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The dance and poetry of Ofeimun’s feast of return

A packed auditorium was treated to vigorous dancing, powerful performances and enlightening poetry from one of Nigeria’s famous poets. But it is strange when the…

A packed auditorium was treated to vigorous dancing, powerful performances and enlightening poetry from one of Nigeria’s famous poets. But it is strange when the story of South Africa’s birth, growth and struggles is told by characters decked in typical Nigerian regalia. They spoke the Nigerian way and danced Nigerian dances but they told South Africa’s story. It is a bold move to blur the line between nations and cement the misguided notions of some Europeans and Americans who think Africa is a country.

From the era of Dingiswayo, the founder of the country, the story rides on the poetry of Ofeimun and the powerful drumbeats of the performers through the war chants of Shaka to the Difaquane era of terror, the Moshweshwe, Lobengula and apartheid eras, where the point was made of “taking away Winnie Mandela’s bedspread”. Then came the Liberation Struggle and the Roundtable, when the struggle eventually finds a resolution in all parties coming together to agree to the birth of a rainbow nation.

Glossing over these eras, it would seem it would be a long night, but the performance lasted just a little over an hour, which  flew by, thanks to commanding performances from Efe Mayford Orhoha and Nisi George.

Orhoha was nothing short of regal in her role as Priestess of Memory. Mostly clad in white, she, the fictional narrator of the story, had a stage presence that was powerful yet elegant. She seemed untroubled by the huge responsibility on her shoulders as she carried the performance through, having to dole out an amazing amount of lines in verse. She made the performance a memorable one.

So did Nisi Goerge, who was scintillating in his various roles. A sage, a warrior, a drunk and even the white man, George carried the roles convincingly and delivered his lines with some live in them. His performance was stellar.

Not so for Ombo Ombo, who stumbled over his lines and sometimes seemed out of sorts. Kayode Idris too did not put up a winning performance but he got by. But who could blame them. It was a challenging production.

The performance was tasking on the imagination.  Even the policemen were dressed in the typical fashion of the Nigerian Police but the props on stage donned the rainbow colours of South Africa. There was no attempt to pretend it was a not a South African story.

Odia Ofeimun had explained that he fell in love with the idea of using Nigerian dances for the drama because only Nigeria has the diversity to capture all the aspects of the story. True enough, the Tiv dance could pass for the Zulu war dance and so could many others.

But the story is not entirely removed from Nigeria. Issues raised concerning the coming of the whites, the introduction of colonialism in the guise of religion, the conflicts between the old and the new, the silent gods in the derelict shrines and the god in the white man’s robe,  are all real to Nigeria; not to mention the rage for social equality and the quest for democracy. Though the histories are distinct, the objectives of the struggles have always been the same and this was demonstrated by this strange marriage director Felix Okolo has managed to contrive.

But what could have been a truly wonderful performance was hampered by the limited stage. The Cyprian Ekwensi Centre was not the perfect venue for a stage show of this magnitude. The stage was not expansive enough to fully express the beauty choreographer Abel Utuedor had invested in the dances. The actors did their best and the nimble-feet dancers did not disappoint, but deep down, the discerning audience would be wondering what could have been.  

The challenges notwithstanding, the triumph of the story lies in the resolution, where yet again it was proven, that all conflicts eventually end on a roundtable. The South African experience, which Ofeimun poetically shared with his readers and audience, demonstrates that for no matter how long a war rages, it can only truly be resolved through dialogue.

Honourable Paul Akegwe, who was in the audience, was impressed. He  described the performance as “wonderful entertainment, wonderful historiography, wonderful outing and in particular I want to single out the priestess (Orhoha) as the star performer, and the drummers too were wonderful,”

Odia Ofeimun, who missed the performance due to flight delay, would have been pleased, as was the director, Felix Okolo, whose smile said it all.

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