By: Favour Bamijoko
For Orolabi, the world is a stage and we are all players. Enlivening the rugged stage of the Wole Soyinka theatre on the 26th of January, 2024, Waheed Sodiq Olamilekan, popularly known as Orolabi, a fairly popular director, producer and playwright from the Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan, delivers yet another remarkable play, Jogbo Tuntun. Originally written as Saworoide by the Late Prof. Akinwumi Isola, a Yoruba author and playwright, in 1999, first, as a script for the Tunde Kelani-directed film, Saworoide and subsequently as a novel printed in 2008 by the University Press. It would later be translated into English by Prof. J.O Pamela Smith, a retired Professor from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
A powerfully fiery and socio-politically charged play, Orolabi delivers Jogbo Tuntun as his debut play for the year 2024, after he first directed its enactment in 2022 at the same venue. The play portrays the consequences of a society in which the leaders, infatuated by greed, deceit, dishonesty, and devilish delinquencies, connive to despoil the resources of their society, as well as turn socio-cultural institutions upon which the society stands on their head. Addressing the audience shortly before the play commences, Orolabi who has directed and produced other plays such as Embers, Homecoming, Horseman, amongst others, explains that this play was written by him, to depict the throes of a society torn by political maladies. It presents a thesis against all forms societal ills perpetuated by the political class. The spotlight of the play is not on political leaders alone. It falls in fine measure on the citizens too. It rouses them to cast aside their hallows of political apathy and be sociopolitically conscious.
The play is a competent political allegory. Still commenting on the backdrop behind his writing of the play, Orolabi admits that Jogbo Tuntun was written in 2022, “in anticipation of the 2023 general elections.” After first reading the Isola’s novel, the director states, “I saw culture and politics, as well as the semblance between the novel and modern day political nigeria.” It makes copious allusions, both satirical and candid, to the political landscape of Nigeria. The instances are numerous and will be revisited in the course of this review.
A little after half past five, guests and audience who have been arriving in trickles now pooled together at the entrance as one of the protocol officials readies all for entrance. Shortly afterwards, guests make their way into the proscenium theatre. All around, the theatre is showered with warm orange lightening. Meanwhile, a sustained rhythmic throbbing of local drums accompanied with the measured chink of a gong from downstage bear each guests to their seats. The recent renovation of the hall is worth a comment. The antiseptic clean glass replacing the louvres formerly used gives you a splendid view of the outside. Atop, new led lights amidst a chequered monochromatic design keep the theatre thoroughly illuminated.
Before long, the LED lights flicker out and betray the house into darkness, while the spotlight settles eminently upon the stage as Orolabi takes centre stage to address his audience. As he does, the throbbing of drums fade into stillness. Welcoming them, he gives a brief background to the play and the significance of its re-enactment. No sooner had he addressed the audience than the play began. The lights are killed and drummers reimpose themselves with new vigor. When the lights are turned back on, they reveal a stage galvanizing under a wild flurry of movements while the audience, thrilled to bits, rippled with solemn mirth.
The enactment of the story is clear, humorous, gripping and elating. Set in the fictional town of Jogbo, the first few acts from the ensemble, which includes Lapite defying the customary procedures of coronation, form the conflict that set the wheels of the play’s plot in motion towards climax. The play climaxes at the height of Lapite’s ignoble rule. This is portrayed by harsh, frenzied beating of the drums and melancholic songs wafting up the theatre from downstage. Etiolated lighting around the stage keeps the mood around the climax doleful. The observance of these details on the part of the producer and lighting technician earn them a laudable score. The resolution of the climax is equally enthralling. This is marked by the return of the coming-of-age character, Aresejabata, from being a hermit with Ayangalu in the forest. The forest is indicated by a small tree branch firmly attached to a stand wrapped in a piece of clothing. His return, the death of Lapite and Lagata and his enthronement give the play the needed poetic justice.
The language of the play is Yoruba. Although, occasionally, a couple of characters like the loggers, infuse their dialogues with English words and sentences. The diction ranges from usual Yoruba parlance to mystic proverbial or wise saws and, at times, esoteric chants and incantations. The infusion of English by the loggers is necessary to point out social differences between the members of Jogbo village. A difference which is further highlighted by the costume worn by the loggers — sharply ironed shirt and trousers, with two of them donning a suit and neckties.
Like every other form of literature, drama mirrors the society and the way of life of a people. It mirrors, refracts as well as represents the happenings in the society with a view to explaining, educating as well as enlightening. Orolabi’s Jogbo Tuntun was of no less impact. Representing the many fissures and faults that have riddled the bedrock of Nigeria’s political scene, from deceit, to corruption, political vengeance, kickback amongst others, in forms of thematic preoccupations and allusions, Jogbo Tuntun tackles these ills. The allusions to the failures of Nigeria’s public are unmistakable.
The coronation is one of those scenes. The rest of the audience were as much stunned as I was when Lapite, played by Elijah Adebayo, a graduate of the Department of Theatre Arts, UI, thwarted the requisite rites for coronation: taking of oaths and incisions marked by the beating of Saworoide, a brass drum before the brass crown adorns the head of the king-to-be. The purpose of these rites is simple — to keep the king in check. However, out of greed, and desperation, Lapite foils these rites, using his religious faith as a pretext and at the same time pulling out a pistol — his faith in one hand, and a gun in the other. You cannot keep out of mind, several instances where Nigerian politicians thwart electoral processes by hijacking ballot boxes, inventing votes. The list is interminable.
At another scene, Lapite, the King, tells his chiefs who are supposed to be a system of check and balance to the exercise of his powers, that he bought cars for all of them from the ill-gotten wealth siphoned from the activities of illicit loggers. Here, the corresponding allusion unfurls itself from the annals of Nigeria’s record and places itself on the stage in the mind of the audience. (Recall, in October 2023, members of Nigeria’s legislative arm were rewarded with brand new cars and huge sums of money as kickbacks for you-know-what.)
Another allusion is military coup. Lagata, a general who was contracted to seek out the brass crown after it was stolen from the palace by dissidents, imposes himself king after locating the crown. Stone cold, Lagata demonstrates his proclivity for power as he shoots down a bemoaning Lapite. The reference tugging at this scene is excruciatingly unpassable. As soon as Lagata exposes his intention, the audience, in a palpable tone of disgust, exclaimed “coup d’état!”
Further allusions were made to the proclivities of politicians to greed, power and sexual exploitation. Speaking on themes, the play addresses the culture of body shaming. Lapite betrays his first lover shortly before he ascends the throne on account of her body size. However, she gets the last laugh as both Lapite and his new lover come to ruins. The theme of social deceit is brought under the spotlight. At several instances, one too many times, different characters ensnare one another in the mesh of deceit. The Queen tricks Lapite into thinking the child in her womb is his; Lapite tricks his previous lover into thinking he’d marry her while he had plans to jilt her; the king and chiefs keep the villagers in perpetual deceit while the king pulls a fast one on the chiefs when it came to issue of money. Essentially, the play hoists the behaviour of deceit into the crucible of light and it falls apart. Apparently, all relationships ensnared by deceit end in splinters. The lesson there is clear — imbibe honesty.
On the score sheet, Orolabi’s choice of cast is vindicated. In spirited performances and movements, nearly all, if not all, delivered stellar performances. Ibikunle Martins, Elijah Adebayo, Akinrosoye Ayomide, playing Aresejabata, Lapite and Lagata respectively, delivered laudable performances, to mention a few. Notably, Toluwaleke showed his dexterity as he played two roles in the play (Bada and Odewale). The enactment by the ensemble was not without a few faults; there were times where a couple of the dancers stepped out of line or appeared not to recollect the next move at brief instances. Nevertheless, their performances and choreography were nothing short of awesome.
Yet again, Orolabi pulls off another coup de theatre and leaves the audience both intrigued and thoroughly informed. The importance of drama as a form a literature cannot be stretched. Its capacity for historic reconstruction, didactic enlightenment, criticism against societal ills and toxic cultures makes it an indispensable tool to any community or society. In appreciation of this point, Waheed Olamilekan’, Orolabi, and his crew as well as students from the Faculty of Arts remain committed to the theatre. Thus, as long as the Woke Soyinka theatre stands, its proscenic stage will, from time to time, remain lively with mercurial and charming performances from thespians summoned from antiquity. This time not in honour of Dionysus, but to entertain, to educate, and to enlighten.