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Culture, national development and the Nigerian theatre

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Professor Duro Oni, pioneer Professor of Theatre Design, Aesthetics and Technology at the University of Lagos, brings together in this book, Striking Expressions: Theatre and Culture in National Development (Maiduguri: Society of Nigeria Theatre Artists, 2017), a collection of his reflections, and engagements on key issues of drama and theatre in Nigeria in the context of the integrality of drama and theatre, theatre education, culture administration and the significance of the creative arts as vehicles and structures for promoting peace, understanding and stability in the face of complex, competitive and increasingly unpredictable globalization and national circumstances. In a career of over 40 years, Oni has been active on the Nigerian culture scene as a lighting and design expert, theatre scholar, policy advisor and administrator. Not surprisingly, this book strongly projects his research, teaching, professional experience and practice.

Beyond this, the book is a useful contribution to the growing list of bibliography being generated by technical theatre scholars in Nigeria. It would sound trite to remind theatre artists of the value of design, aesthetics and technology in theatre practice. Drama as text or literature conveys its artistic, pedagogical and functionalist essence more concretely when it is so interpreted in the arena of performance, that is as theatre, as a living and spatial exploration of significant aspects of human experience. Technical theatre is the point at which literature, aesthetics, and the sciences – engineering, architecture, and electrical/electronics converge in the arena of performance, making the theatre a truly collaborative, multi-disciplinary enterprise. In Nigeria, from the traditional theatre, to the modern theatre and the thriving Nollywood phenomenon, the role of the theatre designer has been central to the value-creation process in the performance arena.

But whereas there has been so much historical, cultural, theoretical and critical analysis of the text in Nigerian theatre scholarship, the bibliography on the study of performance and technical aspects of production has been comparatively slim. Oni is the first Professor in his field of specialization in Nigeria, the first to deliver a university inaugural lecture on the subject of technical theatre, and one of not more than 10 Professors in this field in all the more than 50 departments of Theatre/Dramatic/Creative/Performing and Media Arts in the country. His writings, in this book, and in previously published works, as well as the writings of his younger colleagues including Sunday Enessi Ododo, and Molinta Enendu should generate further interest in technical theatre scholarship in Nigeria.

It is important to reiterate however, that what Oni offers in this book, beyond the specialist content in Chapters 6 -11, is not a teaching manual, but broad-ranging analysis of key issues in theatre, culture and national development. Striking Expressions: Theatre and Culture in National Development, is part-history, part-scholarship, part-advocacy, part-reflection, including majorly, previously unpublished papers, presentations and speeches. Divided into three parts, namely (a) Theatre and Cinema, (b) Culture and Pan-Africanism and (c) Development and Change Agenda, the book highlights a number of key issues.

First, the author offers a historical account of tradition, innovation and change in contemporary Nigeria theatre, a theme he returns to in other chapters, focusing on actual events and actors, and the challenges and changing fortunes of theatre practice in Nigeria. His content in this regard is all-encompassing as he analyses the festival/ritual basis of the travelling theatre, and the growth of the Nigerian film, the video and the Nollywood phenomenon. His 2010 inaugural lecture at the University of Lagos, titled “Lighting: Beyond Illumination” stretches this historical approach further by providing an outline of the evolutionary trajectory of technical theatre practice in Nigeria, with an accent on the author’s research, practice and encounters. In Chapter 3, he discusses the Second World Festival of Arts and Culture hosted by Nigeria in 1977 (that is FESTAC ’77) and what he describes as “the Nigerian National Theatre Legacy.” And for the reader who is further interested in historical narratives, the author examines: “Ebenezer Obey and his Musical Activities in Lagos” and “The Changing Fortunes of the Cinema in Post-Colonial Lagos”.

Second, Oni devotes much space to theatre education in Nigeria, particularly the teaching of technical theatre. His observation that there is an inadequacy of training in the sub-fields of design and theatre technology, and the inadequacy of facilities and equipment can hardly be controverted, particularly with regard to the need for theatre departments to adjust the curriculum to meet the realities of a digital and computer-driven age. What he probably overlooks is the shortage of students willing to specialize in technical theatre. The scientific orientation of this field of theatre practice and the physical activity and risks involved in the technical production process discourages many students, and perhaps another factor is the shortage of technical theatre teachers in Nigeria as well.

The challenge for the technical theatre teachers in Nigeria is to mentor more students. It is true that the quality and nature of the performance space determines the design plans, and that lighting goes beyond illumination and there are determining environmental factors that have made the Grotowskian “poor theatre” and improvisation an inevitable option, but what is the scope of the school-to-work transition for the technical theatre specialist seeking work after graduation, and how many can the existing theatre market in Nigeria absorb? As it is for technical theatre training, so it is for other market-oriented specialisations within the discipline; some departments across the country have reviewed their titles to align with the demands of the market and reflect the broader scope of theatre training, but this must be accompanied by a review of the curriculum. Shouldn’t theatre and creative arts departments make entrepreneurship part of the curriculum, for example?

Third, in a number of chapters, Oni returns us to the old argument about the role of the creative arts including literature in society. It may be an old argument but clearly an unsettled one, given the lukewarm attitude of government agencies and policy makers in Nigeria to the strategic value of the creative arts, that is their seeming failure to move beyond the treatment of arts and culture as mere entertainment, and locate them properly in alignment with trade and diplomacy, peace, education and national development. Professor Oni’s consistent argument is that the creative arts should and can play a “pedagogical and educational role” in society, that is serve as vehicles of change, nation-building, and mobilization. This point is explored further in the two sections of the book titled “Culture and Pan-Africanism” and “Development and Change Agenda”.

Mainstreaming culture and the arts into the national development agenda is thus the main substance of Professor Oni’s advocacy. In other words, culture, tourism and the arts can be used to transform and humanize society, address the challenges of democratic consolidation, leadership and corruption and make society “more desirable”. He sees a principal role for government in this regard, private sector investment in the creative sector and the transformation of society as a collective responsibility. A caveat is probably needed here and it is as follows: In the 80s, there was indeed a rush of private sector investment in the theatre outside the university system, as banks and other private investors sponsored performances and there seemed to have been a revival of the stage.

But a combination of factors led by economic dispossession discouraged private sector investment, this economic dispossession resulted in increased costs, rising levels of insecurity made many outdoor evening activities unsafe, the spread of poverty reduced purchasing power parity and the emergence of the video phenomenon kept many at home in front of television sets. In recent times, the cinema seems to have been making a return, but the stage appears to be dying still. Theatre is a leisure-time activity, but with no sustainable policies and funding to promote leisure, much of what passes as leisure in Nigeria is unstructured and disconnected. Professor Oni acknowledges the role of government but he is lenient in his commentary on culture administrators, government policy and the role of university administrators.

Fourth and finally, a significant part of this book is devoted to the specialist analysis of design and technology considerations in the Nigerian theatre and the interface between the designer and the dramatic text. Students of the play production process and performance will find most relevant Oni’s analysis in such chapters as “Scenograhy and Dramatic Atmosphere in Ukala’s The Placenta of Death” (Chapter 9), “Producing Osofisan’s Midnight Hotel and Tegonni: Challenges for the Design Team”; “Multiculturalism and the Predicament of African and African Diaspora Dramatists” and “Historiographic Representations of Africans and Diasporan African in Theatrical Works: Performance Paradigms of Walcott, Aidoo and Onwueme in Perspective”.

Every production in the theatre is invariably a conversation among a group of creative artists and of these the conversation between the technical crew and the dramatist or script writer, or rather the dialogue between text and design and technology is most crucial. Oni’s interrogation of dramatic texts cited above unveils the interrogative and analytic nature of that conversation, which in reality can be textual and informal, theoretical or social, often times with the technical crew re-interpreting the text and in the case of premieres, even guiding the dramatist to rewrite or rework, the shared objective of performance being the creation of the right atmosphere and mood, and shape and picturization in space, to bring the text to life. One of Oni’s contributions to the study of technical theatre in Nigeria is demonstrating the theory-praxis mix of this specialization, which he explores to good advantage in this book.

He has raised issues that are bound to be of continuing academic research, as well as professional and policy interest. The arrangement of the chapters may not be thematically consistent; there are also one or two chapters that may appear supernumerary, in addition to proof-reading errors, but on the whole, Oni’s Striking Expressions: Theatre and Culture in National Development is an insightful, engaging and well-presented contribution that should be read by students and teachers of the subject, and policy makers.


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Duro Oni

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