Of the Oval and the Cross: the Play Production Osiris Rising in Terms of Images
The image — still, moving, analog, virtual, material, digital, aural — constitutes a profound form, medium, tool or even technique, depending on how one encounters or employs it. In the late 19th century it was offered a new life-form through photography and cinema but has remained, more lastingly, in the traditions of theatre where illusions constitute raison d’être for a communal engagement.1 Photography and cinema too had inherited illusionism from the painting traditions which preceded them. Contemporary visual culture seeks to regiment our sensibilities and experience of the world, almost exclusively, on the empirical and conceptual experiences of the image — talk of radio, billboards, television, the Internet and so on. Prior to the digital age there was talk of the auratic, original or authentic image; today, we speculate the “poor image”.2 Images cannot only be thought of as objectifying the real: dialectically, they also construct reality and tend to become it. Therefore, in a globalized, neo-liberal, financialized world system the image still plays a capitalistic role in our everyday lives.3 Bodily practices — theater, performance art, dance, music, etc — engage the spectacle of the image in myriad ways. I am, for the purpose of this note, particularly interested in theater with Agyeman Ossei’s dramatic adaptation of Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel Osiris Rising (1995) for stage as my subject of discussion.
In Osiris Rising, Armah retells the Osiris/Isis myth but sets it in a neo-colonialized West African state with radical intellectuals bent on changing their society by first revolutionizing its educational system. Like the Companionship of the Ankh in its day, the group seeks to resurrect “the ancient values of our humanity; our human face, our human heart, and the human mind our ancestors taught to soar.” They are successful. Ast (Isis), the African-American historian who travels back home to Africa to find work and love in Asar (Osiris) is left bearing his seed after his body is shattered into fourteen pieces by gun shots on the Bara River, ordered by the DD (Set).
A traditional characteristic of a play on the proscenium stage is its frontality: the platform on which props change positions and actors move is oriented to face the audience. The audience is a collective body captivated by the happenings on the stage before them through actions animated by lighting, sound, costume design, set design and movement. Ossei’s adaptation of Armah’s prose narrative depicts the latter’s texts as embodied, expressed, living images on the stage of the Efua T. Sutherland Drama Studio.4 He preserves Armah’s didactic style while taking care to color imagery where necessary. He approaches set, prop and costume design with an experimental attitude, while making music a tangibly prominent form in the play — evident in his collaboration with faculty and students of the music department of the School of Performing Arts, Legon, graduate students from KNUST College of Art, National Symphony Orchestra and other musicians using music from folk (Nwomkro, Zigi, Yaa Amponsah, Borborbor, Fontomfrom), horn, and percussion ranges. Aspects of the dialogues appropriate melodies from King Bruce’s post-colonial ballroom highlife as well as Armah Pinoh’s Maria and Benjamin Paapa Yankson’s Tena Menkyɛn, emphasizing the cantata form typical to the oratory of traditional theater.
The minimal set design is characterized by two monumental ankhs — the one (a cut out) is centered in the background and the other (a solid member painted gold), is mounted on the ceiling in the foreground. The scale of the ankhs are in relation to the fact that it forms the symbolic crux of the narrative. The ankh in the foreground, from a frontal viewpoint, is mounted quasi-perpendicularly to the background ankh. The decision to mount the foreground ankh on the ceiling takes from the scene in the book when Ast and Asar make the trip to see the historian, (now become farmer and educator of young children) Ama Tete, in Bara. While there, Ast momentarily closes her eyes due to exhaustion, throws her head back from the sofa on which she is sitting, looks up and notices an ankh that formed “the centerpiece holding the roof beams” of Ama Tete’s home. The visual composition of the ankhs become compelling when we find out in this particular scene that that is where we learn the histories accompanying Ast’s ankh, Equiano’s broken ankh, and the secret Comapanionship of the Ankh. I will dwell on this spectacularly dramatic mise-en-scéne to discuss some of the imagery constructed by Ossei and his ensemble.
A visually striking image is composed when Ast, after learning the daunting stories of the ankh — seemingly to have realized her own life’s purpose — proceeds to lift her ankh with both hands high above her head tilting her countenance to meet it with deep conviction proclaiming “whoever you are, I have sought you and found you. Here I am. I want to work with you. To live with you.” Ast’s character is seated in the middle-ground of the mise-en-scéne to the right of the two ankhs in the fore- and background.5 In this image the director is able to achieve five effects as I see it: 1. Establish a formal dialogue between the three ankhs in the mind of the spectator 2. Interplay the poetry of the symbol, its historicity and relevance to the story. 3. The audience, in this moment, are confronted with the repetitive effect of a singular form, the ankh, and how this technique carries the story. 4. The rhythmic interplay of scale and form inflict the imagery of the ankh brilliantly on the mind of the spectator. 5. The frontal orientation of the stage permits a quasi-deep space cinematic effect when a totalizing image is composed, flattening fore-, middle- and background into a tableau. Further on the tableau, this effect is heightened with the director’s use of freeze-frames at specific moments in the play to permit narration. This extra-dramatic technique mimics a flat image. It works for the distributed narrative. It functions to disrupt the audience’s contemplative gaze as well as serves to interrogate illusionism in theatre. (Having actors mount the stage from either sides of the play unexpected by the audience also achieves this purpose). This could be read as a technique used to focus on narration. It also permits the composition of what becomes equivalent to a photographic tableaux in terms of theatre.6
In the afforementioned scene, we witness the moment-of-truth for Ras Jomo Cinque Equiano. He had come to Ama Tete for “confirmation, not information” of his royal ancestry. In the book Armah describes an African-American megaloman with delusions of royalty in his bloodline come back to Africa to take his rightful place who ends up in a duplicitous, hedonistic seduction of his victims and eventually colluding with anti-revolutionary government operatives. Equiano’s character is brought to life amidst the pomp of raucous horns, ecstatic Fontonfrom drumming and hyper-flamboyant costume which sufficiently confers a larger-than-life status on the character, accompanied by the trio of Sisters to whom he is married and the fake Ethiopian Prince Wossen.
Ama Tete’s character is another immaculate translation from text to living image. Ossei, recognizing her centrality to unraveling the history of the ankh, ingeniously distributes the narration of the story between three voices; Ama Tete’s and two other shadow characters. This worked brilliantly on a conceptual level but also in terms of stage craft and movement: in short, it brought a dynamic experience to the character. The one and her shadows, speaking lines in unison, occasionally taking individual turns in the narration, keeping the audience engaged and choreographing their movement to alternate between uniform and independent gesturing ultimately enlivens the stage with an enthralling dynamism in one of the most dramatic scenes in the play.
At this point it is worth reflecting on what Ossei leaves out from Armah’s prose narrative, what he adds and how these decisions impact the play. I will discuss this by way of addressing the potency and constraints implicit in the manifold forms available to us for artistic expression — particularly for novelist and dramatist. Ayi Kwei Armah by using the novel form is free to take liberties Ossei cannot with theatre and vice versa. Ossei is constrained not just by physical elements — the stage, acoustics, set design, lighting, etc — to be able to tell the story, he is also limited by time in the linear and irreversible sense of a durational period for the play. The production was fitted within an approximate duration of two hours. These, strictly speaking, are limitations which do not apply to the novelist. The reader of a novel may pace themselves while reading and can always come back to continue from the page where they left off (time is not experienced in the literal sense). The consequence of this kind of abandonment is radically different for the theater-goer.7
Ossei, in a world of symbolic gestures, is also free to expand Armah’s narrative in ways the novelist could not have: by way of pantomimes, collaborative production, interpreting the narrative in terms of color, lighting, music, material objects in space, and so on. To discuss one form as more potent than the other would be unproductive. Rather, why not approach the issue in terms of the immanent relationship between potency and excessiveness in any given form. The questions to extrapolate then become: what is the threshold to tread, understanding where a given form is most effective/affective (or impactful) and where it potentially fails so as to be able to make informed judgments while employing it? How far can an artist push the limits of a chosen form? This requires critical understanding of the extents to which we can use forms either on their own or interdiciplinarily — especially if the artist is politically motivated. This is also where the decisions we make about our works have deep resonance.
Through “seamless synthesis of scintillating songs, dialogue and movement”, Ossei’s epic production proceeds to render in a series of live imagery Armah’s scathing critique of neocolonial education in Africa. More generally, what Armah means by “neocolonial education” refers to “the education of West Indians, of African-Americans and of Africans within the framework of Western assumptions” proceeding “on the premise that the non-Westerner has no culture or literature; and that if the non-Westerner is to become really cultured, literate and historically conscious, it will inevitably be through his assimilation into the mainstream of Western civilization.”8 By no means is Armah’s politics merely cynical of the problem he diagnoses. His is an affirmative approach that proposes solutions: to this injustice, he articulates a three-step solution in the novel, words he puts in Asar’s mouth: “One, making Africa the center of our studies. Two, shifting from Eurocentric orientations to universalistic approaches as far as the rest of the world is concerned. Three, giving our work a serious backing in African history. The last would mean placing a deliberate, planned and sustained emphasis on the study of Egyptian and Nubian history as matrices of African history, instead of concentrating on the European matrices, Greece and Rome. We would also bring in Asian and pre-Columbian history.”9
In this context, both novelist and dramatist provoke us to seek intelligent understanding of all our realities, coupled with intelligent action, so as to be able to change them. This, according Armah, is “who we are and why”…
— Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh (2017)
- From the 1920s onward, European dramatists such as Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud had begun to posit a new kind of theatre, an emancipatory form of theatre, politically motivated and opposed to the theatre of illusions. Hence, Brecht’s epic theatre and Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. For further reading on epic theatre see Walter Benjamin’s Understanding Brecht, Translated by Anna Bostock, Verso, London/New York, 1998. Furthermore, Jacques Rancière critiques these anti-art attitudes of the early 20th century as reformist and therefore not revolutionary, in his book The Emancipated Spectator, translated by Gregory Elliott, Verso, London/New York, 2009.
- Hito Steyerl defines the poor image as one which is first of all digital, ranked and valued according to its substandard resolution, of bad quality by being heavily compressed, itinerant, distributed for free, remixed (ie. reedited, reformatted, downloaded, shared), ripped (AVI or JPEG), with filenames deliberately misspelled and so on. According to Steyerl, “[t]he poor image embodies the afterlife of many former masterpieces of cinema and video art. It has been expelled from the sheltered paradise that cinema seems to have once been. After being kicked out of the protected and often protectionist arena of national culture, discarded from commercial circulation, these works have become travelers in a digital no-man’s-land, constantly shifting their resolution and format, speed and media, sometimes even losing names and credits along the way.” See Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, 2012, e-flux journal, Sternberg Press, Berlin, pp. 30 – 44.
- As acutely diagnosed by Guy Debord in the 1960s. However Debord’s solution, for a détournement of capitalist images, adopted by the Situationist International artists showed its problems — capitalism was able to subsume its attacks and assimilate it. As well, we would, today, need to rethink Debord’s essentialist thesis on alienation — for what would our “true essence” to return to be when, for example, epigenetic studies tell us that our genome behaviour is itself dynamic and contingent? Also, scientific and technological advancements go a long way to enhance our logistics of perception rather than interfere with them. Once invented — images, machines, tools, etc — we have a way of internalizing these systems and adapting them to our individual natures and applying them to social relations. The Internet revolution has radically impacted social relations today (think of the various social media platforms). The forces of alienation have been reinvented along with these developments.
- This venue is where the first four stagings of the play was hosted on 7th, 8th, 13th & 14th April, 2017. The set design I describe in this note apply to this stage specifically. It may change as the play travels to other venues across the country.
- A similar image is constructed in scene two (Ast and Nwt scene) for which this analysis also applies.
- Talking of the tableaux form — either in terms of classical painting or photography from the 1970s onward — brings two notes to the fore: the tableaux, because of its scale (in relation to the spectator’s body), imposes a necessary distance between itself and the spectator in order to achieve the confrontational encounter between the two. This form is also not nostalgic of painting. According to Jean François Chevrier the photographic tableaux is a return to classical compositional forms “along with borrowings from the history of modern and premodern painting, but that movement is mediatized by the use of extra-painterly models, heterogeneous with canonical art history – models from sculpture, the cinema, or philosophical analysis” and this attitude reactivates “thinking based on fragments, openness, and contradiction”. Thinking about it this way captures Ossei’s application of extra-dramatic techniques to be able to bring Armah’s prose to life. See Jean François Chevrier’s essay The Adventures of the Picture Form in the History of Photography (1989), translated by Michael Gilson (slightly abridged translation of ‘Les aventures de la forme tableau dans l’histoire de la photographie,” originally published in Photo-Kunst: Arbeiten aus 150 Jahren, exh. cat. (Stuttgart: Graphische Sammlung, St!aatsgalerie Stuttgart, and Edition Cantz, 1989). 47-81).
- It is true that Ossei’s style is anti-illusionistic and therefore incorporates extra-dramatic techniques like montage which opens up a fictional dimension to the relationship between different images rather than ordering itself on the logic either of a continuity or linear progression of time. On the logic of this [cinematic/radio] technique scenes are not continuously sequenced and therefore the audiences’s relationship to realtime is broken. I observed, during rehearsal sessions, the montage effect fully operational in the sense that the scenes rehearsed on a given day freely re-ordered the sequence of the narrative. However, when the play is performed to the public it conforms to the progression of events from the source material: i.e.. in the order that the novelist tells the story. My point here is that the experience for the theater-goer is in realtime (not like the reader of the novel); therefore, if the theater-goer abandons the play at any moment within the duration the play is showing she misses what has transpired during that period until such time that she returns.
- Ayi Kwei Armah, Remembering the Dismembered Continent: Essays, Per Ankh, Popenguine, Senegal, 2010, pp. 198
- Ayi Kwei Armah, Osiris Rising: a Novel, Per Ankh, Popenguine, Senegal, 2008, pp. 125