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I experienced a play tonight. 3rd September 2022.
It’s been a while since I saw a play – an intriguing play. They don’t make them like they used to anymore. But tonight, after performing as the character Man of God in the first show of Kelvinmary Ndukwe’s Omugwo, I sat down, stripped off my costume and character, and watched intensely, following each character’s eye, observing the actor’s intentions and creative choices. I witnessed this for the first time even though I have performed in this play over fifteen times. You see, it was at this moment that I realized what my colleagues have been doing, the weight in the performances they’ve been pulling. This is not a rehearsal. These are actors who have settled comfortably into their roles thanks to the first-hand experience of Ndukwe’s conversation-heavy rehearsal process. In the rehearsals, the actors were in constant conversation with the play, questioning motives, character choice, and the playwright and the director’s intentions. It was often a battleground to uncover the “truth”.
Alex Agabata debuts tonight as Chimamanda, a woman going through the last days of her marriage with Nduka (Emma Ozzi) – the husband with many mistakes. Alex Agabata is popularly considered a dancer. She also serves as the stage manager of the show. A week before this night, it was announced she was going to play Chimamanda. Spirited and convinced that she could pull it off, she makes her debut outing one of the best nights of her life, and mine as I watch her carefully. She danced and danced as she makes an intentional choice to play the role very differently from how her co-cast Bunmi Sogade (also Chimamanda) has played the character since the show opened in 2020. Sogade, also solid performer, plays Chimamanda with such womanly grace and vulnerability. Agabata chooses the other end of the spectrum, bristling with the energy of an impassive gangster, and it works. Sogade intensifies her performance levels every time she plays. The stage becomes a place to experiment on how to land the audience the final punch.
You see, good theatre is hard to find. When you do find it, you must “appreciate” it. It’s a duty owed. Theatre is suffering and one of the reasons is the lack of plays with a spiritual core, plays that resonate with the human connection, plays with articulate plots, layered characters, and a proficient language. Again – language. Theatre has a language and this is more than just aural. It is the same thing for film. This language is used to “stimulate feelings toward fictional characters and suspend disbelief for an entire movie or play.” Many theatre & filmmakers seem to have substituted this sublimity & subtlety for vain spectacles, surface-level presentation of themes and characters. This is why it can be hard to write anything about them outside the “shocking” numbers and the frontage of colorful costumes and eye-bending disco lights – cheap gimmicks replacing soulful drama.
In Omugwo, the characters are fully rounded, each of them distinct yet somewhat parallel in their individual flaws. Ndukwe doesn’t judge them; he leaves this to his audience to form their independent conclusions. Ndukwe keys into his characters mistakes and flaws, turning them into dramatic pearls. It’s a system he knows too well, evident in many of his works which are usually based around families, friends and relationships. He shows the characters as humanly as possible, as regular people struggling to find some good in their lives. The audience cannot but engage with them.
The trouble today is our lack of attention. We are not used to listening, even to ourselves. We are always in a hurry to get to the “action part”. We want a spectacle of fire and blood when it’s present in the conversations we like to avoid. It is there in the characters going through a cycle of emotions and sharing their vulnerability with us. Omugwo is a play that requires your time, your ear, and your soul.
Honorable mentions should be extended to Evaezi Ogoro (Mama) who carries the show on her bosom, Emma Ozzi who is simply indescribable, and Gold Ikponwosa, a master.
For the actors, tonight, the stage lived even though they were only performing to an audience of two.