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Theatre Review: Women of Owu and the crime against humanity

By SOLA BALOGUN

In every war situation, casualties usually outweigh the real fighters on the battlefield. This is why every war causes great harm not just to the soldiers and warlords at the warfront, but to a great number of people including women, children and others who are relations or dependants of the warring parties. The recent production of Women of Owu, a play written by Femi Osofisan inside the Adetutu Hall of Ekiti State University (EKSU) in Ado Ekiti, offered yet another moment of reflection on the fruitlessness of war.

Directed by Dr Ade Adeseke, in collaboration with staff and students of the Department of Theatre and Media Arts of EKSU, Women of Owu reminded the audience of the pains and anguish inflicted on women during the 19th Century war in Yorubaland. It also presented war as a global phenomenon that has done more harm than good to humanity. Ironically, many societies of the world, even in contemporary times, still see war as the only “solution” to their ageless feuds. This is why the playwright condemns, in literary terms, the threesome 1821 war against Owu in Yorubaland; the pains of Trojan women in classical Greece and the incessant terror attacks, genocide and xenophobia currently rocking many parts of the globe.

As an adaptation of the Greek play, Trojan Women by Euripides, Osofisan’s Women of Owu, on EKSU stage, also saw young men and women of the theatre encapsulating the vision of the playwright. The young actors and actresses interpreted the play as a creative weapon meant to fight a universal menace.

The play opened with an array of bereaved women of Owu bemoaning the death of their husbands and male children. Among these women was the influential leader and mother figure, Erelu Afin (Mofolwaso Akinbola) who, having lost her husband and five sons to the infamous war, was quite devastated to the point of preferring death to shame. The Owu community had been invaded by an aggressive, combined army made up of Ife, Oyo and Ijebu warriors. The latter unleashed terror by killing all males found in Owu on the pretext of patronising their flourishing trade in the market. The Owu women, thus, became victims of rape, slavery, dislocation, depravity and death.

In the midst of the crisis, the ancestral god, Anlugbua (Samuel Adelugba), appeared to the women, promising his possible intervention and rescue mission. But these promises were doubted by the women who now believed that the so called ‘god’ or “ancestor” has actually failed them. The women felt abandoned and betrayed by Anlugbua whom they had always worshipped and respected before calamity befell them.

Rather than favouring the women in times of trouble, Anlugbua was aided by his mother, Lawumi (Omodolapo Olaonipekun) to betray them. The women, who were all wearing adire costumes, except for Erelu who appeared in aso oke, had no headgears on, but some of them had their native hairstyles adorned with beads and other accessories found in Yorubaland. Their casual appearance depicted them as a group of hapless women already plunged into untimely widowhood and deprivation.

As a reminder of the cause of the war, the audience encountered how Maye Okunade (Terhemba) accused his estranged lover, Iyunloye (Victoria Hanson) of betrayal for seven years. The artist-turned-soldier boasted that he would execute the woman for fleeing him to marry his enemy but he was soon bought over by Iyunloye’s seductive craft. And so rather than being punished for using her beauty and body to cause a communal war, Iyunloye escaped justice, and the Owu women were left to face the consequences. Here the audience learnt how strong men like leaders and warriors usually lose their power and honour to the antics of beautiful men at the detriment of their people and the society.

Having been betrayed by the gods and abused by soldiers, the only thing left for the Owu women was to bequeath a deserving honour to their leader, Erelu Aafin. The women, thus, dared the fierce looking soldiers to form a circle round Erelu in protest against injustice. First, they lifted local lamps, followed by long sticks to play-act the rites of honour to their old, frail looking heroine. They also sang and danced rhythmically in her honour, extolling her virtues as a great leader and reverred mother of the community.

But the soldiers truncated these moments of honour and celebration by seizing Erelu’s daughter, Adumadan (Busayo Adegboye) on the orders of the general who wanted her as wife. As if this was not enough, the only remaining son in the Owu lineage, Aderogun (Oluwapemisire Olaiya Yusuf) was equally forcefully seized from his mother and slaughtered by the soldiers. This brutal killing of the innocent toddler ostensibly marked the end of the royal lineage and the peak of the tragedy that befell the Owu people.

As the play progressed, the women were either shared into slavery or forced into marriage with the men who plotted their husbands’ death in the first place. Meanwhile, the anguish of losing all what belonged to Erelu became unbearable for her. She eventually died in the hands of her younger ones who sang elegies in her memory. Erelu’s death expectedly demoralised the Owu women who had looked forward to her as their main source of hope and strength.

A total theatre production that thrilled the audience in songs, dance and choreography, perhaps Women of Owu, as directed by Adeseke earned more credits in role interpretation, costuming, creative illumination and proper rendition of lines. The likes of Erelu Afin, Gesinde (Emmanuel Ogunmola), Maye Okunade, Anlugbua, Aderogun and a handful of the women gave a fair interpretation of their roles, just as the costume designer, Toyin Bade-Afuye, accentuated these roles through the imaginative use of periodic (Yoruba) costumes, make-up and accessories.

Except for the stage backdrop which gave the production a rather contemporary setting, the play, which essentially exposed the brutality of war and violence against the female gender, was quite entertaining and instructive.

Among those who made the play a success on January 23 inside Adetutu Hall of EKSU were Tolu Owoola (Asssistant Director), Bamidele Esho (Set Designer) and Dr Laide Nasir (Lighting Designer). Others were Feso Oyebade (Props Manager) and Samuel Akintade (Choreographer).

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