The Consciousness of Pain and the Pain of Consciousness: The Aesthetics of Chukwuma Okoye’s We the Beast and “TIME” and Nollywood’s Quest for Repositioning
Adediran ADEMIJU-BEPO, PhD
Department of Theatre and Film Arts
University of Jos
Jos, Plateau State
The quest for an identity and the cradle of being presents a different side to each person engaged in the odyssey. In Chukwuma Okoye’s dramaturgy, the search is for the essence of life lived with the full consciousness of pain and the pain imposed by this consciousness that becomes impossible to escape, in response to the ideology of the day, generally accepted as, survivalism. Life to him ought to be lived to the fullest, guaranteed by potential that invariably brings fulfilment to the owner but the bestiality of man to man almost always robs man of this privilege. This paper attempts a dramatic reading of two plays from the repertoire of Okoye, a post-Osofisan generation writer who made his debut in 1991 to illustrate and establish his thematic pre-occupation with life, pain and consciousness from a theatre of war and the story of terminal ailment, drawn from oral narrative of the real life victims. The paper argues further that the choices open to man to embrace life with its offerings are limited against the backdrop of existentialist thinking and the realization of his purpose in life and draws a conclusion from the sacrifice that comes with maturity in the characters accepting their fate which is at the heart of these plays. A few points on the playwright’s creative use of language and imagery are also contextualized within the purview of the tragic.
Nigerian home video films, globally and popularly acknowledged as Nollywood, which are produced in virtually all the indigenous languages today, as “…it is evident that each region or geo-political zone prefers to answer its father’s name” (Ademiju-Bepo “Towards the Nationalisation” 149) seem to have a common denominator or stock-in-trade: the celebration of culture and tradition. These works tend to posit that culture and tradition predate man and, occupying such a prima position in the consciousness of man, man’s life is therefore regulated by culture and tradition. This in a way we see as a form of identity generation, which in the contention of Hall and du Gay “seem to invoke an origin in a historical past with which they continue to correspond” (Okwori in “Playing Identities” 1). Okwori further posits that the balance between the past, present and the future lies at the heart of the enigma called identity (Ije 2). From the above analysis, the concept of identity which is active in Gilroy’s contention, “is a process of movement and meditation that is more appropriately approached via the homonym routes” (cited by Okwori in “Playing Identities” 1).
The myth of Nollywood seems to have been broken since almost all the ethnic nationalities in Nigeria can now boast of film in their ‘own’ tongue which differs from the next across their immediate border. This process of identity articulation has now assumed the status of ‘becoming’ over the last twenty-seven years of Nollywood, beginning from 1988 with the production of Aje Ni Iya Mi by Isola Ogunsola (I-Sho Pepper), of blessed memory. That production was sponsored by Kenneth Nnebue, who later released an Igbo film, Living in Bondage in 1992, which many have cited as the signpost of ‘commercial’ Nollywood. But that is a focus for another day.
Unfortunately, we see the urge not to accept living by culture and tradition, rather to dictate, regulate and set culture and tradition aside at will to privilege some individuals above others when their interests are at stake at the heart of drama and theatre as a practice that is often called upon to act as a contextual presence in the rehearsal and development process and keep alive the memory of alternatives in the pressure cooker environment of production, thus dramaturgy lies at the cutting edge of creative praxis.
For Chukwuma Okoye, (widely known as, Chuks, in the Arts circle), the literary adventure which began in 1991 when he produced on the Unibadan Arts Theatre staged We the Beast, later published in 2002 with his active financial sponsorship, has been creatively fruitful as he has added a critical array of plays both diverse and stimulating in their thematic preoccupation as his debut. The list include: Face-Up, Colour! Colour!! Colour!!!, Man Na Proper Goat (an all-female cast), Time, And Then I Scream, The Workshop, as well as Tambilani and Rhythm of Dreams, both screenplays. All of these efforts have indeed come to mark him as a new voice in modern Nigerian drama as the others, and a worthy exemplar even though he, once upon a time, suffered largely from the same “yet-to-be published syndrome,” YPS, as many members of the post-Osofisan generation. He also choreographed some dance packages for the participation of the University of Ibadan at the now extinct annual Nigerian Universities Theatre Arts Festival (NUTAF).
A cultural studies perspective, the deconstructive criticism viewpoint, aptly provides the theoretical framework for this discourse. In this vein, I share the contention of Martin Mhando, who sees this as an interesting and worthwhile purpose because: it makes one aware of the ways in which cultural experience is determined by hegemonic ideologies such as the Greco-Romano dramatic structures built into cinema language (page?). This perspective also gives us a historical context to the growth of the home video industry the world has come to accept, that is, Nollywood, for its sheer volume and creativity to tell stories, our stories our own way.
According to Mhando, it affords one a self-reflexive approach to his or her own ‘self-deconstruction’ of African cinema viewpoints (page?). Self-reflexivity here refers to an individual’s identification of aspects of and within a film that point directly to one’s own conception of Africa. It offers useful tools for understanding other conventional approaches to African cinema like Marxism, semiotics, feminism and other cultural theories.
Okoye’s Dramatic Vision and Technique
We the Beast is a dramatic exposition of the gory bacchanal and theatre of the Nigerian civil war which lasted 30months from July 1967 through January 1970. The play in 1991 won the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA Annual Prize for Drama. As a contemporary contribution to the political theatre of those 30 months of fratricidal carnage ignited by the blind ambition for power and perhaps, the quest for an identity as has been argued elsewhere, (Nnoli page?; Soyinka page?), the play acts out a different scenario in the fictional portrait of a dream once held by the self-acclaimed leader of the Biafran Republic in the secessionist resolute to pull the former Eastern Region out of Nigeria.
From the Lights On, the overriding theme of the play jumps out of the pages (in the Prologue) to confront our sensibility and psyche with the irreconcilable pangs of pain inflicted on the mass of innocents who knew next to nothing about the civil war they were romped by compulsion to fight in and support. This same consciousness seeps through the entire play, from the tragic story of Ike and his family, and their tragedy becomes that of any audience or reader sensitive enough to see the ugly monster of a war playing tricks on a man whose own resolve runs counter to that of the initiators of the war, on both sides of the divide.
Okoye’s imaginative re-shaping and re-visiting of experienced pain(s) in Beast aims not only at a reviewing of the Biafran venture from the platform of political misadventure to that of ideologically repugnant conquest of the soul, spirit and body of the side-actors of the war, but also to offer a vivid, complete and convincing picture both within Ike’s refusal to be conquered both in soul and body, surrendering only his spirit within the context of his unwillingness to play a part in the war. He says,
IKE: ...But I refuse to weep or laugh. I refuse to be a character in this drama of sacrilegious carnage; a drama where the ultimate water and matter are wantonly wasted; strewn around like piss and shit. This world has certainly lost its reason and rhythm. I refuse to play a part in this ritual buffoonery, therefore, 1 take the opposite direction(19).
In his personal response to the most convulsive moment yet in the still on-going post-colonial trauma of Nigeria, Okoye captures in this tightly-woven play, the disorientation and despair of a human being, unmoved by the violence and gory around him but rather by the pungent pain of losing his children to the raids and thereby, almost losing his sanity in the process (Iloeje 111). In a sense, many will dismiss Ike’s play at insanity as a ploy to escape conscription. But a critical reading reveals that the tragedy which opens the play is central to Ike as he is central to the tragic turn of events. Hear him:
Ike: … Another child dies… What dues have I not paid for a war I have no hand in? (page?).
Three convoluting questions in one breath capture the beginning of his journey into insanity. For instance:
IKE:You know, Nweke, I really cannot understand this. Why didn’t he take me this time? Isn’t the world going backwards? Am I the one that is supposed to bury my sons?(11).
A Dramatic Reading of We the Beast and “TIME”
Beast, begins with the story of how six-year-old Uche, who, while playing with wet sand in the open space in front of a haggard building; constructing models of buildings, and human beings in sand, of an aircraft in paper, replays the vicious destruction of jet fighters swooping down on innocent structures – both human and physical – and “emitting sounds imitative of machine-gun fire!!!” according to the stage direction. This childish prank serves as prelude to the actual coming of the “unwelcome guests” lurking in the wings to claim him, and “make for himself a throne in my home” (11), in his father’s subsequent lamentation.
In the next scene, we are on the conscription/parade ground, where some “wretched looking young soldiers” are drilling a bunch of civilians aged between ten and sixty years, haggard and virtually dressed in rags. As the cacophony of their call and response command becomes a danceable march rhythm in the prevailing circumstances, “an elderly and unkempt man” bursts onto the scene. Too late to retreat, he is caught by 1st Soldier. His play at insanity/familiarity almost earns him his death, but is saved by a boy of eleven years old whose daring dash for escape ends up in tragedy. Against this backdrop, 1st solider, sobering up, declares, before the dance resumes:
1st SOLDIER: Oh God. Yes…I was going to shoot somebody anyway to introduce you people to my ungovernable patriotism, but now it seems that won’t be necessary, or would it? I am determined to pay any price in defence of my motherland. I hope I’ve made myself clear(17).
The full import of this second encounter with unwarranted death comes in Ike and Man’s dialogue after the exeunt of the maniacal crowd in which Ike, in response, deigns to affirm that God does not hear anymore:
MAN: Why exchange me for him? My life is already a total waste…. Why didn’t you take my life and spare this boy? Why God?
IKE: …We are the ones responsible for this war…. We hate our species. So God stands there aloof, and perhaps, planning to rebuild after we have finally destroyed ourselves. Yes. And like the beasts that we are, we surely would…(18-19).
The Old Woman comes with the observation that, “The gods most certainly are playing a dangerous game with humanity,” when she recalls the ugly but funny story of Okafor, a titled Nze n’ozo stealing and carrying a full-grown goat on his back under the pretext of helping his wife from the maternity (21-22). Cynical Man rather contends that she should “not bring the gods into this. We are the ones making fools of ourselves,” adding, “And we are doing it in a most tragic manner. Killing ourselves like beasts” (22).
The above montage takes us into Scene One in which we see men and women in transit from war-ravaged zones, taking a rest, exchanging stories and we get to hear the pathetic story of Ike and how “the women now feed most families and (they) have become stronger” (27), over their husbands. According to 1st Woman,
1ST WOMAN: War or no war, you are no more than wives and you should accept it, for the women are now much more responsible and powerful (28).
Existentialism is predicated on the notion that existence precedes essence, which means that the actual life of the individual is what constitutes what could be called his or her "essence" instead of there being a predetermined essence that defines what it is to be a human. Thus, the human being – through his consciousness – creates his own values and determines a meaning to his life. Although it was Sartre who explicitly coined the phrase, similar notions can be found in the thought of many existentialist philosophers, from Mulla Sadra, to Kierkegaard, to Heidegger.
In Scene Two, we see the practical side of the above claim when Chioma tells Ike that: “One has to eat whatever he finds just to stay alive” and threatens to “report (his) your false insanity to the boys in the barracks,” (39); she pleads with him to let them “concentrate on surviving the war” (43). Ike rather chooses to “imagine how this war has turned an elite into an animal whose only instinct is survival” (44), after mourning the memory of his younger brother, Mike’s sacrifice to his motherland. The return of Mike, now a Colonel on the run from the war in the next scene three into the embrace of the practical instinct or pastime of survival, that is the rendezvous between Captain (49-51), brings us face-to-face with Chioma’s and other wives’ inevitable sacrifice for their families to stay alive. At the end, Chioma contends:
CHIOMA: May be we should all have died with Uche. What is life after all? May be you have been right all along (54).
Rather than die however, we meet the reunited family of survivors in the fourth scene, Ike on his way to recovery (55) but definitely not willing to let go of his play at insanity as he is seen here roasting a human wrist with five swollen fingers:
IKE: …a sacred communion I retrieved where it is to be found in abundance, wasting away and destined to supply nutrients to ignorant plants, animals and insects who do not know the difference. But I salvaged it, the sacred sacrifice that must not be desecrated. The essential destiny of humanity…. This is the harvest (57).
Confused and alarmed, Mike tries unsuccessfully to dissuade him from eating the ‘sacrifice’ but Ike runs out with it to a safe haven, Mike on his heels and Chioma to get the native doctor.
The final scene with Ogbuefi Akuezue tending to Ike brings his play at insanity to a stark reality as the chicken blood administered on his head by the native doctor only ends up waking up his “sleeping appetite. Alas, it must be satiated even with its own.” (61) Ike rises from his knees, grabs a machete and approaches Mike for a blow to his neck. But in self-defence, Mike shoots him at close range before daring to put the gun to his own head, stopped only by Chioma (62). The same Captain Ibe who earlier had a rendezvous with her, returns, leading other heavily armed soldiers to arrest Mike for sabotage. Mike disarms Ibe and shoots him but he himself also does not escape the double fire-power of Ibe’s two assistants, one of whom is caught too by Mike’s last pull on the trigger (63), underscoring the bestiality of man in full as the play ends.
The consciousness of pain and tragedy which surrounds the characters in We the Beast accentuates the bestial nature of war and by extension, man, and the helplessness of the victims and survivors in dealing with or stopping it. The play deals with the theme of war just as Soyinka’s Madmen and Specialists and Osofisan’s Farewell to a Cannibal Rage, but from a purely psychological point of view as a contribution to the growing immutable canon of war literature coming out of Nigeria. The celebrated season of anomie as proclaimed by the Nobel Laureate is given an innovative treatment by Okoye herein, taking the medium of pain remembered, weaving the story of ordinary citizens caught by the unwarranted carnage of the Nigerian civil war into an enduring universal significance within the fabric of the monstrosity that has characterized our existence in recent times.
Insanity in We the Beast is played within the context of the urge to survive the irrationality of a war amidst the pull of patriotism and human or personal responsibility. The cause(s) and rationality of unnecessary wars which our world continues to witness are examined by the playwright in response to the ideology of the day, generally accepted as Survivalism. Africa and indeed other continents of the new global village are yet to be free of the insane imperative of war mongering which leaves the equation tilted against reason in our daily existence for what Ike would term “gratifying logic” or “pretentious claims,” even when “… arrivals kill for reasons more noble and human…”
Okoye, as if in response to Marshall McLuhan’s suggestion that, art always functions as, a "counter-environment" designed to make visible what is usually invisible about a society, goes ahead in “TIME,” another of his dramatic experiments which takes up a health issue to scrutiny with a vision so insightful, to call attention to the ticking time-bomb of cancerous tumours in the human and the attendant consequences of the ailment. He weaves the story round the sufferings of two men, Chris Dawan, a former Heavy Weight Boxing Champion, who becomes a human wreck in the throes of cancer and grows so irritable of his ward roommate, James Ebo, who accepts his fate with equanimity.
CHRIS: Stop! You thank Him for giving you yet another day? Of what use is this day that he has given you, or any other day for that matter? You thank Him for another day of pain and anguish, of horror and disease? You can hardly stand on your feet; you lie there on the bed like a vegetable and thank your Lord for it. You should take your own life while you still can. I look at you and I see the kind of man I must not be. I look at you and I tell myself I'd rather take my life by myself than give this disease the pleasure of doing it. I'm only waiting ... bidding my time. I will take my life myself.
JAMES: (Disapprovingly). You are contemplating suicide?
CHRIS: I am not. I have contemplated suicide.
JAMES: That is a mortal sin. Only God who gave you life should take it when it pleases Him.
CHRIS: He has tampered with my right to life so I shall deny Him the right to take my life (“TIME” 3-4).
Their doctor, Linda Jakut, who comes for her routine check-up and also to remind James of his impending treatment is not spared his tirade either:
LINDA: … Did Mr. Ebo sleep well?
CHRIS: Are you so dumb you can't see I am not in the mood for any subject at all? I don't want to speak with anybody. I just want to be left alone.
LINDA: My God, I said it. Still the wrong attitude, Mr. Dawan. I've been trying to get through to you – to get you to relax. But you shut everyone out. Your cynicism...your arrogance. Your psychological attitude is wrong. You are not doing yourself any good if you continue this way, you know.
CHRIS: I've heard what you said. If you have finished all that you came here for could I ask to be left alone? I have some thinking to do. Alone.
LINDA: Always some thinking to do. You want to hide behind that don't you? You want to hide the fact that you are human. But it's not a shame to be human. It's not a shame to admit your fears, your nightmares. I know what is happening, you know. I am a doctor, remember.
CHRIS: Get out!(3).
Sartre’s assertion in his Existentialism is a Humanism that, "man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards" (page?) is apt to describe the feeling of despair here. Of course, the more positive, therapeutic aspect of this is also implied: A person can choose to act in a different way, and to be a good person instead of a cruel person. Here it is also clear that since man can choose to be either cruel or good, he is, in fact, neither of these things essentially (Baird & Kaufmann page?). The efforts of Dr. Jakut to make him take his predicament in good, cheerful faith like his counterpart, rather than kill himself with worry before death actually comes do not yield any positive result rather pushes him towards the brink. When the Nurses come for James, Chris accuses the doctor of prolonging his (James’s) agony instead of ending it:
LINDA: What do you mean?
CHRIS: Save him from the pains. The horror. Kill him for his sake. Mercy killing. You call it euthanasia, right? Save him from this nightmarish existence.
LINDA: I can't.
CHRIS: You can't?
LINDA: Yes, I can't. You don't understand.
CHRIS: (Dejectedly). I do. For the sake of religion. For the sake of science, you keep him alive for as long as you can. But never for his own sake. I understand you Doctor – very well (8).
Unknown to him, Dr. Jakut had sent for his estranged wife, Bisi and son, Junior, to see if she could help him face the reality:
BISI: So there's really nothing I can do for him?
LINDA: Well, in that respect, I'm afraid so.
BISI: So why did you send for me? You said I might be his only chance, right?
LINDA: I did not mean his only chance of recovery but of coping.
BISI: I don't understand….
LINDA: Well... in the case of your husband the psychological toll is classical, although acute. He sees no future, no hope, no sense in fighting. He has given in to despair. It took weeks to get him to talk at all, and when he does.... He is angry at the world, at God. Pardon my metaphor but he is like a caged bull, angry and violent. Wild... He fights anything in sight; kicks and gores the bars to no avail. He is tiring fast. Soon he will give up in defeat. Yet he goes on fighting. (Pause).I sent for you for emotional support. And physical support. I sent for you to give him the strength to cope, to look at death straight in the face and damn him with a smile. To make him decide to make the best of what he's got left. To stop him from going at the bars that cannot break. I sent for you to help him cope.
BISI: I see. But how can I do that? He does not even seem too happy to see me.
LINDA: Well, I believe he loves you - and your son. Let's hope everything works out (16-17).
In the hope of doing something to help cancer patients in general, Jakut later reveals to Bisi her pet project:
LINDA: I do not have the means, so I simply dream. I have this dream of a cancer centre, a dream of an organisation of philanthropists who care enough to put down some of their money for a cancer centre. I call this dream of mine The Linda Jakut Cancer Care. Of course it's just a dream, an indulgence (18).
It takes a tense encounter between the couple which Dr. Jakut is invited to defuse to force her to reveal her own predicament of having to lose one breast to cancer.
LINDA: (Flaring up too). Shut up and sit down!
CHRIS (In shock). You ... talking to me?
LINDA: Yes. I said shut up and sit down, you spoilt chauvinist. This is not the boxing ring, and you are no longer the devastating Bull. You are sick and the sooner you accepted that the better. Now sit down.
Chris and Bisi are dumbfounded by this unprecedented outburst. Chris sits on the bed.
What exactly do you want me to do before you stop acting like a wounded lion? I'm sick and tired of your hysterics. You think you are the authority on pains. You think you are special. Let me tell you something Mr. Bully, you don’t know a thing and you are not special. If you were, you wouldn't be here. You don't know a thing about pain. You know absolutely nothing... (page?).
She draws her coat apart and thrusts her left breast at Chris:
Now feel my breast (page?).
Chris draws back in shock. He looks helpless. He cannot believe his eyes:
Don't be shy, feel it. You are a man. A champion boxer. Just feel it (page?).
She brings out a piece of foam from her breast and thrusts it at him:
So you see Mr. Know-All. There's nothing here. Nothing here but foam. Nothing! The whole thing was sliced off. Cut off to stop the disease from spreading. But it was too late. It is just a matter of time now.... The pain. You see why you are nothing but a blind fool? A defeated fighter who clings stubbornly to the past (28).
This sudden outburst triggers off her own pain which she does not survive as she is hospitalized like her patients in the intensive care unit where she later dies before either she or Chris could apologize to each other. Mr. and Mrs. Dawan however decide to immortalize her memory by endowing the Cancer Centre in her name in full realization of her dream, asking Mike Jakut, her husband, to be Chairman.
ADEWOLE: Mr. and Mrs. Dawan informed me of their readiness to provide the funding for the establishment of the kind of centre Dr. Jakut dreamt of. Fortunately, she shared some of this dream with me so I have a fairly good impression of what she had in mind. I have explained what I know to Mr. and Mrs. Dawan. If we can lay our hands on the file you spoke of...
MIKE: That's fantastic. I believe I can find the file (45).
With Mike’s approval, Chris goes ahead to have his wife read out his will, after which he also dies, but not before seeing his roommate, Ebo come back “from the frying pan” and of course, his dramatic reunion with his family.
In Lieu of a Conclusion
Raymond Williams’ argument that there is no unique aesthetic object but a continuum of cultural forms from ordinary speech to experiences that are signalled as art by a frame, institution or special event comes to mind here. Aesthetically, the themes of this play include perseverance, courage, sacrifice, generosity and love. The playwright holds up these qualities as being the requisite ambrosia to overcome the ravages of this slow and sometimes, fast killer-disease. Okoye throws more light on the reality of cancer and the vagaries of life by calling attention to the essence of living in right standing with one’s God. At the end of the play, Chris realizes that only this disposition can give him the peace he desperately seeks as we see him making peace with God shortly before his death.
Film is a unique and potent medium of communication, education, entertainment, information, socio-cultural engineering and economic transformation. Moradewun Adejunmobi’s contention is instructive as it seeks to account for one of many modalities through which the filmic and the televisual might be articulated in the context of film and media practice in Africa. She argues that the emerging Nigerian and Ghanaian “video film” practice is fore-grounded in the notion of “televisual recurrence” as an element of commonality (given the televisual filiations of many Nollywood directors), characterized at the textual level by a high degree of tolerance for interrupted viewing, sequelization, and loosely knit mini-narratives, eerily evoking a redeployment of some of the tropes of the cinema of attractions.
Okoye’s plays as we have analysed use language in the above play with lucid images drawn from the consciousness of pain, to create an expansive psychological mood and at the same time, appeal to the perception of the home video audience. This invariably has helped the playwright to achieve dramatic dialogue which not only moves the plot forward but also enriches his thematic exposition. If performing arts appeal to our aesthetics of storytelling, grace, balance, class, timing, strength, shock, humour, costume, irony, beauty, drama, suspense, and sensuality, (Aesthetics page?), then these two plays from the drama of Chukwuma Okoye can conveniently be described as meeting these aesthetic criteria without being ambiguous. Nollywood has been doing this and will continue to do so in stronger leaps because the attention of the world is focused on an industry that is an offshoot of the resilient spirit of a culturally conscious people, a race that has limitless stories to share with the world.
Our films, in their content, should therefore begin to promote ideas that reinforce quality of life, national pride and consciousness; and motivate and stimulate creativity, inspired by our transition and values, such as respect for humanity, justice, constituted authority, and the dignity of labour. Our films should celebrate the best in our cultural heritage, democratic values, discipline, enterprise and resources of social existence, and equip our people, and by extension, the world, with the story of our exploits and achievements as a nation. Since culture is the totality of a people’s way of life, film and literature are cultural products which are very influential in the shaping of the society (Ademiju-Bepo page?)).
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