By Olufunke Adepuji
A play by Emmy Unuja Ikanaba Idegu, a professor at the Department of Theatre and Performing Arts of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, recently thrilled an Israeli audience. This was on Tuesday, October 16, at the ZOA Theatre, 26 Eben-Gevirol Street in Tel Aviv. The play, The Legendary Inikpi was staged as a command performance during the commemoration of the 20th years of the restoration of diplomatic ties between Nigeria and Israel as well as the celebration of Nigeria’s 52nd independence anniversary.
Performed by the Israel-based African Israeli Stage, the play is about the war between the Igala and the Benin people from 1515 to 1516. History has it that the Ata Igala (the Igala King), Ayegba Oma Idoko was a bosom friend to the Oba of Benin to whom he always sent eunuchs for his palace. Somehow, a misunderstanding ensued and soured this cordial relationship. The Ata Igala thought the messengers he sent to his friend the Oba were captured by the Oba preparatory to taking war to Ida the traditional and administrative headquarters of the Igala kingdom and if possible, annex Igalaland.
The Ata Igala, Ayegba Oma Idoko consulted the oracle and the ancestors divined that nothing short of the life burial sacrifice of his most cherished child, Princess Inikpi will suffice. Historically, the Ata Ayegba Oma Idoko was said to have resisted the oracle divination and its demand for a considerable length of time until Princess Inikpi got to hear. She walked up to her father and agreed to offer her life via the life burial sacrifice to save both her father and the entire Igala kingdom from the fierce battle ahead. Agonizingly, Ayegba succumbed to the ancestors’ demands and Inikpi’s agreement. Princess Inikpi was thereafter buried alive by the bank of the River Niger at Ida where till date her statue stands at the very spot of the sacrifice. After the sacrifice, the Benin forces were crossing the River Niger to Ida to battle and annihilate the Igala people when they saw the town in flames. What was the need of taking war to a burning people and town they thought, and went back home. The Ata Igala, Ayegba Oma Idoko and the Igala people lived in peace thereafter. Using this story as his historical material, Emmy Unuja Ikanaba in the play graphically represents this unique aspect of the Igala history and he calls to question all over the imperative of selfless sacrifice for the generality of a people.
Idegu, professor of indigenous performance and playwriting, is an advocate of the study of Israeli theatre in Nigeria. Even after about three decades of theatre practice, it was not until December 2008 when he was invited as guest to the most popular Israeli theatre festival, the Acco Theatre Festival and to also present a paper at the Theatre Studies Department, University of Tel Aviv, that he heard or read anything about what he terms the “colossally rich and vibrant Israeli theatre practice”.
While in Israel in 2008, he interacted with a lot of his professional colleagues and attended several live stage productions, films and street/community theatre performances. During the said visit Professor Idegu gave out copies of his plays to quite a number of people. According to him, this way, he was exporting his plays including The Legendary Inikpi, Omodoko, and Tough Man that all based on the Igala history, tradition and culture. It was also during this visit (as well as the gift of The Legendary Inikpi to quite a number of Israelis) that the African Israeli Stage translated the play into Hebrew and performed it with English sub-titles on Tuesday, October 16.
The cast was composed basically of Israelis with two or three Israelis of African descent. The actors were Kais Nashif, Netzanet Mekonen,Hadar Levin, Liad Frank, Uri Sagi, Vincent Adeyinka, Omer Cohen Eden and Idit Biney. The musicians were Pascal Izik Neuton, Ophir Baron, Pierre Shain and Milo. The stage and costume designer was Tali Itzchaki. Light Designer was Shachar Verechzon. The multimedia section was made up of Liad Frank, Yoni Cohen and Gai Aisner while the translation from English to Hebrew was done by Lihi Barzel-Melamed. It was directed by a vibrant Israeli director called Yaffa Schuster.
The concept of sacrifice resonates with an Israeli audience. Just as Inikpi gave her life for the Igala people, several Inikpis have symbolically given their lives and are still giving their lives for Israel to survive.
The audience which consisted of Nigerians, Israelis and other foreign nationals was very receptive. In the audience were diplomats of other nations led of course by the Nigerian Ambassador to the State of Israel, David Oladipo Obasa who spoke very well about the play. Buttressing the selflessness of Princess Inikpi, he told the audience the imperative of this history to the Igala Kingdom, to Nigeria and of course the universality of the message.
The production of course was dogged by cultural challenges. Hence there was the need for directorial discretion in the interpretation of text outside of its immediate Igala setting. Within the Igala context of the play, for instance, a woman Ohioga Ata can never be the ifa consultant. But in the production, a powerful woman Ohioga Ata stunned the audience with her superlative performance.