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How Should We Witness Horror? Qudus Onikeku's Performance of Trauma.

How Should We Witness Horror? Qudus Onikeku's Performance of Trauma |

A Review by Didi Cheeka

An atmosphere of menace hangs over the strangely-lit stage, heightened by repeated drum-rolls that help create a mood of unbearable tension. You are there. That sleeping night, you are there. That is the magic, the power of theatre. It puts you there. Under the darkening African sky, we are there, that sleeping night. A night like any other night. The same moon. The same stars. The same familiar things. Until just before midnight. The half-crazed woman on the living stage is there too. A migrant woman. A woman. Grieving. And her grief is unforgivable. It is any place, anytime – yesterday, today, tomorrow. It is anybody. She is memory’s mistress – summoning it from its deep well on the living stage. To history and Journalism belong statistics. But theatre humanises lives mutilated by violence; humanises the loss of those near and dear. Through theatre, we share the unbearable memories and loneliness of survivors.

You are there, that sleeping night. The voice of the half-mad woman on the stage puts you there. That night stands forever in her memory, her voice intimates. The next morning so many lay dead, in the same position they fell, scattered all around like rubbish, as if the whole world itself was dead. Under the darkening sky, in the strange, half-light of the stage, I am that woman. Or maybe it is the other way. maybe. This is what her voice intimates: People who ran to the bush were killed; some were burned in their houses, including babies and children; a mother lying down and the baby lying next to her; dead bodies everywhere as blood-drunk neighbours beat down the door – and she witnessed her family being killed, she witness their death waiting for her hers.

The margin between art and life blurs, and role makes connection with soul. It is suddenly no longer a performance. There is real despair in the performance. Every gesture carries it, every body movement expresses it. There is madness in the air. It seems to me the dead themselves are me. I am every child, every woman murdered in the imagined space. If you permit yourself, sitting before the performance, you can feel the madness drawing you in, taking over you. You see so many bloodstained hands. And a landscape of horror. And the wild, terrifying narrator (Ese Brume, I think) is the landscape itself. Devastated by violence. And not just violence. The pounding voices from the night of the killings seem to be in her head, startling her. She looks fearfully about her. Throwing herself down. She moves, half crawling. As if crawling away from the voices, away from herself. Her voice becomes all choked. Speaking, as if to herself. As if to the voices in her head.

But, there are other voices, voices not in her head, voices you can hear. The crying voices of children – as if to provide tragic chorus – rising into the night, as if writing their own epitaph. “The most moving poetic picture” of trauma, Freud writes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, “is the story Tasso told in his romantic epic, Gerusalemme Liberata.” Tancred, the epic’s hero, unknowingly kills his beloved Clorinda – who is disguised in the armour of an enemy knight – in a duel. After her burial, Tancred makes his way through a forest whose magic stirs terror in the hearts of the Crusaders’ army. In the grip of terror, the hero slashes with his sword at a tall tree. As blood streams from the tree’s wound, the voice of Clorinda, whose soul is imprisoned in the tree is heard complaining to Tancred that he has wounded his beloved again. It is this, this repeated ignorant wounding – which Freud refers to as trauma’s repetitiveness through the unknowing, seemingly accidental actions of the survivor – that is evoked by Qudus and Tidiani’s fight performance. “I love you,” Qudus says to the still body. Like Tancred, he has, seemingly unknowingly, accidentally and fatally wounded his love. Even as we witness the compulsive reenactment, in the background the three female dancers (Gwen Rakotovao, Deborah Aiyegbeni, Gaell Tiger Ikonda) seem caught up in ecstatic motion, at once despairing, grieving, gloating. And when they first come to lift the lying figure of Tidiani, the impression you get is of ghouls come to feed on cadaver.

From the opening of the performance, as the spotlight reveals a lone Gwen Rakotovao on centre – where, with Qudus lurking in the shadows, the audience sense they are about to witness a rare moment of dance and performance, something they have not seen before – beautiful and disturbing – is about to receive its Nigerian birth. And the cheering that broke out after the performance testifies to the delivery – the danger, the pain, and, ultimately, relief. There’s a sense in which we can speak of classical dance as reproducing the movement of the human body in a state of peace and harmony. Dance, from the classical to the modern has mastered the art of movement, using it to express the body’s harmony. But, there is, also, dance, when it is fused with performance, that finds for itself the body it needs, not just to express movement but the human body’s capacity to narrate itself. There is, of course, a lot of pretence and false-mannerism – which in the end is just a pose – that is associated with performance art. But, not with these performers. With We Almost Forgot, performance finds for itself the body it needs, as dance makes the bodies on stage the subject of its movement.

Official history encourages collective silence, collective denial, collective forgetting. The stage, thus, becomes an excavation site of memory. The performance itself, a refusal to forget. The stage becomes a nightmare, the performance a memorial to the dead, a refusal to take drugs to banish the pain. The challenge is, how do you perform trauma in a way that does not mitigate the impact, that does not make of the performance a cliché, a different version of the same old story? How do you bear witness to a horror so overwhelming in its personal and collective losses the immediate response is denial and silence? Trauma, like dance, is never simply a personal experience: it is precisely the way we are involved in each other’s story – as performers and audience. As a filmmaker and critic, one who lives in the so-called third-world, I testify to the fear of something lying in wait beneath everyday life, ready to unleash horror. And this fear is not mine alone. My beginning memory of this fear arises from a series of trips I took to the heart of the Jos tragedy: rain was softly falling, that first time, and a pale mist sat on distant rocky mountains, but underneath, Jos was a destroyed city – a tide of terror and violence was sweeping across the northern states.

The performance of terror on a Lagos stage reminds us, no matter how uncomfortable you find the performance, that the campaign of terror that has been instituted across Nigeria’s desert fringes by a terror sect is not the victims and survivors’ stories alone. It is why I accept its dance dramatic treatment as not simply a superficial replication of someone else’s actual experience – we are directly implicated. There is a question we rarely ask: How do survivors recover from this violent experience beyond merely existing in a condition of dysfunctional survival? Perhaps, it is this connectivity, this involvement that testify to the visceral nature of Ese Brume’s performance (though, sometimes she seems to be struggling), that makes it at once a performance of her personal demons and the cruel truth. She stands there, a woman with everything stripped away, helpless in the grip of violent emotion, responding to her own despair and the unforgivable cruelty of the world around her. What comes to mind is Hecuba, in Euripides’ tragic play, The Trojan Women, forced to prepare the body of her grandson, Astyanax, for burial after he is presented to her on a bronze shield.

We Almost Forgot evokes a sense of pain and utter desolation, from the very beginning till the end, and there’s practically no let up in its mood of pain and sorrow. Few drama or dance performances on the Lagos stage culminate in such single-minded dedication to loss and the tragedy of survival. And this is what the performance is: the tragedy of survival, for, you see, to survive and go on living is the ultimate tragedy. Still, there are moments of beauty in this inexorable march into the night – in the grace and purity of the dancers’ movements, in the play’s austere style, in the narrator’s last crawl across the stage, dragging the mix with her, as if finally reduced to sub-human level by that intense suffering under which the human soul crumbles in defiant despair. To end with Clorinda’a crying wound.

This is what We Almost Forgot is: a wound that cried out, drawing attention to our compulsive reenactment of trauma. And if you find this dance performance too extreme, all I can say is this: there’s no extreme more than the truth.

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