Palmwine Drinkard … A voyage to the supernatural
The Kegite Club has a common saying: ‘In the midst of happiness, lies brutal danger.’ This is normally said in the camaraderie to check members on the gyration ground and also as life’s lesson. Whoever coined the axiom must have decrypted Kola Ogunmola’s mind, who, while adapting The Palmwine Drinkard of Amos Tutuola’s folk novel for stage, created a character, Lanke Omu (Adekunle Lawal), who lives out the dictum.
Opening with Lanke Omu’s friends accompanying him to his house, with a dance that continued their drinking spree, the play, an opera, satirises the vainness of human desperation. It tells the story of how humans can put their subconscious minds into good use.
When they gets to Omu’s home, the party continues until the servers run out of wine, the most essential chord that holds the group together. Vexed by this abrupt stoppage of their merriment, Omu’s friends threaten to leave, but Omu, who is enjoying their company, connives with his waitresses to serve his guests water in place of palm wine.
The guests taste the water and take offence at Omu for playing a fast one on them. He apologises and pleads that they stay with him to continue their gaiety and fun. But since they cannot stay without drinking, Omu invites Alaba (Ade Tunji), his palm wine tapper. He instructs him to get them some fresh wine from the tree. While doing this, Alaba slips from the palm tree and lands hard on the ground. He goes into coma. Afraid that the tapper is dead, the party abruptly ends.
However, Omu and his friends chant dirges, telling of the weakness and vanity of human life. They advise the tapper to continue his good work in the thereafter.
A day after the incident, an anxious Omu sleeps and dreams that he sojourns to the land of the dead to bring back his palm wine tapper, Alaba, who is supposedly dead, to the land of the living to continue tapping wine for him. The adventure forms the body of the play, which shows his encounters in the wild with gnomes, fairies and even death.
The play, through Omu’s dream, takes the audience to Ilu Ika (Land of Wickedness), which is a metaphor for countries like Nigeria, whose leaders, instead of providing citizens with infrastructure and other social amenities that make for comfortable living, would rather squander the funds to cause immediate and remote death of the people.
As a personification, Ilu Ika also depicts how compliant the citizens have become in accepting the hostility of their leaders instead of revolting against them to brin,g much-needed change in the polity. This apolitical behaviour is the major reason Nigerians cannot hold their leaders to account for their actions or inaction, while in office. It also shows the docility of the people, who accept the leaders as agents of the gods.
Directed by Adaku Mbaonu and produced by the Potter Troupe, the opera expressively showcases the Yoruba libretto, and also a tradition that has been overtaken by the now pervasive non-operatic dramatic mode. The director creatively employed contemorary and popular Yoruba musical forms as vehicles of transition from scene to scene, which aided comprehension and sustained audience’s attention. This also gives the play a niche that makes the new generation and non-Yoruba people to identify with the core messages.
The opera’s rich and diverse imaginative landscapes, though managed according to space, also accorded the designer an unlimited explorative leverage, creating a fusion of symbolic and expressionistic ambience through light and costume. The use of riddles and dance served as the transitory identity and depiction of the various locations of Omu’s voyage in land of death.
Depicting themes like persistence, love, street wisdom, greed, camaraderie, the opera, which aims to entertain, draws attention to life’s happenings. It shows how some people have given themselves to drinking and chosen to lead a life free from rancor and pretenses. It also admonishes carefulness during periods of gleefulness, as danger is always lurking around.
While portraying man as a transit being on earth as reflected in the dirge, the opera plays up the African belief of life after death. It draws heavily from the Yoruba, African ontology in the interaction between the dead and living. It projects death as a continuum of one’s earthly activities and that the dead could be consulted to unravel man’s difficult problems. Apart from this, it also shows that the departed ones could negatively or positively impact on the living. This could be seen in the spirit handing over a magical calabash to Omu, which he uses to turn water to palm wine. It takes us to the spiritual realm, revealing that the spirit world is a go-between for man and his Supreme Being, The Almighty.
The play also upholds the African belief that the living cannot do without the dead and that both are in a continuous exploit. However, with true love and determination to see his friends united, Alaba comes back to life and the love that existed among them continues. This shows the need to hopeful and optimistic in all situations.
The characters lived up to their bidding in action. In fact, their dance and body language were just natural, making the audience flow with them.