By Anote Ajeluorou
It was his 1960 independence play commissioned to celebrate a new nation’s euphoric moment of freedom from colonial, British rule. But the staging was not to be. Wole Soyinka’s vision appeared too dark for a celebratory occasion, and the officials promptly rejected it. It remained largely a scholarly text ever since. Until…
Fast-forward 54 years later, and the Forest of Ijegba, Abeokuta, comes alive with A Dance of the Forests. What was left unspoken need not remain so forever. A grand vision that suffered momentary abortion at birth need find outlet somehow. So, producers of International Cultural Exchange programme, Zmirage crew, which has celebrated Soyinka’s birthday in the last five years, turning it into one huge cultural carnival that involves children (80 this year), play performances, spoken word or poetry, a visual feast of the Nobel Laureate’s varied images, turned to the Forest of Ijegba for theatrical re-enactment.
Indeed, Forest of Ijegba, home of the literary icon, is a study in primordial beginnings. With weird inscriptions about venturing vehicles being eaten alive at the entrance, it appears a forbidden forest, with overhanging trees and twisting scrubs and poplars, only a hermit could have conceived such a place for his abode. But Soyinka says although conceived to be as far away from the Abeokuta city as possible, the city has now crept close, a seeming violation of the isolation he so much craved.
And then a pond-like valley creeps into view that at once reveals a lawn with fruit trees that shield a brick-walled building. Veering to the right, a circled lawn with what looks like a well in the middle, but too wide for a well - a decoration; and then a narrow path that leads on, the forest closing in as the path leads further on, the 80 white-clad female custodian of the forest with the lit oil lamps along the narrow path to the valley-stage below. Then a clearing, with cassava plants to the left, a lone building also and you enter a descent that leads straight to a valley that opens in a yawn right in front and to the left.
The valley is the stage. The incline is what has been turned into terraced steps for the audience as it undulates forward to a base that flattens out momentary and then rises again to a hilly point just out of sight. But it’s the valley that is the stage and the hilly rise beyond. It’s ingenious, this piece of stage carved out from the heart of a forest. In daylight it looks ordinary enough, a valley being transformed into what it’s not. But when the lights come on and figures begin to move it’s as surreal as it can be, the invocation of the spirit world and the humans acting in a daze in a celebration that traps them in a never-ending maze between the then and now. The forest scrubs around stand sentry and eerie in the dark and changeling stage lights to lend weird effect to the spirit-worldly beings that alternate with humans. It’s an award-winning set design!
It could not have been more ingenious, having to create a real forest, as stage to enact A dance of the Forests for the 80th birthday of the inimitable playwright, who saw his country’s checkered future history from the prism of his creative vision from the very beginning. In 1960 Soyinka didn’t share his countrymen’s optimism in the euphoria of independence celebration. He saw something darker, something horrible coming that needed expiating. Had his ebullient countrymen been patient and listened or watched the play with keener interest and taken its sinister message seriously, perhaps they (and we all) might have wiser, taken another path that led away from the slippery one taken and the catastrophic foreboding predicted would have passed for happier times.
But no; they didn’t and the augury was left unattended to. With what result? It was vintage Soyinka, vintage village prophet seeing the unborn future and giving a warning. And as always, the prophet would not be recognized, would be vilified and chased away. But who remembers? Who cares 54 years down the line? Only a community of artists and co-visioners and co-prophets; that was why the Zmirage producers re-enacted the play, with Dr. Tunde Awosanmi (Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan) directing, as celebratory and a reminder. More as a reminder perhaps, that the prophecy though envisioned, in typical Soyinkan dense idiom, hadn’t passed, still haunts the country 54 years after. If anything, the forest of Nigeria’s political woe seems to be closing in, shutting out the possibility of real celebration; it’s that woe that has been Kongi’s fight all his life…
Ogun State governor, Ibikunle Amosun, was overwhelmed with joy after seeing the play. He could barely grasp the immensity and magnificence of the play executed in all its grandeur, and said to think Soyinka was just 26 when he wrote A Dance of the Forests!
Clearly, A Dance of the Forests is a play that needs to tour Nigeria, or at least, parts of it, for a full exposure of the vision to a wider populace.