Yinka Olatunbosun
One of the greatest Elizabethan period playwrights, William Shakespeare wrote the romantic tragedy titled Romeo and Juliet, which conveyed to readers across generations that love is a very intense feeling. Likewise Ikenna Jude Okpala’s play, Ugomma, explores the theme of love in the culture-soaked romantic drama production at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos, last weekend. Produced by Wazobia Theatre House, the tragedy in the love story comes from the death of Ochudo, Ugomma’s love interest.

The play begins with the chirping sounds of forest birds. Ugomma, a damsel lost in the woods, is hiding behind a tree as Ochudo beckons to her. She had been mentally ill for several years and abandoned in the forest by friends and relatives. Ochudo, whose mother is a sea-goddess, cured her of her insanity with some chants and songs. Upon her recovery, her heart’s desire was to love Ochudo but there is a challenge: Ugomma had a husband betrothed to her as a child. The man is Ochudo’s best friend. Ugomma is not bothered about this at all. She continues to hang on to her love while Ochudo remains unyielding.

Ugomma’s husband takes some food items to her house to rekindle her love and placate her for those years of neglect while she was insane. Ugomma rejects the peace-offering despite pleas from her mother. Eventually, Ugomma’s husband discovers that her love for Ochudo is the reason for her stance against him. Hence, he invites the village elders to his house as well as Ochudo his love rival to discuss the matter and possibly settle it amicably. After much deliberation, the elders collectively decide it is up to Ugomma to make her choice. Ugomma’s husband is vexed by this and orders that the elders take their leave. Astonished at such rudeness, the elders depart in varied degrees of annoyance.

At Ugomma’s house, she is seen cuddling up with Ochudo and unreservedly express her love for him. But it turns out to be a dream that she is roused from by her friend who comes to call her for the dance at the village square where Ochudo is wrestling. Ochudo wins and his biggest cheerleader among the women is Ugomma. Ugomma, in spite of the embarrassment from Ochudo, keeps pleading for his love. Meanwhile, Ugomma’s betrothed husband had invited Ochudo to his house for a crucial talk. On his arrival, Ochudo finds his host sharpening a big cutlass. As a courageous young man, Ochudo resists the urge to take to his heels at this bewildering sight. But he mildly talks about the love conflict with his friend without resorting to brawling. It is settled in peace and Ochudo is treated to some refreshing palm wine from the gourds. And he drinks copious draughtd.

The next day, Ochudo’s mother summons the entire village to her house where she laid the remains of her son. If you are curious to know how Ochudo died, you can catch the final production today. But before you do, you should note that the play, directed by Precious Anyanwu adopts the theatre-in-the-round technique. The seats are usually arranged around the performance area following the model of the traditional African theatre. Some scenes were done on the proscenium stage. For instance, Ugomma’s house and that of her betrothed husband were on the conventional stage. The stage props were realistic, simple yet detailed. They include stones for fire, large aluminium pots, and thatched hut with an ancient drape at the entrance. In addition, the tree at forest scene was a significant feature in most of the scenes that was set in the theatre-in-the-round.

One house lighting company provided the lighting to all the scenes while the chirping sounds were produced by actors who dotted the acting space. The company had been supporting minimal-budget theatre productions in Lagos with its mobile lighting equipment that comprises of a dimmer board and a collapsible rack to hang the stage lights, producing different hues.

Okpala’s play is such an intriguing piece for its use of suspense. Of course, the conflict reached a final resolution that was unexpected. Granted, it was perceived that Ugomma’s love for Ochudo was fiery and consuming. But no one could tell how the story would end. Meanwhile, the humour in the play was heightened by the actors’ stage business. One funny stage business was Ugomma’s betrothed husband’s cutlass-sharpening. He also emphatically urged Ochudo on to “drink palm wine” which the audience presumed had been poisoned.

In the area of costume and make-up, the best characterisation is arguably Ochudo’s mother. Her small physique commanded such respect because she was clad in traditional white ritual clothing and white cowries were spotted in her hair. Of course, good casting plays a part in good characterisation. Ochudo’s mother had a strong stage voice, a necessary prerequisite for actors in Greek era.

At the end of the play, the director reflected on some of the artistic considerations that the script was subjected to before the production.

“Ugomma is trying to force nature. You see, insanity is a big thing in Africa. If a woman is insane, she as well as her family members will be stigmatised. But then some people have special attributes. That is what we created around the character of Ugomma. She is just special. People just see her and have feelings for her,” he said.

The drama of Ugomma also explores the theme of predestination as it leads the audience on a visual inquiry into the nature of fatality and love.