Ugbede’s August Meeting interrogates patriarchy, women’s vulnerability, ascendancy
Patriarchy and women’s vulnerability could not have been better expressed on stage than the performance of Paul Ugbede’s August Meeting at the Kenneth Uphopho-led Lagos Fringe Festival held at Freedom Park, which brought to an end Lagos Festival Season for the year. Although drawn from historical event that happened at the end of Aba Women Riot of 1929, Ugbede’s handling of the subject bears uncomfortable contemporary concerns that makes the play as modern as can be.
Sponsored by Ford Foundation, August Meting was produced by a trained filmmaker having her first showing on stage, Chioma Onyenwe, with direction from Mr. Uphopho, the play advances the #MeToo Movement in bringing to the fore women’s peculiar issues and concerns and how they still suffer yokes male-dominated society imposes on them. However, the play is unrelenting in its two-edged sword approach. While it vilifies men for putting women up for exploitation and abuse, it does not spare women either for being women’s own enemies, as upholders of male prejudices against fellow women.
So, how can women break free from the shackles society manacles them with? Who will champion the cause of their oppression? How can they subvert the societal norms that weigh heavily against them and emerge to play the complimentary role with their men? What is the role of men in helping women find their feet so they could bloom?
These are some of the concerns Ugbede’s play highlight and endeavours to find some answers and a middle ground of engagement by the all-women cast members save the men who serve as musicians. A bare stage, with only a tree standing to one corner; the musicians are in an enclosed space chained with a padlock. Aba Women Riot war has just ended and the women leader of Oloko community just returning from imprisoned, Nwanyewura (Gloria Anozie-Young) join other women are in festive mood to celebrate their uncommon victory inflicted on the white man and his African minions, the warrant chiefs, who assist the white man in his strange imposition of tax and his determination to have women pay it as well, which sparked off the revolt.
Nwakaego (BellaRose Iyere-Okojie), who recently lost her husband, Emenike, offers to host the women in her expansive home. But they cannot enter because Emenike’s brother has the keys to it. When Nwakaego goes to get the keys, Emenike’s brother asks her to approach the elders first before he could hand her the keys. Thereupon the elders insist she must agree to marry Emenike before she can have access to her own husband’s home otherwise she stays out.
The women are incensed but they know how their part of the world works. Nwakaego does not have a child for Emenike and so she does not have a say in the family. But one of them, Mgbeke (Odera Orji), a woman of cynical intention and a wag to the core, mouths the abomination that Emenike was not even a man while alive. The women are shocked; Nwakaego, who had borne the humiliation in her brief marriage, breaks down and weeps. She had thought the secret of her sham marriage was hers only to keep, but somehow, it has been broadcast abroad.
Caught as she is in the lie that had governed her marriage, she spills the beans about Emenike’s lack of manhood while he was alive due to an accident at childhood that rendered him impotent. He only revealed it to her on her bridal night when Emenike could not perform his manly duty and had knelt before her to plead for secrecy; not to disclose his shame to the world. Emenike’s father also joined in pleading with her not to make his son’s impotence a public knowledge.
So having been forced to live a lie because of her love for Emenike so as not to disgrace him publicly, what becomes her reward for keeping his secret? Yet Emenike’s brother has the effrontery to deny her keys to their home because she does not have children for his brother and for failing to agree to marry him. Clearly, she has become an article to be passed from one brother to another, as tradition requires it…
At this point, the women become sombre and agitated and it forces them to contemplate their peculiar position in society. Who are they? How did they come to that point where who they are doesn’t count? They are expressive in unburdening their peculiar problems among themselves. For instance, they bemoan their constrain in expressing their sexual preferences and passion for fear for what their husbands will say. They submitted to their husbands’ desires while they stewed in their bottled up passion. Female genital mutilation (FGM) or circumcision is also a major key ingredient of their repression. Here, they hold themselves to blame for the calamity of having female genitals clipped. Women are assigned the horrendous task at the service and pleasure of the men. Nwakaego describes her own macrabre act of circumcision and how it wrenches the soul with its deep physical and psychological wounds that refuse to heal.
IN summing up her travails, Mgbeke laments plaintively, “Women bear the brunt of everything that goes wrong in her home!” Her inability to bear children is not her fault, yet she is made to take the blame; denying access to her own home is the reward she gets for her fidelity and keeping her husband’s dark secret. Her high sense of fidelity is called to question by the same people who emasculate her humanity.
Nwanyeruwa also bemoans women’s plight when she says in woe-begotten voice, “We (women) are under lock and key in our different ways; we have used our own hands to tie chains round our legs!”
However, with diplomacy and other feminine ploys, the women eventually wheedle the keys to the house out Emenike’s brother for Nwakaego. This elicits unrestrained joy from the women, as they have extracted a small victory over the men with their own tenacity. They resolve to work with men, understand them and institute change from within rather than subvert the entire masculinity and patriarchal set up in one mad rush towards freedom.
In spite of the oppression these women undergo, only Mgbeke seems to understand the direction the world is headed. For having only girls, she is consigned to a marginal position in her husband’s scheme of things as he inflicts sexual pain on her in his drunken hurry to satiate himself. So she takes advantage of the times and starts attending an adult class to better her lot in life. It is why she is so single-minded and expresses herself without reservations on all issues and she is not afraid to be the only one holding a particular view even when everyone else opposes her. For her education holds the key to the future and every woman would do well to embrace it to avoid the stigma: had I known!
Other women that make the performance solid included tested thespian, Inna Erizia (Ikonnia), who is elected women’s leader after Nwanyewura steps down to allow younger women have a bigger say in the leadership affairs of women in Oloko society; Ijeoma Aniebo (Nwugo), who also antagonises and opposes Mgbeke on every issue that crops up, and Deola Gimbiya (Nneka), who runs errands for the women.
August Meeting is Ugbede’s second play to be performed on Lagos stage within a month. Our Son the Minister, his other play, had earlier been performed by the Bikiya Graham-Douglas-inspired Beeta Universal Art Foundation (BUAF), which will take it on tour of university campuses. And just like his first play, Onyenwe will also take August Meeting on tour of certain states in the South-East and Abuja in the continuing sensitisation process about certain anomalous practices that inhibit women from fully attaining their full potential as human beings.