-By Nosa Omorodion:
Joseph Nwamana’s plays, Ezeh Ojeh and The Great Flood have a unique feature of setting and style. These are styles he seems to have adopted in all his plays so far as they are first noticed in his first two plays – Sacrifice to the Dumb God and King Ozomo’s Quest.
These plays are basically stories that are related to events of the past in Aboh Kingdom, situated along the banks of the River Niger in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Justice is done to the setting, as the culture of the people is profoundly highlighted. The audience is led on an excursion into their beliefs, traditions and the dynamics of the society. Their dominant economic activity, which subsists on the natural resource, water – fishing, plays a major role in the description of the characters and their society. The River Niger is more than a locale; it is a symbol of the spiritual energy of the people. The plays, in summary, are set in Aboh kingdom and the neighbouring communities, and project the natural environment of a rain forest region.
Specifically, Ezeh Ojeh, subtitled, Festival of the Gods, has a dual setting. While the minor story from which the main story emanates is set in Ndoni, the main story is set in Aboh Kingdom. At Ndoni, the Iyiochi (King) and his subjects gather before Esumei (the Nwamana Narrator Character) with his Agidigbo dance and song group, as he unravels the main story before the Nyiochi and his enthusiastic subjects. The main story, which is relived by the storyteller, is set in Aboh Kingdom.
The Great Flood, on the other hand, is an old story of the Aboh Kingdom, told to the King of Aboh and his subjects in the Aboh Palace. It is a story about the threat to the survival of the Olisaemeka dynasty, which first appears with a tragic end in Joseph Nwamana’s first major play, Sacrifice to the Dumb God.
Eze Ojeh and The Great Flood are presented in the Nwamana tradition of a distinct narrator technique. It is an enterprise in originality. It deviates from the common European narrator style, where the narrator engages the theatre audience with the story as it unravels. In the two plays in question here, the narrator is a character in the minor story in which he recounts the events of the main story to an audience on stage. Instead of engaging the theatre audience, the narrator engages other characters that constitute another dramatic spectacle for the theatre audience.
The playwright handles this form so expertly that the minor play with its own dynamism does not distract critical attention from the main story. Although the main story can do without the minor one, they both give an overall enjoyment to the external or theatre audience or reader. There is an expert handling of the overall fluidity of form such that both plays are sequentially compatible.
The language of the plays complement the setting and characters. It is the language of the people sufficiently transliterated such that the nuances of local expressions are maintained. The playwright does not drift into giving the characters dialogue but rather makes them to express their original communication disposition. Furthermore, there is copious use of local names for various items ranging from fishing implements, musical instruments, objects of divination and religion to sundry others. This also helps in accentuating setting and the origin of the characters.
The play is rich in imagery, which is the norm of the linguistic culture of the setting. Proverbs and innuendoes play a great role in this regard. In the African setting such as the one in which Nwamana builds his plays, the use of imagery or figurative expressions does not subsist on class or caste as in European drama for instance; figurative expressions are used to amplify perceptions and ideas in the African society. It is therefore aptly pervasive in Nwamana’s plays which dwell upon grave matters that stir up serious conversations.
For plays that dwell so much on mysteries and religious beliefs, it is not out of character that symbolism is prominently featured. In this regard, the River Niger is portrayed as the spiritual essence of the land and its people. Their spiritual safeguard is in their relationship with the River. The flood that visits Aboh, from which the title of the play, The Great Flood derives, is ascribed to the sacrifice offered in propitiation for the abomination of Olisaemeka’s suicide in the play, Sacrifice to the Dumb God. The flood which though is threatening, finally becomes the channel through which the iconic crown of the Aboh kingship disappears and also returns.
In our concluding part of this review we shall be looking at the thematic expressions of the plays.
Incidentally, both plays share a similar controlling theme. They are thematically founded on the immutability of fate or destiny and the infallibility of the gods. This is an expression of the culture of the people, whereby fate is considered subject to the will of the gods or spiritual guardians of the community.
In Eze Ojeh, the protagonist, Obodoukwu is thrown into a struggle with the decision of the gods. They have determined that he cannot perform the prestigious role he is used to in the final rites of the Ojeh Festival. For a long time he has been the Eze Ojeh or King of Ojeh, who does the spiritual dance with accompanying rites. Without warning, Obodoukwu is suddenly told he cannot perform at an occasion for which he had looked forward and prepared. In the struggle that goes on in his mind, common human emotions of suspicion, humiliation, pride and hatred are aroused. In anger, he goes for a desperate measure to achieve his aim. He launches a spiritual attack on the new favourite of the gods, Ojugbeli, on the eve of the Ezeh Ojeh dance of which Ojugbeli was selected to perform instead of Obodoukwu.
Obodoukwu sees the selection of Ojugbeli as a humiliation. In stubborn resolve, he dismisses the advice of his persistently drunken mother to let go of his plot and accept his fate. He fights against the community and invariably, against the gods. For a moment, he literally brings the community, led by the Ochiokpala, the king, to their knees, when his incapacitating attack on the new Eze Ojeh, Ojugbeli succeeds.
In that moment of his seeming triumph, Obodoukwu finds happiness in getting back his customary role of the Eze Ojeh as he wears the attire and goes into performance.
Meanwhile, Ojugbeli also has his moment of struggle with an unexpected destiny suddenly imposed on him by the gods. He neither had the interest to be a dancer nor the ambition to become Eze Ojeh. He neither anticipated nor was he prepared for the task. However, with the encouragement of his father and the guidance of the Ugbana, Ojugbeli grows out of his fears and begins the journey by relevant preparation to take up the onerous responsibility.
Ojugbeli having been incapacitated, the community, led by the Ochiokpala has no choice but to plead with Obodoukwu to take up the responsibility of doing the Ezeh Ojeh Dance so that tradition would not be broken. This is the opportunity Obodoukwu orchestrated. In defiance and mockery of the gods, he goes ahead to perform the ancient rites of Eze Ojeh. Obodoukwu, so gifted, dances like never before and he is thus applauded. However, as it turns out, this is to be his last dance as Eze Ojeh. Just when he is to perform his last act and put his enemies to shame, including the gods, the gods strike in an ambush. Obodoukwu is swallowed up by the Uganuga. His obstinacy ends his life and the will of the gods prevails.
This is more so as Ojugbeli regains the strength of his legs and bodily vitality. He performs the final rite of the Ezeh Ojeh with a mysterious dexterity that excites the elders and delights the people.
The Great Flood
Like Eze Ojeh, the thematic preoccupation of The Great Flood, as earlier mentioned, is destiny and the mysterious manipulation of the gods.
The vacuum created by the absence of an heir to the throne of Aboh Kingdom precipitates the surge of ambition in an influential elder of the community, Omordia. The ambition is to become the king, against the age long protocol of tradition, which is to be guided by divination.
Omordia, propelled by an obsession, tries desperately to rally the support of some elders to support an expeditious installation of a king to fill the void created by Olisaemeka who had died without an heir. He plans to be that king.
Omordia also tries to use his closeness to the colonial official in charge of the division, Peterbourgh, to manipulate the whiteman to forcefully realize his ambition.
As the pressure from Omordia mounts on the elders, they decide to consult the oracle and find out what steps to take to get a new king. They therefore consult Akpofule, the old diviner. Akpofule tells them to meet him on a certain day when he would be strong enough to attend to them.
Meanwhile, Omordia becomes very desperate and in his desperation thinks of stampeding Peterbourgh, his friend, to proclaim him king over Aboh if he could lay his hand on the old crown that is in the possession of the village drunk, Oliobodo. Akpofule had restrained the king’s guards from retrieving the crown from Oliobodo at the death of Olisaemeka the king that committed suicide as an offering to the Dumb God. Omordia sends his thugs after Oliobodo to get the crown for him. In the chase of Oliobodo in a canoe race, the crown falls into the water and is lost.
On the day appointed by Akpofule to relay the message of the gods concerning the throne of Aboh, the elders find the old diviner dead. Still they decide to forge ahead with hearing from the gods despite Omordia’s growing impatience. Obiosa, Akpofule’s young apprentice is by popular choice called upon to interpret the unfinished divination of Akpofule.
In the meantime, the missing crown of Aboh appears in the Osekwenike, another community, a short distance from Aboh. The crown is caught in the net of a young man Okutulu, who had gone fishing. Okutulu is delighted by his mysterious find. He proceeds to wear it all over the place.
Obiosa, Akpofule’s protégé, divines for the elders of Aboh and says the oracle speaks of the lost crown of Aboh coming back through a child and a woman. The elders take this to mean that a new king cannot be installed until the crown is recovered. This upsets Omordia the more even as his impatience grows.
Omordia pursues his inordinate quest to become the king. He goes to Peterbourgh to instigate the whiteman to hasten the appointment of a new king, which he hopes to be.
Okutulu is in love with an Aboh girl, Ikuni. Their relationship brings Okutulu to Aboh on a visit. While on the visit, he wears the Aboh crown. Report gets to the elders that a visitor came to Idu’s house and he was with the lost Aboh crown. Idu, Ikuni’s father is then mandated by the Odua to lure Okutulu back to Aboh.
Okutulu is encouraged to go back to Aboh to meet with Ikuni whom he has proposed marriage. His mother, with a foreboding of danger to Okutulu, follows behind him in a canoe. As Okutulu appears on the banks of Aboh, he is seized and taken to the old palace to be interrogated and put to death. His mother follows protesting and wailing.
Finally, it is revealed that Olisaemeka, while still a prince and virile, had forcefully had Ngwedo, Okutulu’s mother, who had been his secret friend even though she was of an inferior class. That encounter had resulted in a pregnancy and to save Ngwedo from punishment, she was sent away with the secret of the pregnancy that resulted in the birth of Okutulu.
Based on the convincing explanation of Ngwedo and the confirmation of the village drunk, Oliobodo, the Odua proclaims Okutulu king. Thus, Omordia’s inordinate ambition ends in disappointment.
Definitely, Joseph Nwamana’s plays, Eze Ojeh and The Great Flood fulfill the literary expectation of providing entertainment. Also, in the tradition of African literature, they are very didactic. They teach the lesson of destiny and the need to contain our personal ambition within the limits of the common wish or the wish of the supernatural.
As a compass that helps in guiding society, the plays may be applied to the unfolding scenario of the forthcoming 2019 general election in Nigeria. Our politicians need to be particularly guided by the idea espoused in Eze Ojeh, where change is a constant. Anybody who wishes to represent the people ought not to pursue the quest beyond will of the people.
In the final analysis, either of the plays may yet turn out to be an oracle for the next or future leadership adventures of the Nigerian political office seeker.
14 November 2018.