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  • Esiaba Irobi's Legacy:Theory and Practice of Postcolonial Performance
  • Isidore Diala

By the death of Esiaba Irobi (1960-2010) on 3 May 2010, contemporary African theater lost a distinguished playwright, stage director, actor, literary theorist, and scholar. Educated at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and at the University of Sheffield and the University of Leeds, both in England, Irobi's specialization was drama, film and theater studies. Theater practitioner and scholar Irobi at various times taught at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka; the University of Leeds and the Liverpool J. Moores University in England; New York University, Townson University, and Ohio University (Athens, Ohio), all in the United States of America. He was on a fellowship at the Freie Universität, Berlin, Germany, at the time of his death. However, if Irobi's life was a restless search for new horizons, his deep anchorage in the oral tradition of his Igbo ethnic group, its rituals of self-renewal, myths and legends of enigmatic and daring deity-heroes, its lore of the mysteries of life and transcendence of the human spirit, its rousing chants, masquerades, and dramaturgy remained the indispensable source of creative imagination and critical thinking.

In a tribute read at Irobi's graveside at Amapu Igbengwo Umuakpara Osisioma Ngwa in Abia State, Nigeria, on 16 July 2010, his friend and colleague, the veteran stage director Eni-Jones Umuko, highlighted Irobi's talents as actor, stage director and playwright. Umoko described in fascinating details Irobi's role as Elesin in a production of Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman that Umoko had directed, and as Styles in Fugard's Sizwe Bansi Is Dead in a production of the play directed by the renowned theater scholar J. A. S Amankulor (whose extensive and engaging work on traditional Igbo performances was to have an enduring influence on Irobi). Deeply moving and explicitly panegyric as most graveside tributes generically strive to be, nonetheless Umoko's oration in describing Irobi's acting generally as "trance-like" and his role as Elesin specifically as having a "hypnotic" effect on the spectators offers a sober and critically insightful assessment consistent with Irobi's own account of his interpretation of that role. For Irobi himself was certain that the role of Elesin, which he played first as a final-year student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 1983 and then several times more between 1985 and 1989, was clearly the most "satisfying role" he played [End Page 20] on stage, comparable only to Shakespeare's Macbeth, which he had played as a second-year student in the university, but a greater role,

because of its multidisciplinary demands on the actor. You have to dance, sing, chant, mime, tell a story in the traditional African sense, play musical instruments, act, have sexual intercourse with the young bride in scene three, fondle the breasts of market women in scene one, enter into sacred/occult moments as well as secular ones in the play. You continuously oscillate from deep tragic moods to exhilarating high comic feelings in a matter of seconds while on stage. It is an awesome role, the most transcendent and spiritual and phenomenological—not merely cerebral—that I have ever played. It is arguably the most challenging role in modern world drama.1

Irobi further exalted the role as typifying "indigenous African initiatory and mythopoeic acting styles," which he considered superior to Stanislavski's "magic if." He traced to that role insights that eventually led to his own development of a theory of African performance with "entrancement" or "possession" as a distinctive feature and a basic canon of his own practice not only as actor but also as stage director producing numerous plays, including his own, in Nigeria, Ireland, Hungary, the USA, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, England, Portugal, and Scotland.

Irobi's articulation of an African/African diasporic aesthetic theory in his essays "The Theory of Ase: the Persistence of African Performance Aesthetics in the North American Diaspora" and "Taking the Bull by the Horns: On the Oriki Theory of African and African Diasporic Orature" covers basically the same ground, though the latter strives towards greater comprehensiveness in scope where the former...


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