Chimalum Nwankwo
Watching Irobi’s The Colour of Rusting Gold was very difficult for me. It was like watching some precious liquid rushing into a drain unstoppably. If you read the English Romantic poet, P.B. Shelley at his youngest stage as a poet, you would understand this feeling. So would you, if you read American Literature’s offer of haunting genius in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. And if you could contemplate Achebe’s life, just shut off after his writing Things Fall Apart, you would understand that mournful cliché we call the cruelty of death. Some people just come and go as if they came to tease us and leave us sorrowing for ever. Irobi remains one of such strange and sad geniuses…

That I knew Irobi’s corpus made it worse for me. So did knowing how he lived and died in a rush that he could not contain. The Colour of Rusting Gold is what I call the colour of pain in deep bass. “Death cannot stop me!” yelled the tormented protagonist, Otagburuagu, at a stage in the performance, as if indeed the tormented wizard spoke not about his demonic preoccupations but about Esiaba Irobi’s genius flowering and blooming for ever in our hearts.

The Ooni of Ife, the brand new University of Nigeria pro-Chancellor probably enjoyed that great convocation performance more than everyone in that packed University of Nigeria Arts Theatre if I knew how the quintessential Yoruba consciousness worked in him as somebody with reasonable exposure to the arts and culture. The Colour of Rusting Gold had a full spectrum of certain essences for the Yoruba man who loves the best of modern Yoruba Theatre, from the mischievous humour and social relevance of Ogunde concert theatre to the mystical realism of Soyinka’s exquisite dramaturgy of a multi-foliate Ogun-ism.

The Colour of Rusting Gold is a drama at the great rich modern and traditional African confluence of ritual, festival, and play. If you read the drama simply as a tragedy of the human condition in a specific African environment, you would miss much of the juices of this well-conceived play executed by an excellent enthusiastic cast directed and produced by an equally enthusiastic team who most certainly saw this special production as nothing less than a mission.

The production had in tow an ambience which the self-styled mad man of the French Theatre of the 1940’s, Antonin Artaud, would have been proud of because the play tried to be both realistic and numinous in its echoes of presences through a folkloristic inclusion of those things which intensified the potency of the elegy and dirge when they are needed most, plus that other traditional African theatre element, the dance, which earned that body-talk the theoretical epithet of emotion in motion.

The university ceremonials committee should be very proud of its night of nights in the university’s history of ceremonies. The production will be remembered as a worthy choice in the celebration of a great alumnus at a point in the history of Nigeria when a lot of soul-dredging is needed for one to begin to understand why this country with its phenomenal endowments is enduring so much self-inflicted pain from greed and malfeasance and all sorts of abuse of power. Our newest graduates can also, like the late Irobi, learn how to look unflinchingly into the deep turbulent well of the human condition to understand how justice and the moral high road might save us all from needless suffering.

The play was, certainly, a great adventure for both dilettante and connoisseur. If you espied the witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth among the plays eclectic images or shadows of slapstick from other traditions you would merely be confirming, with deepest pain and regret, the great range of the prodigious mind of Irobi who, born on first October, 1960, Nigeria’s Independence day, a most ironic of coincidences, wrote The Colour of Rusting Gold in his early 20s.

– Professor Nwankwo, poet, literary critic ,and dramatist, professor of English and World Literatures & Former Chair, Department of English and Speech, North Carolina A&T State University, Greensboro, USA