The stage performance of Cheta Igbokwe’s unpublished play, Awele, strikes one with the magic wand of arts and sends you smiling all through with the creative interpretation and representation of an age-long traditional cum supernatural phenomenon. Awele was staged at the New Arts Theatre, University of Nigeria, Nsukka from June 21st to June 23rd, 2023, directed by Ugochukwu Ugwu, under the auspices of The Maestro Theatre. As a fine work of art, the play holds its gripping effect from the scenery and the eerie rendition of music and sounds down to the cultural and realistic crux of the play.
Awele is a fine cultural dish that raises the consciousness of the audience to the question of afterlife. A friend, in a discussion after the performance, would choose to call the play a miracle, for how blunt and assertive it is with the concept of rebirth, and they (this friend) couldn’t help but agree that there can be an afterlife, that a soul continues its journey after now. When I sit to ruminate the stage performance, what strikes me as most significant is the recognition of the infinite dreams of man, how unendingly man can dream, can aspire; how dreaming is the occasion of a man’s limitlessness – how vast his mind can travel. And what do we eventually behold? A balanced affair where this limitlessness is still checked, still trammeled by some natural forces, of which death is an immediate instance.
The Igbo concept of rebirth has been present from the time of our progenitors, an undying mystery that does more to fire our hopes of meeting our loved ones again even when they pass. However, watching the stage interpretation of this concept raises a question in one’s mind, “What happens to the soul when it leaves the earth’s abode?” Awele is entirely unique for coursing a path where speculations and doubt meet: the spiritual business of reincarnation. When a person dies on earth, our business is to weep, mourn, bury the dead and hope for their continued presence amongst us in new spirit and new flesh. But we don’t often wonder, what happens to the soul that sojourns away from here?
In the play, we see the souls of some humans seeking a return to the earth to complete their life cycles which have somehow been hitched by the tragedies of this world. But another question to ask is, does every soul that leaves the earth deserve this chance of a return? Awele, the Great Deity herself, does not leave us in a conundrum and to speculate as to the answer to this question, as she reminds her assistant, Olekota, “Rebirth is for those who led a good first life.” A man’s life on earth, to a great degree, determines the fate of his soul after now, for according to the Great Deity (whose presence in the stage play is quite resonating), “the wicked shall be sent to the dark void to wander.”
The play smoothly follows the call and inspection of each soul. First, a woman, whose end is ushered in by her pitiable gullibility, whose pastor had assured her that she wouldn’t need medical attention for a safe delivery but the mighty powers of his sacred blade. Even Awele herself shudders at the gross wickedness of humanity and empathizes with each of these souls. One thing stands out upon the appearance of each soul and that is the omniscience of the Great Deity who knows well the story of each person, but allows Olekota to do some telling, a way of engaging the audience and emphasizing the traumatic tragedies that bring each of them before her.
The first man and second soul is a motorcyclist, who is punched injuriously by betrayal. The third is a vivacious dream chaser, a young woman who wishes to span the earth, travelling and penning down a travelogue, a dream to which Awele nods and remarks, “It is no crime in knowing the world.” But this woman is met with several failures in her attempt to obtain a visa and when one of these attempts mysteriously goes through, it brings her dreams to a brutal stop. Man is indeed allowed to dream, but upon the effectuation of his dreams, forces that are beyond the knowledge of man are always at play to hitch these dreams, digging a gully between man and his aspirations. Then comes the role of one’s chi – the Igbo cosmological personal god of a man – whose benevolence or malevolence determines a man’s fate while on earth. The final pair of souls to be judged are twin brothers, and their story is complicatedly conjoined in a manner which brings the play to a dramatic plot twist. These brothers – thieves in their former lives (good thieves, as antithetically described by Olekota) but pardoned by Awele, who resolves to bend their stubborn spirits – refuse to return to the earth, choosing instead to bargain their way to a smooth, aristocratic life. It is commendable at this stage of the play, the buildup of tension, the exaggeration of choices and the wonder on the lips of the audience, “Why would Awele offer these boys the rare chance of actually choosing what their lives become?”
Yet, it doesn’t come without its constraints. Awele, an omniscient deity, understands that foolery comes to play whenever a man is given a chance to choose for himself, and this occasions the tragedy of these brothers, even when their pardon has been signed and sealed by the Great Deity. In offering them a chance, Awele agrees that man has choices, choices that influence his destiny. But in truth, man is not his own chi and so he must be obliging to some principles. For the two boys, Awele warns, “You must not waste Awele’s time,” – a stern reminder of consequences which bridle the chances a man actually has.
In Awele’s words, “Don’t look back; the world is yours,” each soul reborn is armed with dominance, with unfettered dreams to explore. But does it end with this? She further explains that “Man has needs but does not know his needs,” an introduction to the ignorance of man as one of the inhibitions to his liberty. The Igbo has apt adage that follows, ‘Onye kwe, chi ya ekwe,’, yet in some cases, man does not understand what he should agree to. Chi is not some dormant entity simply sitting by, readyinf for a man’s affirmation. I’d see Chi as an indulgent divinity, who is not altogether too acquiescent and docile, but engages to substantiate or dissolve the dreams of man. And in her blessings to each soul that goes back to earth, Awele affords a man’s chi the central position in his life and charges man to understand the demands of his chi and provide thusly. How complicated the fortune of man becomes!
In creating the character of “Awele”, Igbokwe’s creative expertise must be commended. This is because Awele is a spirit, yet in full knowledge of the world and its evolution, in full understanding of medical terminology, able to proffer strings of medical advice to the first woman. Additionally, the full regalia of her spirithood is especially accentuated in her slow enigmatic dances, sharp caution, and knowledge of the workings of the human heart. The role of the Great Deity is played by Grace Okonkwo, spiced with a laudable role interpretation, a command of authority just fitting for the status of a god/goddess. Olekota is played by Dansey U. Mbah (Mr. Dansey Original), also doubling as the Music Director, and he leaves us sated with his enunciations, the crescendo of his voice, the falsetto, especially in parts where he doubles as the praise singer of The Great Deity. The twin brothers are played by Innocent “Mc Onachi” Chisom and Simon Ugwu. These characters wash the audience in amusement first with the comicality of their names – Mgbada (antelope) and Ehi (cow) respectively – and further extending it to their role interpretation which goes unfalteringly. Chika Ugorji plays the First Woman; Lauretta Ikeme plays the second woman and traveler and one is immediately drawn to the suave of her gold-tinted hair. The Motorcyclist is played by Toochukwu “Teekay” Oguayo, who memorably drags the audience to a carthatic height with his heartfelt sobs.
The scenery, ethereal, with paintings of clouds which draw the audience to the surrealness of the play, is managed by Roland Odo. The chorus delivers the function of elucidation. Following the blessings of Awele upon each soul, the chorus leader begins a resonating refrain, “Ozigala ha uwa ozo,” bringing to our minds the business Awele and Olekota have taken to execute. The chorus also functions to affirm and witness the action unfolding onstage. The costuming is deftly managed by Power Egbogu and Amazingrace Okonkwo, while the stage performance is produced by Innocent “Mc Onachi” Chisom. The stage performance lasts for about 1hour 25 minutes, bathing all that witnessed it with its sharp tragi-comic resolution.
Review was written by Okorie Divine. Okorie Divine is a student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. A Fiction writer and reviewer, his stories and reviews can be found on Brittle Paper, Fiction Niche, African Writers Magazine, Afreecan Read, Writer’s Space Africa and elsewhere. He loves talking about differences.
Review was edited by Chimee Adioha