SDA’s ‘Wedlock of the Gods’ leaves the audience wanting more

“The Wedlock of Gods” was held at the Bing Theatre from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2. It was written and directed by Zulu Sofola, Africa’s first female professor of theatre arts. (Photo Courtesy of USC Thornton School of Music | Wikimedia Commons)

The School of Dramatic Arts brought a slice of Nigeria and an air of Shakespeare to the Bing Theater stage with their production of “Wedlock of the Gods” last weekend. Though the set design and production created an immersive experience, the writing left the audience wanting more. 

The story, written by Nigeria’s first published female playwright Zulu Sofola, is a tragic yet classic tale about the struggle and pursuit of agency in one’s life against the desires and expectations of others. The play is centred around a forbidden love between main characters Uloko (Shyhiem Parker) and Ogwoma (Summer Young), with undercurrents of feminism, independence and rebellion through a lens most are unfamiliar with.

Touching on different types of love — romantic, platonic, familial — the play confronts the uncomfortable truth that, despite one’s intentions, actions forged out of love can have harmful and at times fatal consequences. These themes, set in 19th century Nigeria, emphasize how the struggles of the human condition are universal, irrespective of time, place or culture.

Before the performance began, the audience was brought into the world by an incredibly authentic set: tribal art coated the walls and thatch coverings and traditional African vases and furniture were dispersed throughout the stage. A live onstage band tied it all together, introducing the world and transitioning between scenes with African instruments such as shakers, flutes, drums and other percussion. 

Though the set was incredible, the tech department was criminally underutilized, except for a short, yet immersive, sequence of otherworldly light display, accompanied by a distorted arrangement of nature sounds mixed with the African melodies while performers in haunting costumes advanced through the crowd, demonstrating the mystical aspects of the story. The moment forced the audience to suspend their disbelief and truly be enveloped in this uneasy scene; it’s a shame those techniques weren’t used more throughout the performance.

Once the play began, the audience was immediately captivated by the powerful presence of the main antagonist, Odibei (Dara Adedara), mother to the deceased husband of Ogwoma. Though off to a strong start, the subsequent performer’s attempts to do a Nigerian accent were met with varying degrees of success and consistency. While most were passable, it was evident a few performers were held back in their attempts to act in a voice not their own. Despite this, there were quite a few stand-out performances.

The scene focusing on the family of the main love interest, Uloko, was particularly noteworthy. Udo (John Stephens) had such a command over both the material and the room itself that every word he said pulled the audience in more. He demanded attention from the moment he stepped on stage. The audience was treated to an earnest and sincere interaction between surrogate father and son, balancing anger and disagreement with unwavering love and protection.

Immediately following that, the interaction between Uloko’s mother, Ogoli (Jordan Cooper), and himself had an emotional depth that contextualized the entire piece. Though their scene does not particularly thrust the plot forward, their interaction made the audience understand the dynamic of the people they are surrounded by and the society in which they reside. The scene demonstrates not only the weight of expectation from those in the village, but also how much of a burden the past can be, how it affects the present and how difficult it is to communicate that to those we love. Their poignant back-and-forth beautifully conveyed that, however well-meaning, the love of a family member can often feel like pressure and pain.

Unfortunately, that is almost the only scene where the characters’ dynamics and relationships were explored in such depth. It leaves the audience without much insight or understanding of the other characters. Before the complexity of the characters was understood or much action had taken place, the story was over. The confusion amongst the audience was tangible as the performance came to a close. Murmurs of “Is it over?” and “Was that it?” echoed across the crowd. It felt too concise. Without an intermission, space for the action to really take effect or a chance for the audience to truly connect with the characters, it was finished, making the end feel a bit hollow, with the emotional beats falling slightly flat, despite noble efforts from the performers.

Once the production was done, an initial criticism which came to mind is the seemingly poor categorization of this story as a feminist one. The main female protagonist, Ogwoma, has noticeably less stage time than her male counterpart, and seemingly not as much emotional depth. Most of her grandiose rebellious acts happen before the play ever begins and her search for agency and the pursuit of rebellion is ultimately met with an unpleasant end. It is difficult to reconcile the usage of the same word to describe this piece as we do with the #girlboss and female-centered stories we are used to seeing.

This comparison, however, is an unnecessary one to make. This piece was not only written but also set well before the state of modern feminism and representation we know today. A woman in 19th century Nigeria defying expectations with steadfast self-assurance and agency in her life is a powerful narrative in itself. The intersection of race, culture and gender is specific to the time and thus adequately proportional to the radicalistic feminism we know today without the need to be as overt as modern portrayals.

The clear and universal themes shown throughout this production are refreshing to see through such a typically unconventional lens. Perhaps that desire for more once it ended is evidence of the quality of what the audience did receive. Despite its imperfections, it was quite an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, reveling in themes we can all relate to: the pursuit of agency and love.