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Interpreting African operatic drama as Western-style musical theatre

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A research scholar in the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Miami, U.S., Dr. Olufemi Oke, has said that production companies and playhouses in Nigeria wrongly label performances as musical theatre instead of calling them African operatic drama. He said that once the drama goes for more than four to five minutes without a song, the essence of being a musical is lost.

“The African operatic drama seems to be closer to the new wave of the so-called musical theatre in Nigeria now. We have to claim what we own and present it to the world as what we own and not pretend it is something else, especially when it comes to creative products.”

According to Oke, musical theatre has evolved from first being concerned about the songs to having the story or narrative becoming the spine of the performance. The plot, character and situations become the bristle of the performance thereby making the musical more complex. He stated that the musical aspect of this theatre should be properly scored and, at least, 50 per cent or more of the entire performance must be dedicated to music and dance.

According to him, “I am presently working on a true musical theatre manuscript that incorporates the foundational elements and structure of musical theatre, where the performance is basically set to songs, plot, situations, and characters but where music is the backbone of the performance. The operatic drama of the Ogunde era had similar elements with the musical theatre in the western world. He would basically sketch the basic situations and plot of the performances but he would write down the songs and rehearse them while the dialogue was improvised. A good number of Ogunde’s latter operas were basically popular musicals that included jazz rhythms, fashionable dances and contemporary satire.

“This form of operatic performance is what I have observed in the new wave of the so-called musical theatre in Nigeria now and it makes me believe we prefer to associate with foreign lifestyle than creating or promoting ours. For example, someone designs a product and labels it with an American designer to the detriment of his creativity that could have been promoted with his own label. The craze for western acceptance seems to blindfold the writers of Nigerian contemporary operatic drama into calling it musical theatre.

“That is one of the reasons I am currently researching on musical theatre with a comparative overview of the African operatic theatre and musical theatre arts forms at the University of Miami, one of the best schools for musical theatre. I am in the search of exposing the elements of musical theatre in comparison with the operatic theatre so that people can know the differences and playhouses or production companies in Nigeria can correctly label their performances.

“Some of these performances have been performed abroad and accepted and I believe it is time the label is also clearly distinguished for posterity sake. If the British Council can create a performance with the intention of teaching us site-specific theatre, when African theatre is traditionally site-specific, then we need to document our theatre better also for the benefit of the western world. I intend to come up with a book at the end of my research on ‘Operatic Theatre and Musical Theatre’ to further academic and practical knowledge of both modes of theatre.”

Oke also noted that his dream is to “see the performance industry develop in my lifetime to a point where artists’ welfare will be a priority to every practitioner and government agency involved in the industry. An industry where Artists Pension Fund will be a reality in order to avoid calling for donations, when veterans in the industry fall ill. An industry where every performer knows his grade level and knows a portion of his remuneration is going into his Artists Pension Fund for every production. An industry where artists can have an assurance of some form of pension when they eventually retire just like their counterparts in government-owned establishments.”

Oke graduated from the University of Lagos as the best graduating student in Creative Arts Department in 2008. He holds a Master’s degree in Arts of the Theatre and a PhD in Production Dramaturgy from the same school. He has over 17 years experience in both stage and film acting and directing. He was the sole Nigerian representative as a Cultural Actor at the Kennedy Centre-sponsored acting development workshop in Washington D.C., US. in 2010. He is currently working on a comparative analysis of the African Operatic Drama and Western Musical Theatre, especially as it influences and affects the presentation of present-day Nigerian Musical Theatre.


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Olufemi Oke
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