to their ethnic groups in their works. The pre-colonial Idoma society is steeped in superstitions and revers the place of the spirits of the dead and Alekwu on the course of the events of the living. The much-dreaded Alekwu is reputed to be imbued with the ability to recompense all evil. As the playwright put it in the mouth of the character Ad’Onyilo, thus: ‘Alekwu acts at his time. When the woman who slept with the other man thought that nothing would happen, didn’t all her children die? Didn’t her husband who knew about it without doing anything die of a mysterious ailment? Didn’t she lose her head before eventually joining the others? Abutu, Alekwu acts decisively.’ (p. 105). One could say that the playwright seems to believe in the cause-effect intervention of Alekwu himself as he afflicts Enokela who killedIganya with madness. Enenche and Abah, the two children of Ochai who sends Enokela to dishonor Iganya ‘were both smitten by snakes in their house but at about the same moment’ (p. 112). Even the flood that caused untold destruction to houses and crops is attributed to the wrath of Alekwu over the wanton shedding of blood in Ol’ano. Inalegwu laments: ‘The land is still under a curse; the spirits are still not at peace with us. It is not normal for the rain to uncover graves and let out decomposed and decomposing bodies. In their anger, the spirits left Ol’ano littered with filth and bodies and death.’ (p. 88) In fact, the belief in Alekwu is so pervasive in this play such that the playwright resorts to it via the intervention of the chief priest of Alekwu, Obialekwu, in resolving the conflict in the play in a sort of deus ex machina. What prompts Ochai to let out a loud cry and confess his involvement in the death of Iganya is as a result of the piercing eyes of Obialekwu which appear to strip him naked: ‘Enter Obialekwu. Elders make way for Obialekwu who stops beside Ochai… Obialekwu remains silent not taking his eyes off Ochai’ (pp. 113 – 114). One wonders whether the belated intervention of Alekwu is for reasons of dramaturgy or a sharp criticism of the Alewku itself or a misconception of the Alekwu myth as a whole by the playwright? According to Oche: ‘Alekwu is angry over the reprisals going on. I have spoken with Obialekwu and I know that Alekwu has forbidden him from coming to this Council’ (p. 41). It is easy to surmise that either the playwright, as an anti-god proponent like Euripides in his early works, deliberately intended to portray Alekwu as being too slow and weak and impervious to the plight of his worshippers or in a bid to score a theatrical point, he misinterpreted the Alekwu myth, for it is indeedamazing that it takes Alekwu to intervene only when Ol’ano is at the brink of extermination. Such a god or spirits of the dead deserve to be spurned and not venerated. The foregoing notwithstanding, Abba’s timeless central theme of appearances versus reality is not affected in any way by such cultural anomaly. For a debutant playwright, he has written a good play even though at the expense of his people and in consequence has achieved the opposite of what he sought to do by turning the culture of his people on its head. Egwuda’s verse play, Esoteric Dialogue, is quite different from the two previous plays. This is because of its bold experimentation with dramatic language and form. Esoteric Dialogue is a versified parable for the stage about the courage of one man who stands firm and alone despite the gale of corruption and greed that his country is enmeshed in. Set in a modern-day Nigeria, the play revolves around an iconic character called Prof. S.B. Lanka who is, according to his wife Rebecca, possessed by the demon of poetry that ‘he prefers to achieve his rhyme/At the expense of an important answer’ (p. 23). This enigma of a character can better be summed up by what Lady Ann in the end of the play says about him: ‘An uncommon human being … A man who refused to be corrupted, A man who – in the face of political intrigues And mudslinging – holds firm to his genuine Principle and good conscience for the service Of his country and humanity in entirety …’ (p. 97). Owing to the industrial action embarked by the universities nation-wide, Prof. Lanka becomes a ‘self-employed intellectual’ (p. 16) and militant poet who is often taunted by his wife for his inability to make ends meet. At the opening scene, Rebecca accuses him for failing in his responsibility as a husband: ‘What man is that that calls himself a husband/Who cannot take responsibility for his wife?’ (p. 14). However, when it appears the economic situation of the Lankas will be improved, thanks to the American visa lottery that the wife wins, Prof. refuses to jubilate with her because, ‘To live in another man’s paradise/And be seen as a parasite’ (p.35) is not his idea of living. Perhaps the turning-point in the Lankas’ lives is the appointment into the federal Cabinet of Prof. as Chairman of Oil Revenues Board. At first, he sees it as a Greek gift and refuses stoutly the appointment, ‘No, I cannot serve this government’ (p.50). It takes the astuteness of his wife who convenes an emergency meeting of both families to bear upon him to change his mind, as ‘They can’t afford to miss America and miss a/Government appointment for principle’s sake’ (p.50). For a man ‘known for his extreme radicalism’ (p. 49), the reader is not surprised that Prof. finds himself a misfit among his new colleagues in the government. He refuses to dole out public money to a lady, Julie, sent to him from Senator Amdou, and is adamant about okaying a proposal by his friend Barrister Krombul on the ground that it ‘is highly inflated’ (p.58). The last straw is when he sits upon a presidential order by refusing to approve funds for the President’s re-election. He is arrested on trumped-up charges of misappropriation of public funds worth thirty-four billion naira and taking a bribe from a contractor. The panel of questionable personalities set up to probe him has reckoned without the irate students and area boys who see Prof. as a national hero. In the end, Prof. is mob-vindicated and decorated with several honoursand his statute erected as ‘a martyr of justice’ (p. 93). What at first glance is remarkably original about this dark comedy is the intrepid technical experiment with free verse and rhyming couplets at the same time. While the other characters speak in free verse, Prof. Lanka, the extreme radical and militant poet, speaks in rhymes and couplets as a mark of his intellectual profundity. This has unfortunately in a few instances posed as a great setback thereby distorting the free flow of Prof.’s thoughts. For example, while in his solitary cell, Prof. says rather to himself: ‘O Prof, poor soul, your memory is full. O Muse, what shall I say to you; it’s full To the brim. Suffer me not at all; kiss Not my ears with your whispering lips. Peace Is far from me.Give me today enough sorrow, Abundance of it that sustains tomorrow –’ (p.71) Or consider the forced rhyming in the following couplets: ‘Here they come! Are you with your manacle? Have my hands and bind me. O what a spectacle!’ (p. 69) ‘As you can see, higher in the ladder of his destiny I receive with joy this priceless prize. O mutiny!’ (p. 101) Prof.’s thoughts are rather disjointed and pedantic, because of the insistence on using rhyming couplets. This will also pose as a great challenge to the actor playing the part of the Prof. owing to the unnaturalness of the rhymed poetry, quite unlike Moliere’s free-flowing The Misanthrope. More worrisome, of course, are instances where the end-lines do not rhyme properly such as: ‘Each time you nag and scold me like a tart In spite of your little understanding, I deserve a pat’ (p. 15) ‘To live in another man’s paradise And be seen as a parasite’ (p. 35) ‘The Scripture: “What God has joined together, Let no man, let not America - put asunder’ (p. 37) ‘Children, as you’re at the threshold of menopause To wean a child now, you’ll look like a wet-nurse’ (p. 42) ‘An unfortunate adulterer: “Daddy! Daddy! I av pooh-pooh.” Would I, before my friends, be nobler than a nincompoop?’ (p. 43) Contrastingly, the free verse Prof. adopts in his prison poem on pages 98-99 is more eloquent than his rhyming-couplet speeches in the play. It is in this audacious experiment with dramatic language, thence lie the few lapses in the work. The playwright, carried away by his intention of making the play intellectually appealing as possible,falls victim of using language that verges on the bombastic such as ‘the success of every profession is by its material transmutation’ (p. 22), ‘Should be in the hospital as a patient of intellectual megalomania’ (p. 38), ‘America’s consolidating her world-powerism by this philately of humans…’ (p. 39), and ‘… will absolve it of any dubiety’ (p. 80). The use of quatrains in the song rendered by the chorus in the Epilogue is marred by archaic words like ‘tarry’ and ‘by and by’ and fourth-line end-rhymes such as ‘expos’d’, ‘depos’ed’, ‘repos’d’, , ‘compos’d’,‘oppos’d’ and ‘impos’d’. Like most works with intellectual and messianic missions, Esoteric Dialogue is overtly didactic and Marxist thereby reducing the characters to mere caricatures bereft of verisimilitude. Given the impressive quality of the above plays, there is surely a pinprick of optimism that this Cinderella of Nigerian literature can still have her beauty revamped, her plumage pilfered by other genres rightly restored to her. Jallo, the avant-garde, and arguably the most active, theatre practitioner of the trio, has gone ahead to publish a new play, Holy Night, since the release of her Onions Make us Cry in 2011. The Slave and the Crown and Haunted by Yesterday had preceded Egwuda’s Esoteric Dialogue, first published in 2005, though it is yet to have a successor. In the case of Abba, the new entrant into this fast-depleting pantheon of playwrights, one does hope that his Alekwu Night Dance is not a flash in the pan. These new names in drama, if sustained and encouraged, show that it is too early yet in the morning to strum an elegy for the Nigerian stage.

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