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Esiaba Irobi( 1960-2010) … the journey to Cemetery Road

By Prof. Isidore Diala

Last week at the prestigious Eko Hotel and Suit, Lagos, where the Management of Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas, NLNG in collaboration with the National Gallery of Arts, NGA inducted about 21 Nigerians including Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, JP Clark, Ladi Kwale, Fela Ransome Kuti into the National Hall of Fame, late brilliant theatre scholar, poet and playwright, Esiaba Irobi beat LNG laurate, Ahmed Yerima and Adinoyi Ojo Onukaba to win the 2010 LNG literary prize for drama to the tune of $50,000.

His winning entry is an unpublished play titled, Cemetry Road, which according to Prof Isidore Diala, “plays dangerously between the sacred and the profane, the macabre and the hilarious and attempts to appropriate the total resources of the theatre, ancient and modern, African and Western.”

Today, Sunday arts publishes a brilliant tribute written by Diala and culled from NLNG: The Magazine, which captures the soul and theaterical depth of Irobi, who sadly lost the battle to cancer not quite long in a German hospital.

The distinguished Nigerian playwright, poet, stage director, actor,literary theorist and scholar, Esiaba Irobi, decorated as his career was, never got the full recognition that he eminently deserved. He shared not only the unusual gifts and temperament but also the fate of some of the master spirits of the race. Educated at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), the University of Sheffield and the University of Leeds, both in England, lrobi’s specialisation was in Drama, Film and Theatre Studies.

A consummate theatre practitioner and astute scholar, Irobi at various times taught at UNN, the University of Leeds, and the Liverpool J. Moores University in England, New York University, Townson University, and the Ohio University, Athens all in the United States of America. He was on a Fellowship at Freie University, Berlin, Germany, at the time of his death on May 3, 20 I O. lrobi’s life was a restless and audacious search for new horizons.

Esiaba Irobi

The sheer magnitude of the lrobi oeuvre is a tribute to a life of industry, devotion and tenacity. His published plays include: The Colour of Rusting Gold (1989), Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh (l989),Hangmen Also Die (1989), Nwokedi (1991), The Other Side of the Mask (1999), The Fronded Circle (1999), and Cemetery Road (2009). At the time of his sudden death, he was also working on the final drafts of many other plays, several of which were in fact already in press: Sycorax (initially titled The Shipwreck, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Theater, USA), Foreplay (commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre, London, England), What Songs Do Mosquitoes Sing, I Am the Woodpecker that Terrifies the Trees, Zenzenina, The Harp, John Coltraine in Vienna, among many others. Added to his collections of poetry, Cotyledons (l987).Inflorescence(1989) Why I Don’t Like Philip Larkin (2005), the lrobi canon is undoubtedly prodigious. Remarkably though, mere prolificity was not the ideal lrobi aspired to: there were many completed scripts he never attempted to produce as there were equally many staged plays he denied publication. His deep passion for pre-eminence led him to approach every creative endeavour as a soul-searching quest for ultimately unattainable perfection, a daring for the elusive ultimate laurel. His life was a fable of the steadfast search for distinction and the self-mortifications that quest often entails.

Born on the day of Nigeria’s independence, I October, 1960, Irobi interpreted that striking coincidence in terms of a destiny shared with the Nigerian nation, a destiny of agony and pain. In 1989, he told an interviewer: “The historical rigor mortis and political epilepsy of the country itself has left cracks on the mirror of the mind. Whatever has happened to the country has happened to me … “

lrobi’s diagnosis of the cause of that “political epilepsy” locates it in the corruption of the Nigerian leadership – politicians and soldiers alike. Consequently, his continuing theme has been the frustration and marginalisation of even the most -gifted Nigerian youth; he has been equally fascinated by the psychopathology of dispossession and its violent manifestations. lrobi’s signal insight is that even for the humane and the enlIghtened, material dispossession erodes a balanced personality by destroying personal integrity and self-worth. Contending that material dispossession induces mental possession, Irobi sees terror as a vocation that enhances self-esteem and moreover confronts society with for the literature prize is his style and unique approach to writing drama-making the subject matter a lot relevant to the society. its own violation of the norms it seems to support. He apparently endorses Fanon whose canonical work, The Wretched of the Earth, he refers to in Hangmen Also Die, self-consciously framing a comparison with his postulations.

Yet lrobi’s work is also an interrogation and modification of the Fanonian insight on the attainment of inner unity in violent action. lf Irobi reveals terror as a mask worn by the oppressed to confront a society whose hostility emasculates and demeans them, he equally argues that that mask is invariably the mask of madness. His despair is the power of social dispossession to reduce its victims to mere fury and rage. lrobi’s ideal is the reconciliation of purposeful revolutionary zeal with selfless social commitment.

Like his sustained negotiations of Fanon and Karl Marx, Irobi’s discipleship to Wole Soyinka had a profound impact on his art. In The Colour of Rusting Gold, lrobi is fascinated by Igbo concepts of liminality and divination as well as the dangers to the life of ritualised piety. However, in much of his work since the publication of Nwokedi in 1991, Irobi’s much more politically pronounced theme is explored against the backdrop of a ritual symbolism that evokes the typical atmosphere of Soyinka’s tragic drama. Guided by Soyinka’s example, lrobi seeks in his own Igbo cultural background enabling myths to comprehend life’s abiding mysteries; advancing insights deriving from Soyinka’s formulations rooted in Yoruba theatre, lrobi makes the theatrical basis of his typically challenging corpus the dramaturgy of Igbo ritual performances: propitiatory, divinatory, funerary and regenerative rites. But in transforming the enchanted figures of Igbo myths and legends – Amadioha, the thunder-throwing god of the sky,Agwu, the deity of contradictions, Ala, the Earth goddess or their avatars or proteges-into characters in his elemental drama reminiscent of the Greeks’ and Soyinka’s, lrobi also characteristically points to central human dilemmas beyond explicit political frameworks, integral instead with the timeless vision of tragedy. [n his entire oeuvre, his iconoclastic recuperation of Igbo myths and expansion of ritual to facilitate essentially political projects in contemporary societY do not only foreground a specifically [gbo theatre! tragedy but also set in relief his own audacious innovativeness. His inclination is always to formulate an alternative literary tradition and worldview by transforming Igbo cultural experience into paradigms potentially applicable to a wider humanity.

In Nwokedi (indebted to Soyinka’s The Strong Breed and Death and the King’s Horseman) Irobi appraises the relevance of a traditional festival for communal expiation of guilt, the Ekpe, in the context of contemporary political corruption; exploring Igbo funerary music in The Fronded Circle and meditating on a demonstrably Igbo concept of the relationship between the arts, religion and society in The Other Side of the Mask, Irobi drannatises typical post -colonial themes: oppression, migration and cultural alienation, identity crises, revolutionary violence, a revalidation of indigenous traditions, interrogation of colonial stereotypes; Cemetery Road plays dangerously between the sacred and the profane, the macabre and the hilarious and attempts to appropriate the total resources of the theatre, ancient and modern, African and Western. The forthcoming play, Sycorax, is a provocative ideological adaptation of Shakespeare’s much-travelled play, The Tempest, highlighting undertextualised Africanist and feminist perspectives. Exemplifying post-colonial drama’s interrogation of the representational biases of Western drama as well as its syncretic nature, Sycorax in filling in the gaps in Shakespeare’s narrative is typically iconoclastic, audacious, innovative, controversial, or simply lrobisque. Yet, I believe, the play Irobi would want us to remember him especially for is The Other Side of the Mask.

In a deeply moving tribute read at Irobi’s grave side at Amapu Igbengwo Umuakpara Osisioma Ngwa in Abia State, Nigeria, on 16 July 2010, his friend and colleague, Eni- Jones Umuko, called Irobi the most vociferous voice of his generation in the theatre. He also identified lrobi as “a very consummate actor who acted very passionately with a Stanislavskian emotional intensity that he holds under very tight control with a Brechtian discipline that gives him the persona of a Grotowskian mask, giving his acting a trance like quality:’ Umuko recalled also that Irobi craved for awards for his works and had argued fiercely when his work was denied the Association of Nigerian Authors’ (ANA) Drama Prize in 1985. lrobi’s The Colour of Rusting Gold had won the National Gold Gong Prize in 1982. But he justifiably craved for more. Supremely assured of his talent, Irobi saw laurels nonetheless as emblematic acts of public recognition necessary for an artist’s consolidation of his self-image.

His sculptor protagonist in The Other Side of the Mask, Janlike, is the representative visionary artist seeking a transcendence of the wreckage of history and the seductions of the human herd through his art yet paradoxically condemned to the judgment of society. Jamike’s self-acclamation is absolute: “I am the next (master artist)! The next! The very next! I am a genius! Everything I touch turns into gold. Everything I create is an ultimate masterpiece’: But with the denial of the national prize for sculpture for six years, doubts assail him and undermine his self-esteem. Confronting his work in a moment of murderous despondency, Jamike muses: “Caresses the works I thought there was craft here. I thought there was beauty here. I thought there was ecstasy here. Industry! Energy! Sincerity! Honesty! Truth! Power! Love! And Triumph! I thought there was art here. But they say there is none. (He covers the works) Perhaps, I have nothing to offer the world. Nothing. No message. No talent. No gift. No flint of genius. Nothing:’

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