Analysing the performance of Chetachi Igbokwe’s‘Homecoming’ is an attempt to tear oneself into too many pieces, a piece for each time the play digs out a certain emotion in you. This tragic play went live on stage at the New Arts Theatre in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka from the 6th of May to the 8th of May. The play was directed by Ugochukwu Victor Ugwu.
‘Homecoming’ is a work of art that satisfies the essentials of aesthetics by its ability to generate several thoughts in the minds of different people. For a start, it is not just a tragic work because it closes on a sad note, the tragedy is woven in such a way that the downfall of Nwakibe comes from “some great error on his part” (Aristotle, Poetics). The plot of the play is like a staircase – it starts on plain ground and continues to climb up as Nwakibe’s desperation rises, especially when Mr. Writer begins to put pressure on him. While the journey to the end is gradual, the end in itself is sudden, like jumping from the highest point to the lowest point of the staircase at once.
The play uses just two settings. The first and opening setting is the living room of Nwakibe and Adanaya’s home, and the second setting is the shrine of Ahumaraeze, the chief priest of Ogwugwu. There are only four characters in the play and it is amazing how much is achieved with no crowd.
One of the first statements that are made during the premiere performance of the stage play is “e choke”. To be precise, this is in the scene where Nwakibe, played by Kosi Ejikeme, sneezes as his wife, Adanaya talks. The character of Adanaya is played by Aina Adeola. When the audience hears e choke, they laugh because it is an everyday slang that is funny. But it is funny until it is not. It is funny until the audience cannot breathe anymore because Nwakibe has just arrived at a devastating end.
As a person who has seen Kosi Ejikeme on stage several times, there is a preconceived idea of what to expect from him. However, Kosi shows that there is no end to what a good actor can do or be. Although on a modern stage, Nwakibe’s character is played with a sense of awareness of a not-so-modern man. Aina does not stop at embodying Adanaya with her entire self. There is a certain skittishness that comes over my body each time she throws her carefree laughter around. When speaking to a friend after seeing the play, they confess that one of their favourite parts of the play is seeing Adanaya appear and dance to “Writer, Landlord; Writer, Landlord”. Adanaya’s disengagement so to say, from the world of the play is pitiful and shows how effortless it is for Chetachi Igbokwe to address motherhood, loss, denial, and mental health in a single and permit me to say, a minor character.
On the premiere of the play, the character of Johnson or Mr. Writer is performed by Chimaobi Okolo. I am particularly fascinated by this character, as he is in a way the villain of the story. Among other things, I find most interesting the way he flings his legs as he walks around the living room interviewing Nwakibe and scribbling into his jotter. His leg movement and the nodding of his head as he does that make him look like he is deliberating different things, which is expected of one playing the role of a cunning character.
There is no argument that reading a play cannot be compared to seeing the same play being acted on stage. Yet, there are no words to describe a stage play where the vocals, drums, keyboard sounds, and even lights are all in synchronism. There are times during the play where I convince myself that I am in control of my emotions. You would wonder how long I can keep up with it, seeing that the singers are working tirelessly to break us all. Little surprise why another friend confesses, “The songs broke me”.
The first time the lights come on to the scene set in the shrine of Ahumaraeze, I am caught up in shock. Everybody else is screaming and clapping but I am staring at the stage and imagining how much work was put into achieving such perfection. In the simplest words possible, I can only say that the stage managers, Ezekiel Nnaji and Ezinne Ugwueze paid attention to details. If I do not remember any other thing from the setting of the shrine, I cannot forget the large idol of Ogwugwu sitting at the centre and the low stool placed in front of it for the chief priest to sit and communicate face to face with the god. The first time Ahumaraeze speaks to Ogwugwu on behalf of Nwakibe, the atmosphere of the theatre is charged. He shakes to the drum beat from the piano, and perhaps also moved by the red light that gives the shrine a sacred look and feel, the person sitting beside me comments that they would like to be a traditionalist. Simon Ebuka Ugwu plays Ahumaraeze as though he has a personal relationship with Ogwugwu which he can no longer contain within himself.
Northrop Frye says that “literature is an inexhaustible source of new critical discovery…” and the function of a critic is to decide what is art and what is not. One of the tests that any literary work must pass is the test of multiplicity of interpretations that can be derived from the work. I have interacted with different people after the play and endless opinions and questions are bugging each individual’s minds. Someone asks, “How is it possible for a mother not to feel her child?” but we forget quickly that Oedipus journeys back to his birth place and in fact gets married to his mother.
Chetachi Igbokwe pays special attention to grief in his play. We see grief from Nwakibe’s perspective – a person who still has the strength to grief. And then there is Adanaya who probably stays too long in denial that rather than grief her lost son, she crosses over to loss of sanity. The portrayal of Adanaya as a mentally ill person who still has a good command of her words touches mental health in a way that is hardly ever spoken about. There are emotional conditions that sit too long in a person, that the person loses the ability to be violent in the way that mentally unstable people are largely perceived. Nwakibe’s persistent love for his wife is a sad one. He calls her, “Adaoyoko,” showing that mentally ill people in the society deserve love.
I must say that it is as though Chetachi Igbokwe is trying to be careful about his criticism of the church. The conflict of the church and the ancestral ways going on inside of Nwakibe can be a reflection of Chetachi Igbokwe’s inability to completely severe one for the other. Nwakibe uses the words, “the church did not promise me…” constantly when arguing with Johnson and later Ahumaraeze on the failure of the church to help him find his son. While it looks like he successfully evades the burden of picking a side on either religions, it is clear from Nwakibe’s downfall what Chetachi Igbokwe establishes. Unlike the church that is straight forward and does not promise Nwakibea thing, the ancestral ways gives Nwakibe the condition on which he will find his son but still allows him to fall into misfortune.
In Chetachi Igbokwe’s defence, we can say that Nwakibe is a tragic hero who battles with fate. The Igbo people have a question for this kind of situation: “Onye o na-agba chi ya oso?”
When the last scene of the play opens up, Ahumaraeze tells Nwakibe, “Father, meet your son; Son, meet your father”. This is the breaking point for the audience. Granted, the event that is just unfolding is a sad one. Yet, the importance of a playwright’s ability to help the audience capture what they feel into concrete words cannot be overstated. This is a talent that Chetachi Igbokwe possesses and uses all through the play. Another instance is when Nwakibe says that he knows Ahumaraeze’s problem, which is his possession of more power than he can handle. This statement generates simultaneous nods from the audience because they already feel the same way.
Chetachi Igbokwe’s ‘Homecoming’ comes at a time when stage plays are asserting their significance in the arts. It comes and without seeming overly ambitious, it sets a new standard. The students of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and all others who flew in just to see the play will not forget the masterpiece in a long time. The work fulfils Aristotle’s tragic pleasure requirements of pity and fear, and I cannot wait for him to produce more brilliant pieces.
Sharon Onyinyechukwu Okey-Onyema is a student of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Her works have been published and are forthcoming in anthologies, print and online magazines. She currently serves as the Associate Editor (Prose) for The Muse No. 48.