4 August 2012

Nigeria: A Glimpse of Slavery's Painful Legacies


Odia Ofeimun's dance drama, Itoya, is a creative highlight of some slavery's painful legacies, writes LANRE ODUKOYA

Having staged his first dance drama in London in 1990 which was called Under African Skies, the world became his stage. Since then, he has put together successful more.

Itoya, a dance drama written and produced by Odia Ofeimun, with about the same size of syllables as Umoja, and to also call it "A Dance for Africa" seems to give the impression it would be just as the South African ensemble. But relaying the drama proved that the producer's scope is by far different from Umoja after all. "itoya: A Dance for Africa is a story of Africa from the trans-Saharan slave trade to the African Union, which is to mean the present. And we have tried to reflect the various issues across Africa which is not also a history of Africans in that sense because in one and a half hours, there's very little you can put together. Nonetheless, we have tried to identify the key issues that have worried African states. Many people think that the era of Afro-pessimism should be allowed to die but this dance drama is an attempt to remove that pessimism," Ofeimun explained.

Itoya is an Esan word (Edo State) and it means, "I can't tell what sufferings I've been through." On this premise hinged the story told in dance.

With an audible invocation from the Queen (Ogun Mawuyon), "I can't tell what sufferings I have been through in my odyssey from dream to dream that won't come true. I can't tell why the roads I take turn boomerang in my search for escape since the Big Bang," the play opens assisted by mellifluous sound from the background.

Two guards step on the stage and fierce argument over whether or not their kinsman, Barono should be whisked away without revenge and their Queen appears before the White Consul. The queen overheard them from her palace and in spontaneous response to what the two have been ranting over, takes side with the White Consul, insisting that the man whisked away is too blunt and not diplomatic at all. She argues that the whiteman does not have the same degree of tolerance as the black. She speaks of schools, hospitals and every other form of civilization that the white man has brought to Africa. But regarding the order that she should appear before the consul, the queen says she has been predestined to die silently in her own palace and never will become anyone's slave, come what may.

The consul's office comes on stage, and waiting furiously is the white man who could spit fire upon the queen's arrival with two gun-totting guards on both sides of his seat. Decked in a white military uniform, he looks very much like a man who desires a showdown. Suddenly, an army of African men with spears and swords surface battle-ready. Behind them is the queen whose appearance caused so much tremour to the counsel that he flees cowardly.

Barono, the African kinsman who was whisked away by Ambassador Anthonio, the consul, remains a source of worry to his people. One of the queen's guards whose opinion of Barono is that of a forthright man appears on stage, narrating the story of how the White man has condemned everything African and replaced its age-long ornaments with gospel artifacts like the rosary, cross, incense and so on. Afterwards, a dozen girls mount the stage to decorate it with different gospel items. Then a masquerade surfaces from the blues to seize the African map that has been on the stage for long. Afterwards, some men in black numbering about eight also return to the stage to rid it of those gospel emblems.

In the unfolding sequence after, Barono returns with stinging lamentation of his agony in the hands of the white men and how they've enslaved over 200 million productive African men to Europe. Slaves with tied limbs and tear-soaked eyes mount the stage in deplorable state as Barono continues his tale of woes.

To excite and create a sort of relief are pupils who take the stage once again, their chorus put their own motherland in disrepute but they are too ignorant to realize it. From the upper stage comes the Queen who condemns what the naïve kids are singing. But some apprehension dawns on her; how much knowledge can Africa reject? As soon as she asks the rhetorical question, her guard resurfaces again with an intelligent interjection. He says: "Africa is where Europe wants it to be". With Africa becoming strangers to its own tongues, renaming everything that ever mattered in its world, knowledge is the gain of the victor and ignorance for the defeated. Sounding very disillusioned, the guard also asks: "can Africa rise again? If it will, it must happen overnight," he concludes.

A new era is here with kids jumping and hopping on the stage in bikinis and some other very revealing outfits. The maids are wearing foreign wigs and dancing to a toast of a generation they cherish.

Transformation takes place after the scene; the queen who hitherto stays at the forefront of propagating African values becomes a professor while his guard who often disagrees with her becomes an army general; reflecting another era of civil and military regimes in Africa.

Taking opposing sides on all issues bordering on the state of Africa, the duo is forced to strike a chord of similarities in opinions at some point. But it is not to see the light of the day as the true African god appears causing tremor to the land while the duo fled the scene.

Directed by Felix Okolo, who the producer refers to as his director of all times, Itoya is a story reflecting nearly all that provoked Festac 77 as portrayed in all the accompanying soundtracks and not a tale of national times like Umoja which many thought would be replicated in the dance drama. The play was supported by Nigeria LNG.

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