“But man needed something, a manner of seeking, and never ceasing.”
Very few plays are crafted and staged to project deep philosophical meaning, and even fewer manage to achieve this without sacrificing pure theatrical allure. Cheta Igbokwe’s Awele is one of such plays. Premiering on the 21st of June 2023 at the New Arts Theatre, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the unpublished play was performed within an hour and twenty minutes, a span of time enough to leave an enthusiastic audience in awe of its aesthetic quality and enrapturing immersion. The entirety of the cast give energetic performances that brings their characters to life, and the play’s paced progression owes much to the deft directing of Ugochukwu Ugwu. The aura of regality exuded by the character of Awele (Grace Okonkwo) including the design of her throne, her costume and makeup, are befitting of a deity. This blends neatly with the musical chants and elevated words of Olekota (Dansey U. Mbah), as well as the chorus who lend stirring melodies to the play, creating a transcendental performance for the ages. In a word, Mbah’s performance as Olekota is phenomenal, even to the point of almost outshining the goddess herself.
At this point, it would be unfair not to mention the production elements which significantly contributed to the overall potency of the play, helping it achieve its very purpose. While the makeup and costumes depict the suffering the dead humans have passed through on earth, drawing attention to their manner of deaths, the lighting is set in such a way that the audience is not distracted at any point of the performance, but focuses on each character within the scenes they are relevant to. The perfection of this craft is brilliant, as well as the design of the stage in the representation of a solemn abode where the deity and humans meet. The background which is that of the skies located above small portions of the earth not only depicts the supremacy of the deities over humans, but takes the attention of the audience to the reality of the human subject, the place of humans in a hierarchy which a pair of twins — Ehi (Simon Ugwu) and Mgbada (Innocent “MC Onachi” Chisom) attempt to change, but fail. The deliberate use of the pulpits and a gigantic book which represents the book of life, placed on one of the pulpits like a missal, rises above stereotypes and bridges concepts peculiar to both traditional and Christian religion. This enables the play to emerge as a daring construct of creative imagination in a world of its own. In a similar manner, the representation of Awele, The Great Deity, in a feminine and motherly manifestation, breaks yet another set of stereotypes by diverging from the typical image of elderly male gods.
A general critical examination of this work of art follows the idea of Arthur Schopenhauer’s in The World as Will and Representation, where he contends that existence in itself is tragic. Awele is crafted in a manner that easily tempts the audience to view their thoughts from the perspective of Awele, the Great Deity of rebirth and safe journey, who explores the insatiability of human needs despite the efforts made by Chukwu to please them. They are constantly “seeking, and never ceasing.” However, it is pertinent to note that as Schopenhauer argues, human desires are naturally insatiable and lead to suffering and dissatisfaction. And if this is the true nature of humans which they cannot separate from themselves, then human insatiability is inevitable. The humans who stand before Awele awaiting rebirth share a common trait of trying to find a better life for themselves, something that would make them happy through genuine purpose, a search which ends them untimely.
It could be argued that the first three characters who accept Awele’s blessings and leave for a new life are the ones who meet their happy ending, but undergirding this theory is the tragically realist viewpoint of the earth being only designed for the sort of agonizing misery which the human subject is expected to surmount in an endless struggle. As Awele states, “You must suffer from something. Something must slowly lead you to your death.” The consequence of living a bad life is having to roam the earth, while that of living a good life is being reborn to an earth where humans struggle against both man made problems and circumstances beyond their control. As such, it is established that tragedy is an unavoidable sword which strikes the human subjects, irrespective of how they have lived their lives.
The first act of the play ends with Ehi and Mgbada’s blatant refusal to return to earth in the manner of Awele’s choice for them. When the next act begins, the twins are further emboldened after Awele agrees to lend them her ears. This allows them to become the first human beings who attempt to disrupt the order of supremacy of the deities, one in which Awele was appointed to decide individual destinies. The humour which these paired characters bring is easily mistaken for comic relief, an unfortunate diversion that sways attention from the tragic path they toe. By requesting to choose their own destiny, they attempt to climb past the limitations placed on the human subject.
In a bid to help the twins, Awele proceeds to tell the story of Origbu, who eats till his belly bursts. This is a subtle warning for the twins not to ask for more than they can bear, although they choose to misinterprete this. It is pathetic that even when given a choice, they are indecisive and end up making trivial requests without knowing what they truly want. As Awele states, “They don’t know what they want. Man has needs but does not know it…” The twins keep seeking increasingly deluded allowances till they both consider becoming their own gods in a realm bereft of higher authorities. With her patience exhausted at this juncture, Awele makes good of her promise and sends them back to the earth as goats, the same kind of animal used in purifying them of their sins in their previous lives.
Conclusively, Awele is a masterpiece which engages the minds of its audience, breaks the stereotypes and emerges as a unique craft capable of immersing the audience within the world of the play. It is powerful, elevated, deeply enthralling and deserving of serious attention from not just regular audiences but critics and students of art and literature as well. Without a doubt, the creative significance and cultural relevance of this work of art will be felt and encountered in the many years ahead of it.
The entirety of Awele can be watched here: https://youtu.be/2yEBtfO7vD0.
Oluchi Enema is a critical and creative writer, and author of Beyond Thoughts.