Intriguing Insights into Reincarnation: A review of Cheta Igbokwe’s “Awele” — Nenye Okoye

“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be human.”  — Oscar Wilde

Seeing Awele reminds me of this perception of the theatre arts by Wilde, a view that audiences of impressive theatrical performances can readily relate to. Written by Cheta Igbokwe and directed by Ugochukwu Ugwu, Awele premiered on the 21st of June at the New Arts Theatre, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In just about an hour and a half, the magic that is the play was served unreservedly, leaving a deeply satiated audience that seemed to have forgotten they came under the rain to see Awele. It was an enthralling encounter with Awele, the motherly deity “from whom everything good comes,” and the discontented lives who seek her benevolence to allow them return to earth for a better life. Seeing the grief and pain etched deeply in the being of these five souls calls forth nothing less than empathy.

It is Gore Vidal, the seasoned writer who was known for his pithy cleverness, that said, “A talent for drama is not a talent for writing, but is an ability to articulate human relationships.” This ability is what Igbokwe displays effortlessly in Awele. Themed around reincarnation in Igbo cosmology, the play, in its first few minutes, stirs in one’s mind the expectation that they will get some sort of answer to this question of rebirth. The answer comes not long after when Awele says to her assistant, Olekota, “Anyone who lived life to the fullest would not be on the quest for a rebirth.” With a cast of only seven characters and not a single change in the scenery, Igbokwe deftly weaves the intricacies of human relationships, capturing such universals as love, greed, evil, ignorance, ambition. The audience is drawn not only into the spectacle, but to a stimulation of the imagination as well, largely prompted by Awele’s monologues.

One is constantly dazzled by the being of Awele, played by Grace Okonkwo, this glorious deity whom Chukwu had entrusted with overseeing the journey of men within and outside worlds. The magnificence of Awele is first and essentially established in the wit and wisdom in her speech, bestowed on her by the playwright. “These doctors carry a piece of Chukwu in them,” she says to the woman who had died from having ignored the doctor’s advice to birth through a caesarean section. “The natural law is not just to love your neighbour but to love them as you love yourself,” she says to the man whose lover had absconded with his life savings. 

But it is not just Awele’s power that enthrals one; it is how this strength is combined with, even expressed through, motherliness that deepens the reverence and trembling with which a soul approaches her throne of firm benignity. She says to the victims of jungle justice, “Speak to me as sons would speak to their mother.” It is also within Awele’s dialogue with Olekota in the first few minutes that we hear a foreshadowing: “Men’s longings are endless.” Greta Scacchi said that “Theatre is a sacred space for actors. You are responsible; you are in the driving seat.” The responsibility to embody all that is Awele is not a small one.  Grace Okonkwo answers to this responsibility with all of her. With deliberate movement and voice modulation, she brings life to the character. The consistent energy with which she carries through the entire play must be applauded and largely overshadows whatever lapses that having too many lines to say at so little intervals might have caused.

How much work should be put into the first scene of a drama? I do not know. But I know that in the opening scene of Awele, the chorus subtly set the mood of expectancy, and this anticipation blooms into enchantment at the appearance of Awele – I almost felt I was face-to-face with a deity. Power Egbogu and Amazinggrace Okonkwo indeed understand that appearance has a lot to do with bringing a spirit to life on stage. Their mastery of costume management also reflects in the simple but apt dressing of the five souls seeking rebirth – you could immediately sense the cause of their deaths just from looking at them. 

Clive Swift likens acting to a sport. “…On stage, you must be ready to move like a tennis player on his toes. Your concentration must be keen, your reflexes sharp; your body and mind are in top gear, the chase is on. Acting is energy. In the theatre, people pay to see energy.” It is all this that Dansey Mbah lives out in his epitomising of Olekota. In a stage play, the weight of the author’s intention can easily be lost to an actor’s mistakes. There is no need for such fears with Mbah. In the character of Olekota, he personifies the devotion to The Great Deity. His reverence, admiration and loyalty to Awele hang like a presence in the atmosphere. The euphoric movements of his body and the tremor in his voice as he intones, “Who are we calling upon? Who are we waiting upon? …who guides the journey of men…?” proclaims his joyful service to this spirit for whom he lives.

It is this same vibrancy that Dansey Mbah produces in the chorus. Quite a number of people in the audience confessed that the chorus had an effect on them like no other. For the parts he was to take with them, Mbah guides the chorus with movement and sound from his place up there on the stage. I think that synchronisation was an undeniable ingenuity. 

The setting and stage design are fitting, credits to the stage manager, Roland Odo. Lights coming on to reveal a throne situated in the middle of the background of the celestial sets the mood for what is to come – a meeting between a spirit and mortals. Similar things would be said of the lighting, with its alternating hues creating focus where it is needed, except that the rays ushering the souls back to earth does not appear powerful at times.

Much of the play’s comic quality rests on the characters of Mgbada and Ehi played by Innocent “MC Onachi” Chisom and Simon Ugwu, respectively. These two own their roles and spur laughter with everything at their disposal: the expression on their faces, their gestures and postures, the very words they say. One cannot help but admire how Igbokwe dexterously knits the essence of the play around these hilarious characters without watering down the potency of the message. Thus, while laughing at the characters’ inability to decide what they want and their foolish misuse of Awele’s benevolence, one cannot easily put off the nudge to introspect. Have I been caught up in the quest for “something new”? Have I excused insatiability with “Is it bad for a man to seek newness?” 

In the end, we see how the pursuit of undefined liberty could turn into a curse as one ends up giving everything up to the tyranny of freedom, which is a bondage many never manage to break free from. Cheta Igbokwe’s Awele is fit to be described as a daring and sublime work of art. With an adroitness that keeps its audience in awe, it stirs the imagination and inspires one to ask and to seek answers.

Nenye Okoye is a writer, editor and proofreader all of the time; an entrepreneur some of the time. Find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram as Nenye Okoye


Subscribe to our Newsletter
Stay up-to-date