Playwright: Olutayo Irantiola
Publisher: Peo Davies Communications
Year of Publication: 2022
Reviewer: Akeem Akinniyi
Olutayo Irantiola’s The Okeho Exodus is a historical play set in 1916 but written in a modern-day language and filled with elements that will not alienate a reader in these present times. The play revisits the past of the descendants of Okeho who resettled among the hills along with ten villages to stem the tide of invasion by the Dahomey and Fulanis. What follows are intrigues of betrayal, and bastardisation of culture by colonialists which eventually leads to the tragic end of not only the king but the loss of the town’s sovereignty to the colonial masters.
The theme of betrayal dominates the play and the only character who survived it is Oba Arilesire who built a harmonious home of settlers which sets the tone for successive kings before the turn of Onjo Olukitibi. The emergence of Captain Ross and his fellow conquerors in Okeho with their laws and subjugation of the people leads to distrust among the chiefs and set the plot to oust the king, Onjo Olukitibi. A wave of betrayal rises among the chiefs who think Onjo Olukitibi has sold them out to the colonialists referred to as ‘Ajele’ (a Yoruba word for usurpers). The internecine fighting grows beyond the borders of Okeho and extends to other towns as Balogun Olele seeks allies from far and within against the king. In the end, the king is captured and annihilated along with his family. Captain Ross avenges the death of the king, attacks, and arrests the unerring chiefs to bring law and order to Okeho, thereby establishing the sovereignty of the colonial masters.
The play deploys antithesis effectively to strike a balance in the events as well as the lives of the characters and the passing of the years. Oba Arilesire’s reign is filled with harmonious living and unity among the people. He would go on to die peacefully in his sleep. This is contrasting to the reign of Onjo Olukitibi whose reign ends in disarray with mistrust in the air and would later die agonizingly in the hands of his own people. Another is the replacement of invaders, at first, it is the Fulanis and Dahomeys whose aggression make the people of Okeho flee to the new place. Little had they settled down when the colonialists invaded their space and sadly, it will result in their return to the place they left earlier.
The challenges of colonialism to traditional laws and customs are symbolized by the emergence of Captain Ross whose influence and power conflicted with Onjo Olukitibi, thereby reducing his relevance before the people. His authority is challenged, and as Captain Ross’ influence grows, Olukitibi’s stature shrinks. The people of Okeho begin to see him as the puppet of the white man. An example is the statement of Oladunni (41) “The reign of Olukitibi is already disheartening. We have never experienced this in Okeho Ahoro, I have been watching with keen interest and I am getting to lose hope in his leadership abilities. People have been saying it that Olukitibi was not the right person to be crowned, he was imposed on us by the colonial masters. But will the kingmakers and the oracle lie?”
The theme of betrayal echoes through the book and it is expressed in many ways. Jinjin represents the modern, inquisitive, and courageous woman who believes in equality. She also represents the Biblical Eve whose inquisitiveness led to the fall of man through her desire to partake in the Oro traditions. A Yoruba cult tradition that forbids the participation of women. She never hides her intent to break all patriarchal foundations (25):
Jinjin: My right to social equality, freedom of association and speech. I want to know more about Oro. If it was an entirely sacred thing, men should also stay out of the rituals.
To achieve her husband, Olojomo’s commitment to making her participate, she weaponises sex and the poor man submits to her guiles: “Yes, my mind is at rest now. I am sure that I would soon partake of the ritual and we would break all the limitations that have been set by many generations” ” (63). Olojomo would go on to get her involved in the ritual, a flaw that ridicules his legacy in the Oro cult leading to his disgrace from the group by fellow initiates who considered his actions a betrayal of trust.
Another female character of note is Oladunni who challenges the status quo of the submissive housewife who must accept everything that her husband dishes out to her. She broke patriarchal norms by talking back at her husband Oga Akooda (37) who in a state of excitement and drunkenness about the Oro festival insults her father which she replies accordingly and disrespectfully. The husband chases her with the intent to beat her and instead of being apologetic tries to give reasons for his uncouth behaviour. (38)
Oga Akoda: She has to swallow those words if not, there won’t be peace any longer in this house. She thought I was tipsy and cannot reason well.
Oladunni: I will go to the court of Ross. You will learn lessons. I cannot tolerate you any longer. You are a violent man. (He wants to chase her again but Akoda holds him).
The court of Ross is the court of the white man which allows room for divorce. This can be seen as a breakaway from the cultural norm of family and community elders settling marital conflicts. It reflects a subjugation of traditional authority. Some of the little cracks that bit by bit collapses the wall of traditions and customs.
The playwright makes use of songs to communicate and express the mood. The language though direct is, sometimes, riddled with too much Yoruba aided by code-mixing and translations that somehow belabours the point. Some scenes appear intrusive as we have during the choice of kingship. Above all, the playwright achieves his aim of telling an ancient story to a modern audience by reflecting on the effects of colonialism and its attendant evils of erosion of cultures and abuse of power.
Akinniyi Akeem is an advertising copywriter with one of the leading PR agencies in Nigeria. He enjoys the art of writing and in his spare time, he loves to delight the blank page with poetry and short stories.