Ezenwanebe: Feminism projects African women in bad light
Osita Catherine Ezenwanebe is an Associate Professor, Creative Arts, University of Lagos, and a Visiting Professor and Senior Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at the Department of English and Foreign Languages, Winston-Salem State University, North Carolina, U.S. Recently, the playwright called members of the academia, close friends and culture personalities to celebrate her new position and to revisit some of her works. Ezenwanebe has written six plays: Withered Thrust (2007), The Dawn of Full Moon (2009), Giddy Festival (2009), Daring Destiny (2011), Adaugo (Daughter of an Eagle) (2011) and Shadows on Arrival (2012). She spoke with OMIKO AWA on theatre practice, her plays and issues in African feminism
How did you feel when your first play was acted on stage?
I felt very fulfilled and that was the Withered Trust, written in 2007. My plays are reflections of our society; their themes are society-based. There is always an ill each play is set to correct or a particular virtue it is to showcase. I was amazed when Withered Trust was performed. The play talks about corruption, its epidemic nature.
Did you have the idea of whistle-blowing policy in mind when you were writing the play?
No, but what I had in mind was to showcase how pervasive corruption has gone in the country and nobody can claim to be innocent. Some of those at the bottom of the ladder condemning it are doing so because they have not had the opportunity to enrich themselves and if you give them opportunity to get to the top, they will likely do more.
So the message is that those who want to be social crusaders should be above board. There is no need driving exotic cars your salary ordinarily cannot afford and yet you say you are not corrupt. Where did you get the money to buy the car in the first place? The play calls us to begin the criticism with ourselves; show that good example you want others to follow.
Have there been any noticeable changes in the society since playwrights started using the stage to call for attitudinal change?
Yes and very yes! The 2015 UNILAG convocation play: Debris And Trinkets, another of my plays, witnessed some guests in the audience shedding tears. The play talks about how the rich and powerful are using the money they have embezzled from public coffers to render their children useless. Some of these children, despite the huge sums spent on them, are most times found going from one nightclub to the other. Also the poor have been so impoverished that they cannot actualise their dreams. So, it raises the question: which way Nigeria? It becomes a tragedy because the poor are not making any headway and the rich are killing themselves and the future of their children. With situations like these, we cannot achieve any thing meaningful. The best way to get out of corruption is for every one, including our leaders to live by examples, live an honest means. It may be difficult, but it’s attainable. Also for our leaders to up the campaign on attitudinal change and social transformation.
Is this the only way?
I believe one day some of the children of the rich that have been trained outside the system will come together and champion a social revolution that will change the whole system. The poor cannot do it because the organs of the rich will crush them; so the children of the rich will kick-start it and others will join.
Does this not sound like what Karl Marx was trying to say?
No; Marx talks about overthrowing a system for the poor to take over. This has nothing to do with material poor or rich. This social revolution will be led by the children of the rich, those of them who are well endowed with ideas and the right virtue, and crave for the common good of society. When they come from the powerful bloc, it will be difficult to crush by the rich and powerful because doing this would mean crushing their children.
Have you written any prose?
No; I find it difficult doing this. Most of my writings have been plays, plays that talk about the ills of the country and how the ills can be changed to bring about common good.
How are the feminism ideals explored in your works being received?
It is very well received, but I am not a feminist; I am a womanist. Womanism is an elevating model of feminism. It is fit for the African environment because we live a communal lifestyle. We cherish family, children, marriage, relationships and others. We cannot jettison our culture just because we want to liberate women from oppression. So, it’s a total transformation of a traditional family. It aims at making the man and woman to understand the need to work together without competition. It allows each of them to achieve their goals, while recognising that without the man the woman cannot achieve much and without the woman the man cannot do same. We call it complementarity of both the male and female.
This is the type of feminism we preach and it’s quite acceptable and everybody is comfortable with it. But we cannot rule out the fact that the male gender is still finding it difficult to accept the change and because of fear, many believe that if they allowed their wives to reach the peak of their careers, they would be emasculated, but that is not true. My husband has a secondary school certificated and we are happily living together!
What is the difference between feminism and womanism?
The concept of feminism projects African women in a bad light among Africans, because the early feminists preached separation and the destruction of traditional family. They see the man as an enemy, which the woman has to fight and destroy and because of this ideal, Africans do not like the concept because it does not reflect the way we live our life. We live a communal life; I cannot do without my husband and he cannot do without me. We live together and so, to bring the idea that my husband is the monster and that I have to get rid of him to get to the top? That is not true! In my life’s experience, that is not true. And I used one of my plays, Adaugo to project this.
I also presented this idea in a paper I present in the United States and the people were like, ‘has this woman gone gaga?’ And I said to them that they should look at their lives; that they are struggling because they have pushed their husbands aside. It is difficult to succeed alone, but when your husband supports you and you support him, it becomes easier to climb to the top. I wrote on the strength of the African woman and Adaugo was my anchor to project that theme.
How does it feel for a professor to marry a school certificate holder?
He remains my darling and my husband. At home, I am not a Prof, but a wife and mother. He is the daddy of everyone and provides for all. I enter the kitchen and prepare his meals. I do that myself. I am only a Prof. in the school and outside the home.
How are you encouraging other women, including those not in the academics, but in the grassroots, to embrace your ideas to be better?
I do this through social interactions in the town, village and other avenues open to me. Currently, I am doing more of mentoring young women, especially my students. My interest goes more to using the dramatic art to heal. A lot of people are psychologically dislocated, and government is not looking towards that. We take this for granted because we live a communal life, but the communal tie is fast breaking down. People are not bothered. As one can see, many people are going through loneliness, long sadness, depression and others. So, drama can easily bring these people out of their depression because it is informative, communal and interactive. I formed the Creative Art Therapy to get people, especially women, who are psychologically disarranged with problems that they are unable to cope. We discuss with them, encourage them and use their stories to write the play and involve them in the plays and after, they feel better and get over their challenges. So, people find it difficult to go through stress. Imagine what would befall a woman whose three children are killed; it is difficult to bear. We interact with some of them for three to four months before writing their stories.
Is it possible for Nigeria to have another Nobel laureate?
My personal views might not be right, because I see most of the winning as politicking. Most of the time, it depends on whom you know, the bloc you belong and the group of people one is going out with. This may not totally be the case because Professor Wole Soyinka is one author whose works I cherish so much. The profundity of thought in my academic pursuit came from Soyinka. People complain they do not understand his plays, but each time I want to meditate, go deeper into thought, I take any of this works and it gives me joy to read him, especially as one has to crack to understand him. I think he merits it, but I want to believe that there are many Soyinkas around, who have not been recognised or opportune to be where they will be identified.
Again, I think it has to do with international politics and with what Nigeria is going through, it might be hard for us. However, I believe soon and very soon, we will rise again among the comity of nations and our literature will attract unbiased assessment.
Why are you particularly interested in playwriting?
I also write poetry a lot. I sometimes summarise my plays with poetry. I find it difficult to write prose; instead, I tell those stories in a play.
Have you had any International recognition?
I won the senior Fulbright scholarship that enabled me take the African Dramatic Art to U.S. audience. There, I dramatised some of my plays. I taught the dramatic art from the African perspective and also developed a curriculum that incorporated the African theatre. They staged Adaugo, and I found that it was difficult for the American lady to act the African woman on stage. The ladies could not bear to be beaten as some African men do. In fact, they will break out of the play and become real and want to beat the man back, but their men enjoy playing the African man because of the power the man demonstrates. The American men do this because their manhood has been suppressed, but it does not mean it has died.
Of all your plays, which is your favourite?
I love all, but Shallow on Arrival has a special place in my heart. The play celebrates the strength of the African woman, her resilience and obedience to her husband. It does not project the feminism concept the early feminists projected, but tell of hard work and how women cooperated with their husbands to build their homes.
You have been projecting women in your plays, how about the men. How about cases where some women torture their husbands and beat them up at intervals?
This will inform a new direction in my writing. In fact, men going through this torment hardly come out to say it; they go through this trauma feeling ashamed to discus it even with fellow men. It’s worse for the African men, who believe they are stronger than women. It is taken for granted that there are women who are stronger than men. This sometimes makes some men go into depression.
You have seen theatre across America and Europe. When you juxtapose them with Africa’s, what comes across for you?
Our theatre is better; we really practice theatre because theatre is a seeing play. Before now, western theatre was dry; it was full of dry dialogue and the audience had to imagine out the actions. Three persons would come to stage to talk and talk; this was boring. However, this continued until there was a revolution where they came out to say theatre is about doing something. So, they started championing the type of theatre we do in Africa. Nigeria has a vibrant theatre. And in my theatre practice, I want to merge the ideas of the west with the African total theatre, whereby that deep message I want to pass out to the audience as a playwright would be chanted, danced, recited and acted out.
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