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It was a great privilege to attend the last night of the musical drama ‘Queen Moremi the Musical’ at Terra Kulture.
Terra Kulture is a theatre located slap in the centre of the business district of Victoria Island. The organization was formed in 2003 by Bolanle Austen Peters, daughter of renowned lawyer and educationist Afe Babalola. The Bolanle Austen-Peters Productions (BAP) took off in 2013 with the production of the well-received SARO the Musical. There have since been five major play productions.
In 2015, Austen-Peters was involved in the production of a film – ‘93 Days’, the story of the Ebola outbreak in Lagos and how it was contained.
Terra Kulture arena opened in 2017 as the first purpose-built private theatre in Nigeria.
It has since gone on to stage many events and become something of a prototype for a venue where cultural activities may be fostered for the public, and for tourism.
Austen-Peters has been able to network effectively with the private sector for sponsorship.
Moremi Ajasoro was a legendary figure who lived in the 12th century.
The story of her life and epic deeds has varied somewhat in the telling, depending on the source.
In the Terra Kulture version, she is initially married to an Ile Ife man, and she has a good life.
There is a precious child – Oluorogbo – that she was given several years past by the river goddess Esinmirin after many years of barrenness. He is growing up into a winsome adult and is clearly the apple of his mother’s eyes.
Sitting in audience at the theatre and watching the drama unfold, you are reminded of how long ago, you had watched the Duro Ladipo Travelling Theatre enacting the same drama. The encounter took place at Government College Ibadan, a school which every season put up a play –Shakespeare, Yoruba, sometimes both, and which played host from time to time to the travelling theatres of Duro Ladipo, Ogunmola and others.What you remember is that the haunting emotions evoked by Duro Ladipo’s bearded, towering presence, playing King, and his delectable, determined wife, Abiodun – who played Moremi, have lived with you since then. When you close your eyes, you can hear Duro Ladipo as he grapples with the dilemma of how to save his people from the predatory incursions of a forest-dwelling people who are wreaking rape and murder, and carting peopleof Ile Ife off to slavery. They are like giants wrapped in raffia and wearing fearsome masks, and his soldiers are powerless against them.
Duro Ladipo’s words, surveying his helpless situation, still resonate in your ears.
‘Awon ugbo. Enia bi eranko ma ni won o.’
It is not a statement of hate, but a description shot through with grudging admiration at the military skills of his people’s tormentors.
When his treasured Moremi suddenly volunteers to be captured by the Ugbo in order to mingle with them and learn the secrets of their military invincibility, he is distraught, but he realizes he is left with no alternative.
The deal is sealed. Moremi is captured in the next raid.
Her noble statusand carriage are recognized immediately.She is taken straight into the presence of the king of the Ugbo. Won over by her beauty, he takes her as his consort. Suppressing her abhorrence and submitting herself to the indignity of her new station, she strives to unearth the source of the oppressor’s power.
She succeeds, and escapes back to Ile Ife. Their secrets revealed, the Ugbos are routed in combat. There is a final bitter pill for the heroine to swallow. The sea goddess, who aided her mission, demands the sacrifice of her only beloved son, Oluorogbo.
There is a feminist tinge to the struggle of Austen-Peters’ MOREMI. The woman is the redeemer, where the men have failed.
More than that, this Moremi is playing in the midst of a raging controversy about who exactly are the ‘Ugbo’ people in the story. There are ramifications that could have implications for the unity and harmony of the Nigerian nation itself.
Are the ‘Ugbos’ out and out villains – bloodthirsty killers and plunderers with no redeeming grace? Or are they aggrieved aboriginals, expropriated from their land by the children of Oduduwa, and justifiably thirsty for revenge?
Who are the ‘Ugbo’ and where are they now?
In Duro Ladipo’s original rendition, the Ugboare people who dwell in the forest and make forays into the civilized community of Ile Ife, to cart off by force what is not theirs.
In the Terra Kulture version, as you sit and live through it, the ‘Ugbo’ are aborigines that Oduduwa’s children met on the ground as they founded Ile Ife. In their own narrative, they were passed over when it was their turn to produce a king. They have a justifiable axe to grind.
It goes farther than that. The Ooni of Ife, revered Yoruba monarch, has been a major encourager for ‘Moremi the Musical’. He has done a lot to promote the image of Moremi as a heroine of Ile Ife and the children of Oduduwa, even erecting a statue of her in his palace. The statue is the tallest in the whole of Nigeria.
The Ooni stirred controversy recently by tracing the origins of the Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria to Ile Ife, implying an antecedence of kinship between the Yoruba and Igbo peoples.
It is easy to extrapolate from that standpoint to the story. Are the ‘Ugbo’ in the play the ‘Igbo’ of modern Nigeria?
There is yet another twist to the tale. Oba Akinruntan, the Olugbo of Ugbo-land – a monarch in Ondo State, has asserted that his people – the ‘Ugbo’ were the original inhabitants of Ile Ife and true owners of Ile Ife, which is regarded as ‘The Source’ of all mankind in Yoruba mythology. On account of this ‘fact’, he is claiming a place of prominence among Yoruba monarchs. His claim, of course is not recognized by anybody else. The Aare Ona Kankanfo has had cause recently to call him to order.
The Ooni’s ‘ecumenical’ historiography concerning the Igbo and the Yoruba may be seen as enhancing to national unity and the development of a sense of brotherhood between the two major races of Southern Nigeria. However, his version of history has been challenged by Iku Baba Yeye, the Alaafin of Oyo.
It is all, you reflect, a whole lot of reverberations and implications to be attached to a simple musical drama.
Just before the curtains fall, the cast are brought on stage. In celebration of the closing of this run of the play, Bolanle Austen-Peters herself comes on stage to thank her sponsors, starting from the revered Ooni, to the Governor of Ogun State, to the corporate titans who underwrote her costs.
The evening, you conclude, as you depart, could not have been better spent.