Mbajiorgu, a NURESDEF Laureate, is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Theatre and Film Studies of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
It was Friday, February 19. The University of Nigeria, Nsukka’s New Arts Theatre was thrice capacity-filled. The event was the tertiary institution’s 45th convocation drama. This grand convocation cultural night, which featured Esiaba Irobi’s The Colour of Rusting Gold, was unique in so many ways.
First, it was a command performance packaged as a reception highlight for the Ooni of Ife, Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi Ojaja II, who is also the newly invested Chancellor of the university. Also, the double-pronged theatrical ceremony, which celebrated both the visit of the Chancellor and the works and life of Irobi, the doyen of Nsukka school of drama, was preceded by an opening glee performed by the Ooni’s griots and praise-singers to the delight of the special audience eagerly awaiting the arrival of His Majesty into the Arts Theatre. A deafening ovation heralded the arrival of the Ooni to the venue.
The occasion was also planned and conceived to commemorate the life and works of the doyen of Nsukka School of Drama-the late Esiaba Irobi. Irobi was a prolific playwright and poet with a frightening and fascinating harvest of highly remarkable classics of literary works. His published and frequently produced plays includes: Nwokedi, Hangmen Also Die, Cemetery Road, Put out the House Lights, What Songs Do Mosquitoes Sing, Fronded Circle, Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh and most recently, Sycorax. His collection of published poems includes: Inflorescence, Cotyledons and Why I Don’t like Philip Larkin. Professor Irobi, a theatre professor at Ohio University, Athens, was on sabbatical leave from his job at the Freie Universitat, Berlin, Germany when he took ill on the May 29, 2010 and died at the age of 49. His classical play, Cemetery Road clinched the Nigeria LNG-endowed prize for literature in 2010. But, unfortunately, he died before the date of the conferment of the prestigious award.
Irobi’s The Colour of Rusting Gold – directed by Greg Mbajiorgu and Ikechukwu Erojikwe – was performed by the staff and students of the Department of Theatre and Film Studies of the university. The Colour of Rusting Gold is a drama on corruption and dilemma of the contemporary man as he strives for moral rectitude. The play is a marriage of tradition and modernity but the copious appearance of tradition in the play is a veneer to explore the issue of morality, integrity and honour in the face of money politics. Thus the play captures in all ramifications the place of sound judgment and lore of our traditional belief and value system.
It opens in the shrine of the great herbalist Otagburuagu. Boldly inscribed on the wall in the far end of the stage is “Herbalist Otagburuagu Specialist in Madness, Rain Making and Barrenness. A Trial Will Convince You, 080336664191”. This notice takes us into the soul of the man we are about to encounter. The performance opens on a very serene note with the auditorium in pitch darkness and the orchestra intoning a call and response chant. This ends abruptly, then the flute filters in which is followed intermittently by the Ikolo and the Ogene, which ebbs off slowly as the dirge “Ihe dike Mere Moo” is rendered at the same time with the lights clearly indicating that it is early morning. Lights reveal two figures; Otagburuagu and Ogidi on stage, one on a bamboo bed the other on a mat on the floor.
Otagburuagu was played by Daniel Chibuko a graduate of theatre and film studies, who chose to be part of the production due to his love for the theatre on the one hand and Irobi on the other. His interpretation of the role elicited commendations from many including Prof. Chimalu Nwankwo, Irobi’s teacher who flew in from the US to see the production. “This is the best showing of The Colour of Rusting Gold I have seen so far,” he said.
The second movement also resumed on a high tone and pace, Nnenna the pregnant woman played by Sandra Chioma Samuel engages Alika (Christian Nwokocha) in a funny but thought provoking conversation which is suddenly interrupted by the distinct voice of Ngasi played by Cindy Anene Ezeugwu, a lecturer in the department of Theatre and Film Studies, who rattled the audience with her melancholic lamentation which flows thus “I’m the unlucky woman, who wanted to blow her nose but blew out her eyes, I stretched my hands to pick my eyes but broke my hands…” Ezeugwu held the audience spell bound during her entire appearance, even more magical was the epic sensation which her sudden entrance from the right aisle of the auditorium created.
Her enactment enchanted the audience so much that they started asking if she was the real Ngasi and Oriakanjonauchichi’s mother. She was so alive in the role that she got some members of the audience to shed tears. The appearance of Ngasi and Oriakanjo brought a sober mood to the performance. Empathy was drawn to the characters of Ngasi and Oriakanjo (the lunatic) which was played by Justin Anakwe a final year student, Anakwe’s performance needs to be experienced because words cannot paint how the young man was able to interpret the role of the mad man so well. As the movement progressed Nnanimgaebi (Ugochukwu Frank) and Nketa (Stella Offor) enter with sharp and angry movements which changed the mood of the play. Nanimgaebi’s entrance changes everything, his movement, speech variations, gestures and delivery took the play to another dimension.
As the audience began to get excited, Oriakanjonuchichi attacks and holds Nketa captive, Nnanimgaebi’s attempts to rescue her become futile as Oriakanjo seizes the gun which he wants to use to rescue Nketa. From then on the performance blazingly x-rayed the problems of our present society- for example, the mad man and the gun, the lawless nature of the corrupt politician, the helpless pregnant woman who was not allowed to see the dibia due the selfish attitude of the corrupt politician. The story goes on.
Nnanimgaebi in his bid to hold onto parliamentary power tries to blackmail Otagburuagu to kill his opponent, unfortunately this backfires and Nnanimgaebi falls into the pit he dug for another. From there the walls of Otagburuagu’s soul begin to crack. The great dibia, the human tiger with four eyes enters the level of psychosis. His conscience has been smeared with blood, the blood of the innocent child and that of Nanimgaebi. Unfortunately, Ogidi steals the money, which Otagburuagu refers to as blood money, the very money that Nanimgaebi left in his shrine after the oath swearing before Ahanjoku, he is immediately murdered by Otagburuagu.
Subsequently, he moves ahead to kill Oriankanjo with the belief that he saw everything. Sadly, his friends and fellow members of the Osuagwu cult, apprehends him. Kevin Omah who played Ijere in the play, though a minor character, transported the audience from the physical world to the spiritual plane, Oma’s deep rooted interpretation and research of the role brought in metaphysical and esoteric aesthetics into the performance, Ogene Ugochukwu Ugwu and Okaaomee Lambert Abbah arrive but realize that they cannot defeat Otagburuagu on their own, thus they send for Mmaju the female Osuagwu whose magical and metaphysical appearance rescued the situation.
Mmaju’s exhilarating and exotic display of supernaturalism thrilled the audience beyond words. Nkechi Udensi who starred as Mmaju made extra effort to add colour to the role. She is dexterous and skillful as an actress. Her delivery which was filled with ritual essence and grandeur was further heightened by the mystifying make-up and costume. Otagburuagu is defeated, his taproot unearthed, his medicine pot discovered. The other dibia’s destroy Otagburagu’s shrine amidst a soul touching dirge.
The infusion of dance, ritual music, chants and spectacle into the play by the directors’ helped to entice and mesmerize the audience from the beginning of the play to the end. Making it possible for them to go home reflecting on the very message contained in the production brochure “it is our expectation that our special audience for this year’s convocation drama will go home with the following question: Why must we allow our great nation, Nigeria, which we cherish even more than Gold to rust in our age and time”?
The technical elements of the play: sound, lights, set and orchestra were effectively employed except for few glitches resulting from poor funding of the production.
Although most of our distinguished guests could not hide their feelings that the performance was well executed, it is pertinent to note that the theatre architecture and its accoutrements cry out for urgent attention. The Nsukka theatre is far from being an ideal example of what a modern theatre building should look like. The stage is narrow, the auditorium lacks modern seats and facilities, there is no cooling system in the theatre, no conveniences, and no ergonomics. However, it is delightful to mention that the president of the University Alumni Association, Chief Andrew Oru, has promised to help in the renovation and re-equipping of the arts theatre.
This, he said, is in his priority list of problems to solve because “… the Arts Theatre is a strategic building, a place where we say welcome to distinguished visitors to the university with dramatic offerings”. Nevertheless, I must frankly state that these technical and structural short comings did not quite undermine this year’s convocation production as such, because the superlative performance of the actors and actresses diminished most of these shortcomings.
Having impressed the Vice-Chancellor and all our distinguished convocation guests and uplifted the image of the university through this singular theatrical outing, we sincerely hope that the UNN Alumni Association will not allow next year’s convocation drama to be staged in a poor theatrical arrangement.