The composite scene: the aesthetics of Igbo mask theatre
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An observation of mask performances in Igboland in South-Eastern Nigeria reveals distinctions among displays from various communities. This is the product of a democratic society which encourages individualism and at the same time, sustains collectivism. This feature of Igbo masking has enriched and populated the Igbo theatrical scene with thousands of diverse and seemingly unconnected masking displays. Though these peculiarities do not indicate conceptual differences or imperfections, the numerous Igbo dialects and sub-cultural differences have not helped matters. Earlier studies by social anthropologists and a few theatre practitioners followed these differentials by focusing on particular masking types and sections of Igboland. None sufficiently approached the numerous displays as the product of one cultural consciousness and studies of individual performances merely fostered this picture of disparateness. In addition, the studies did not provide the kind of detailed coverage required to establish the aesthetics of the theatre. Close to the end of the 20th century, changes and developments in Igbo theatre have not been properly appreciated considering that as a society changes, its theatre reflects such trends. In fact, considering the characteristic problem of accretions in oral traditions, if these developments are not documented and accounted for by the turn of the century, it may be difficult to link theatrical trends and developments in Igbo masking to their past and future with convincing certainty. It is, therefore, not only necessary to retrace the roots of this theatre, it is equally important to understand and document its present state and to ponder its future. The need for an inclusive study of Igbo masking and especially of the issues already raised cannot be ignored, particularly, at this period of important social and cultural developments and increase in masking in both urban and rural areas of Igboland. In fact, there is no better time to document theatrical developments, or any phenomenom for that matter, than when they are happening. These factors make it timely and absolutely necessary to establish the aesthetics of this theatre. Most aspects studied here have received more extensive treatment than hitherto, and while disparities exist between performances and zones, the broader picture is one of conceptual unity. Enekwe (1987) anchors Igbo mask theatre on narrative plot, the functions of theatre and ritual but, to establish its aesthetics, it is necessary to widen the study by investigating theatrical components, organisation and other related activities from conception to post-performance evaluation. This study achieves these purposes. For this study, Igboland is divided into four main zones to obtain the general characteristics and zonal specifics of Igbo masking. Aesthetic factors are not limited by zonal boundaries, they overlap and inter- zonal influences unite this theatre tradition. As part of the research, two field trips were made during which live performances were attended, personal interviews were conducted, recorded displays and other studies were investigated. These provided the main materials for this research. This study is divided into six chapters. Chapter One defines the ethnographic and demographic boundaries of Igboland. It looks at previous studies and so far, there are no definite attempts at establishing the aesthetics of Igbo theatre. Studies of individual performances have sometimes resulted in the kind of conclusions Ugonna (1984) reached in using the features of a performance to paint the aesthetics of Igbo masking. The problem with such methods is that they fail to account for the diversity of performing styles and invariably, fail to draw the right lessons on the underlying unity of the theatre. Chapter Two explores Igbo heritage. Here, a multilocal approach is adopted in the interpretation of form and practice so that the right conclusions are drawn for any similarities and contrasts. This approach has been adopted because of the Igbo claims to a single cultural and soda-religious root. Available records support the view that despite the differences, the Igbo still have more in common than readily discerned. This differential factor contributes more than any other to the uniqueness of Igbo masking as a communal performance and in making it a theatre of one people, many spirits, and different masks. Chapter Three explores the use of space and performance structure and the relationship between them while Chapter Four looks at designs, a central feature of the theatre where the sheer volume and depth of artistic input are hardly recognised or sufficiently appreciated. Chapter Five looks at the organisation and management of resources and personnel. It explores the rehearsal process as a medium for the training of personnel and looks at the fact that sometimes, theatre management could be an extension of the socio-political processes of a community. The misconception that sometimes attends traditional education in non-industrialized societies has often obscured understanding of the nature and extent of training in traditional theatres. Chapter Five explores different levels and forms of formal and informal organisations, management structures, training, and the recruiting of theatre personnel. Chapter Six concludes the study and makes recommendations on how to preserve and strenghten the theatre within a changing social milieu. This chapter defines Igbo masking as distinct from other theatres and establishes its critical criteria as a means of maintaining the theatre's uniqueness and ensuring its survival. Briefly, this study aims to establish a set of aesthetics for the Igbo mask theatre, distinguish it from other theatrical traditions, and expose its arts and artistic traditions to the corpus of global performances. In addition, it updates the knowledge and studies of this theatre, explores its problems and potentials, and makes recommendations for its future.
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