The changes in the film Ẹfúnṣetán Aníwúrà involve significant departures from the original play (written by Akinwumi Iṣọla and) published in 1973, and they strike me as being motivated by the ideological underpinnings of the rewrite. Primary among these considerations is that Isola uses the new format of digital filmmaking to humanize the story of Ẹfúnṣetán already etched in popular consciousness, which has turned the name into a synonym for cruelty and unbridled female ambition. The broad outline of this story is by now well known. Ẹfúnṣetán, the second Iyalode (leader of the womenfolk) of Ibadan who held office from 1867-1874, was in conflict with the male chiefs of the city, principally Latoosa, the Ààrẹ Ọ̀nà Kakaǹfò (or generalissimo) of the Yoruba army headquartered in Ibadan, over the financing of wars in which the generals were involved at the time. Rich and resourceful, she was a formidable personality and, in the manner of the time, was given to the hubris of the powerful. This manifested itself in the treatment of her slaves.
This play, which inspired the versions that Ogunsola’s troupe dramatized on stage, on radio, in photoplay, and on film, was conceived in the mold of “good and evil,’ an accustomed dramatic template for Yoruba language productions in the traveling theatre idiom. It draws upon this standard theme of unforgivable villains of Yoruba history such as in Faleti’s Itan Ibanuje ti Basorun Gaa (The Tragic Life of Basorun Gaa), which has also been made into film. The same play ran in the repertory of another traveling theater company and constituted a lesson in how not to conduct oneself in public office. The original text of I Apia’s play includes a didactn epilogue, “0ro Asokagba,” which dwells on the retributions that are sure to follow villainous behaviour. The 2005 adaptation departs from this template in major ways: the use of digital filming to accentuate the personal trauma impelling Ẹfúnṣetán’s cruelty; the customary inhabitation of the drama’s classic template by a new generation of actors with ties to Nollywood; and an opportunity for imagining Ibadan society through a new conception of Yoruba nationhood.
“How could a director suggest mental breakdown on stage for the audience that traveling theater had cultivated without it coming across as a crude representation of derangement? The use of a silent screen with Toyosi’s image dancing above Efunsetan’s mourning mindscape is a thing of wonder, and digital imaging provides a suitable way of capturing that emotion”.
It is noteworthy that the 2005 digital film has a subhead, “The Real Story Behind Iyalode Ibadan.” The Ẹfúnṣetán encountered in this film has the fierceness of the customary figure, starting with the fact that the same actress in the play, Iyabp Ogunsola, plays the part. But there is a story behind the legendary cruelty, and Isola tells it in a unique way. As soon as the nondiegetic music paying tribute to the founder of the Ogunsola traveling theatre company (the late “Dr. I-Sho Pepper”) ends, Isola himself, in the role of Etiyeri (the rhetorician/singer of tales), appears in a documentary sequence, commenting on the changing character of Ibadan, this bastion of Yoruba military power in the nineteenth century. He is interrupted i by a woman, Iyaniwe (played by Margaret Adejobi of the Oyin Adejobi traveling theatre company), and both engage in a banter about how the character took shape. The exchange devolves into a serial commentary on the powerful rulers of the city (Basorun Oluyole, Basorun Ogunmpla, Balogun Ibikunle, and Aare Latoosa), the culmination to what Peel has characterized as the “age of confusion” (2000, 47-87), the century-long civil wars that took all southwestern Nigeria (and eastern Benin Republic) in their orbit. The wars also led to the emergence of powerful women especially Ẹfúnṣetán, and the scene of banter dissolves into the tracking shot of a group of women, with Ẹfúnṣetán at their head, approaching the city. It is a compellingly imaged spectacle of a group of women trailed by male and female carriers, all slaves.
The dialogue picks up the thread of Latoosa’s warmongering, a drain on her resources, but Ẹfúnṣetán’s immediate concerns are domestic and familial. One of her slaves has just been delivered of twins, and Ẹfúnṣetán and her followers are welcomed home with this news. She asks to see the new mother, greeting her with warm affection. Next, she moves indoors to meet her own expectant daughter, Toyosi, whose delivery time is close at hand. Ẹfúnṣetán dotes over Toyosi, giving specific instructions about the kind of food to be prepared to salve her cravings. A brief sequence interrupts this domestic narrative when Latoosa gathers all the chiefs in his palace and talks angrily about a conspiracy against him. (Ẹfúnṣetán is the only female in the group, and her attempt to speak is rebuffed.) Other than this, much of the action in the early parts of the film focuses on her family. Unfortunately, the second childbirth within the household does not go as well as the first. Toyosi dies despite all the fuss her mother and other female handlers make over her. What follows this incident is a long sequence without dialogue. Overlaid with a diegetic sound—a dirge— this sequence narrows all emotion down to the aural charge of mourning by Ẹfúnṣetán, who progressively descends into a state of nervous or mental breakdown to the point of hating the very sound of baby cries.
The end credits include the identification of Kelani as the film’s digital director. In an interview some years after the film’s release and in a manner reminiscent of Sembene’s frustrations with celluloid, Kelani comments on the aesthetic opportunity that digital filmmaking provides in Nollywood. This statement reveals an important fact about possibilities that have aided the cultural activism that IsoIa undertakes in his work. How could a director suggest mental breakdown on stage for the audience that traveling theater had cultivated without it coming across as a crude representation of derangement? The use of a silent screen with Toyosi’s image dancing above Ẹfúnṣetán’s mourning mindscape is a thing of wonder, and digital imaging provides a suitable way of capturing that emotion.
In the film, Ẹfúnṣetán is no longer the brutish, willfully villainous character who acts with impunity, killing slaves at will—just because she can. Now she has a reason to be mean. It is the trauma of the death of her daughter, her only child, during childbirth, and it takes a slave, the star- crossed lover soon to become a plotter against Ẹfúnṣetán, to voice this change. Gone is the pretext of relating her legendary cruelty to her own childlessness, as the play has it. Secondly, her quarrels with the male chiefs and Latoosa, the Aare, in particular, do not rise from her superintending the manslaughter of the ward of an important chief. In the film, the material fact is Latoosa’s overreach, declaring wars on neighboring cities and putting a strain on Ẹfúnṣetán’s finances as an unofficial exchequer. When she carries her cruelty further by executing a pregnant slave, the chiefs find an excuse to move against her.
In the simplest terms, Ẹfúnṣetán has her reasons for being so unforgiving and bloodthirsty. The chiefs, on the other hand, are magnanimous enough to warn the public against the looting of her property, which is now declared to belong to her family. This is changed in the film in visible ways. After Ẹfúnṣetán commits suicide and is shown to have beer vanquished, Latoosa emerges to announce the news, and he makes two proclamations. He declares that all the slaves are hereby freed, but that Ẹfúnṣetán’s property be preserved for her family. The decision to free the slaves, as seen in Latoosa’s speech at Ẹfúnṣetán’s house, is in the original play, but the “leave her property alone” part is not. Even in the earliest written version of the historical episode in lwe Itan Ibadan, Isola’s inspiration for the writing, the final aim of the attack is to loot her property, the standard practice against a vanquished stalwart. There are many other changes of this kind, and they create an opening to discuss the second element in the adaptation regarding the inhabitation of the drama’s classic template by a generation of actors whose ties to Nollywood are stronger than to traveling theatre.
The primary cast for the film is constituted by the members of the Ogunsola troupe. Only the actors Iyabo Ogunsola and Samson Eluwole retain their original roles as Ẹfúnṣetán and Latoosa respectively. With Ishola Ogunsola, the troupe leader, deceased, the willful character Itawuyi (the male slave) that he used to play now goes to Saheed Balogun, a much sought-after Nollywood actor and producer. The role of Adetutu, the slave – who becomes pregnant from Itawuyi in the aftermath of the death of Ẹfúnṣetán’s daughter, now goes to Nollywood actor Toyosi Adesanya. while Yetunde Ogunsola, who occupied that role in previous iteration, takes the character of Awero, and the old Awero (Moji Ogunsola) takes the role of Ajile, Ẹfúnṣetán’s confidante. The complex process through which Isola’s play has passed to get into the hands of these old and new actors—some of whom may not have read the published text—is worthy of consideration on an analytical level. In this process, which is also in elaborate adaptation, the printed text as play (itself informed by well- known but controversial accounts of the heroine’s life as a historical figure) loses its place of importance, and the repertory play in turn acquires a proverbial, curatorial quality. The play simultaneously circulates as Radio slot, photoplay serial, and in other formats—including the historic command performance at the Liberty Stadium.
The actors’ handling of their roles, whether naturalized in the case of Ẹfúnṣetán, Ajile, and Latoosa, or stylized in the case of many others, comes principally from the folkloric process of circulation. The entertaining sequences of comic relief in the film that include dance and music were not in any of the previous versions, but are now meant to showcase specific skills that have no relation to anything in the plot. The dirge sung by Adetutu and resonantly rendered by Adesanya is an addition by the late Ogunsola in the repertory version of the play. It is not in the drama text, but on stage and in the two film versions, it underscores Adetutu’s self-pity, an extension of the helplessness of the slaves in the story. The character of Aldgogo/Onise (the messenger) in the play is given the culturally deep name “Ayingun” Herald) in the film, perhaps also in keeping with the martial history of the city at the time. In both the drama text and the theatre repertory production, Ẹfúnṣetán is captured after the combat of spells with Latoosa and humiliated by being turned into a slave in his palace, until she summons enough of her old strength to commit suicide. In the film, however, she is never captured, walking away from the combat into her bedroom, only to be discovered dead and laid out on her bed, with only Latoosa witnessing this sight. This last change reinforces the redesigning of the story to humanize the powerful woman: she dies as an act of will, as legendary and mythical figures often did, and not through the agency of the socialized act of suicide.
Excerpted from Everything is Sampled, by Akin Adesokan, published in 2023 by the Indiana University Press.
Adesokan is a writer and scholar whose first novel, Roots in the Sky (Festac Books), was published in 2004. His first critical study, Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics (Indiana University Press, 2011), is a multi-disciplinary work which explores the generic and cultural consequences of globalization by focusing on conceptual patterns in Nollywood, African cinema, and postcolonial writings.