June 10, 2024

A Sleep with One Eye Closed: A review of Cheta Igbokwe’s Brother-Brother

A Sleep with One Eye Closed: A review of Cheta Igbokwe’s Brother-Brother

By Divine Okorie

Bedecked with wits, artistry and a riveting depth of spiritism, Cheta Igbokwe’s play, Brother Brother, embroils the audience in a heart-rending voyage of tragedy. Brother-Brother was staged for the first time in Nigeria at The New Arts Theatre, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, on March 6, 2024, months after the poignant masterpiece, Awele, premiered in the same venue. Underlying both plays is Igbokwe’s exceptional and deeply philosophical insight into mysticism, from which he churns out works that interrogate man’s spiritual essence and aggravates curiosity in the journeys of man beyond the physical.

The plays lead us on into the threads that rope man in his present, his past and his future, and the anxiety following each world. Awele flourished in its philosophical glance at the subject of rebirth and limitedness of man in choosing his destiny, casting stares into the powers that be, that embeds man in his present fortune, namely, his chi; Brother-Brother is a thoughtful look on the consciousness of fatality and the eternal presence of fear.

The play revolves around two brothers, Okenta and Ojemba, whose lives follow diverse trajectories, even though we see that both men are led by one element—fear of a dangerous fate. Ojemba is an American professor who, according to Okenta’s story, made away with the fortune left behind by their father. Okenta fumes at this, at the abjectness of his life in contrast to his brother’s affluence, even though in most parts of the play, we find him worrying more about longevity than about his brother’s apparent betrayal. Even as an American professor, finishing off in a prestigious American University, Ojemba is a victim of fear. And we perceive this in every step he takes, emboldened even in his repeated proclamations: “If death knocks on that door, he will find me ready.” Ojemba’s readiness is questionable, as he is the same person who scurries into an agreement with his brother to entangle their lives with that of the ill-fated Ifenkili, so that as long as Ifenkili lives, they live. Again, we understand the happening of fear, the irresolvable situation of it, in Ojemba’s condemnable act of vending their father’s properties and stealing away to America, leaving his brother in penury. Whereas a strategic rewiring of destiny, through Ifenkili, is Okenta’s response to the potentiality of tragedy following their father’s death, Ojemba deals with his by elopement.

Okenta, himself, has been a man led on by superstitions and fear. But he proves to be less lily-livered than his brother for his insistence on a solution, his confrontation of that which snuffs sleep away from his eyes. The same Okenta, who should be worried, advises Ifenkili to “Sleep,” and it is the same Okenta who consoles Ojemba, offering him a solution, however inimical, to his fated end. Okenta brings to mind the picture of a man who has graduated from his fears, who has worn it like a shawl. And instead of it killing him, without his putting up a fight with his chi, it allows Okenta to test his strength, even as it is, in the end, a familiar case of one’s chi smirking at one’s struggles.

Okenta, like Ehi and Mgbada in Igbokwe’s Awele, would want to question his fate and wriggle an answer from his chi. It is so that he cannot live without a woman whose head would bear the tragedy of his death, even though it is the same Okenta who is seen severally scampering away from the stage whenever a knock comes from the door following his brother’s plaintive declaration. However, Okenta’s fear is one that buoys him, instead of diminishing him. In fact, he goes the extra mile, beyond the paternal-initiated ritual of transference of death and tragedy, and kills Obelensi who prepares the charm for him. Okenta becomes more thoughtful and schematic, desiring to patch all leaking valves through which chi ọjọọ may sneak into his life.

The situation of a known fate is what drives both characters to even development. Ojemba, in his characteristic egocentric self, would not want to die without landmark significance, thus his desires to have a painter paint a large portrait of him, a singer compose a song in his name, and a writer do a brain-heaving biography of him. Yet, with his wife’s connivance with imposters parading as painter, singer, and writer, it seems as though both brothers are followed by cruel chi who are against their individual desires, just as Ehi and Mgbada of Awele are intercepted by chi ọjọọ which does not allow them make a prompt decision about their destinies.

The appearance of the masquerades at the beginning and end of the play is elemental as much as it is symbolic. The masquerades open up a path, namely, the tragedy of Ifenkili as the scapegoat for Okenta and his brother. Profoundly, they beckon to the play a deep sense of spiritism, making bare a world where fate is open and sealed. In Igbokwe’s Homecoming, the appearance of masquerades at the end of the play serves to seal a connection between the living and the dead, a role replicated in Brother-Brother. The masquerades are not roaming spirits, however, but are beckoned, an insignia of the ethereal manifestation of human prayers.

Among other things, Cheta is not a playwright that soaks his audience in the bruising acids of tragedy without offering them recourse to laughter, a time to belch, relieve, and dive back into the play. It happens so that even the tragedy that caps the plays is deployed in a humorous way, with the characters’ helplessness evoking tragic laughter from the audience. The play, well-written, is capped by a riveting rendition by the actors. Nwachukwu Sopulu, who played Okenta, often throws the audience in fits of comic relief with his bodily gimmicks, sarcasm and embodiment of the poor figure. Nwajei Kelechi’s role of Ojemba can be said to be nothing short of appropriate with his accent and tone, those of a seasoned academian who knows his onions with wits. Oriaku is played by Ilogeme Chidimma, and Ifenkili’s initial agitation is felt by the audience through the especial actions of Ogbue Chidubem. The three masquerades were played by Odo Livinus, Abugu Obinna, Obinna Somtochukwu, performing their enigmatic dances and sonorous movements.

In a play as this that recalls with heightened nostalgia the origin of theatre in Africa, one must not sideline the significance of music and choral performance, a relevant element overseen by Wamuo Ebenezer C. and his crew. Blessing Chinenye Odoh was the stage manager, and the excellence of her function featured in the seamless scene transition and matching scenery, showcasing an average African home for Ojemba and the sparsely furnished lower class setting for Okenta, of course brought to be by the capable hands of the props manager, Epunam Uchechukwu and others. This, as well as the costume managed by Dike, fleshed out the characters beyond expectations. The play is directed by Richard Umezinwa, and co-directed by Roland Odo and Ugochukwu Ugwu.

Divine, a writer and student in Nigeria, has reviews and short stories on Afreecan read, Brittle Paper, Fiction Niche, The Muse Journal among others