50 years of solo performing art … A compendium on minimalist theatre in Nigeria
Editors: Greg Mbajiorgu and Amanze Akpuda
Reviewer: John Otu
Publishers: Kraft Books Limited, Ibadan
50 Years of Solo Performing Art in Modern Nigerian Theatre 1966- 2016 is a monumental accomplishment in the annals of the theatre tradition and scholarship in Nigeria. The book is a compendium of varied vignettes of theatrical practice surrounding solo performing art in Nigeria. Until the arrival of this treasure, perhaps solo or mono-dramatic subgenre was at least, seen as a perfunctory art without any generally accepted form or structure. In Nigeria, for instance, those commonly seen as solo performing artists were stand-up comedians or masters of ceremonies practicing an art, which then was regarded as a far cry from the organised theatre with up-to-date dramaturgy. It is this lacuna that the book has palpably filled; thereby incontrovertibly becoming the first authoritative, scholarly book on mono-dramatic or minimalist theatre in Nigeria. Its significance is in the book’s encapsulation of different forms of solo drama- folktale performances, oral or historical narratives, one act show and mimes, among other elements of this theatre.
It is not hyperbolic to assert that whatever be the background of the reader — literature, linguistics, philosophy, history, archaeology, sociology, theatre, politics, business, among others — of this book teems with these ramified subjects, to show that the essence of theatre in the main is a depiction of life as it is lived in an imitative, enthralling form. These diverse, if variegated aspects of solo- theatre are reflected in nine parts with insightful and enlightening essays crafted by theatre veterans, renowned scholars and critics, celebrated playwrights, actors, directors and producers of plays to adequately anchor and illustrate current theoretical trends and ideas surrounding mono-drama in contemporary Nigeria.
Section A, entitled, “Theoretical And Proto- Historical/Pre- Generic Foundations” made up of three seminal essays traces the solo drama to its pristine origin in African folklore as seen in the spoken poetry, the aesthetics of the traditional griot and the Igbo mask, and also reflective of the Yoruba and Ijaw incantatory poetry.
Section B comprises articles that underscore meta-theoretical, comparative, analytical and generic studies revolving around the character of a solo performer — the elements of tradition and talent evinced by a performer in this genre and the literary accoutrements of monodrama such as Asides and Apostrophe, and their application in the requisite texts. In this section also are a number of essays that articulate the concept of monodrama from a mélange of perspectives ranging from minimalist consciousness, Rural Christian Evangelism to philosophy of being, etc.
Section C is a historian’s delight, as it properly situates the origin of solo drama in post-colonial Nigeria steered by such precursors as Betty Okotie and Wale Ogunyemi under the tutelage of legendary literary patron, Wole Soyinka, at the University of Ibadan. It is from these pathfinders that the more popular and prominent practitioners of today, namely, Greg Mbarjiogu, Tunji Sotimirin, Funsho Alabi, among others honed their skills.
Section D is unique for its demonstrative relevance in treating indepth the techniques and challenges of directing the mono-drama script. The reader comes away from this section with a distinct knowledge that a one-actor show is not synonymous with a one-man production. Whereas one actor can embody and act different characters, they are usually many facilitators behind the scene serving as props with regard to design, costume that enhance performance.
In Section E, the reader encounters the major dramatists/actors practicing in this genre in a no-holds-barred interview sessions with seasoned practitioners or critics, who through their conversations coax or coerce from the interviewee the salient motivations behind their artistry. For instance, in the interview with Tunji Sotimirin by Austine Amanze Akpuda and Chikwura Destiny Isiguzo, Sotimirin makes a clear distinction between solo performance and stand-up comedy with their similarities fully fleshed out with dates and province of origination and practitioners in this genre.
Other sections, F, G, H and I are full-fledged scholarly essays approached from diverse perspectives on the key plays of outstanding Solo- drama performers. These sections feature essays on the works of Greg Mbarjiogu, Inua Ellams, Benedict Binebai and Akpos Adesi.
However, what invests a ring of authenticity on the 50 Years of Solo Performing Art in Nigerian Theatre is the magisterial tone with which some of Nigeria’s acclaimed theatre (literary) authorities analytically proclaim this genre in Nigeria as accomplished. It is impossible for a seasoned scholar to ignore a book, which features such remarkable essays as written by outstanding theatre scholars and practitioners in Nigeria as Emeka Nwabueze, Kalu Uka, Ahmed Yerima, Ben Tomoloju, Chimalum Nwankwo, Ademola Dasylva etc. These certainly constitute a rare constellation of stars in the nations, if not Africa’s literary firmament. Nwabueze in his essay in chapter 2 entitled, “The Griot as Solo Artiste: Aesthetics of Performance in African Folk Art” in an admirable prose style situates monodrama in Africa in the folk lore. But he also dissects the aesthetics of performance as regards traditional performers as griot, bard and minstrel- making this volume of essays a delight to a literary taxonomist or scholar.
Like Kalu Uka in Chapter 4, Nwabueze demonstrates the place of orature in dramaturgy as regards Igbo world view, folk songs and art in general. With Uka we see the point of intersection between western influence on solo- theatre in Nigeria and unique African performative theatre that reminds us of T.S. Eliot’s famous paradigm of Tradition and Individual Talent. Uka even traces this theatre in Africa to Apartheid South Africa in which the enigmatic playwright Athol Fugard’s play, Sizwe Bansi is Dead in which the mono dramatic technique is partially employed as a satirical device in selected scenes, as a strategy, for pricking the conscience of the segregationist regime.
Perhaps, this book also puts paid to the perennial controversy that had dogged Solo- theatre in Nigeria with regard to its primogenitor(s). Aside the indubitable fact established earlier in this work regarding the origination of this genre in the hands of Betty Okotie and Wale Ogunyemi in the 1960s with the performance of Beckett’s play, Acts Without Words, 50 Years of Solo Performing Art states authoritatively that after the disquieting lull that followed that premier stage, it was only in the early 1990s that what appeared like an attempt to capture Solo theatre in text emerged with Greg Mbarjiorgu’s popular play, The Prime- Minister’s Son. This assertion is also authenticated by many analysts and knowledgeable interviewees in the book. Austine Amanze Akpuda clinches this position properly in his profound essay in chapter six in which he brilliantly illustrates the features of the classical monodrama vis a vis The Prime- Minister’s Son, among other acclaimed plays in this genre.
Some other contributors like James Onyebuchi Ille in chapter 11 furthers the quest into the essence of being by teasing out philosophical issues of existentialist dimension from the same text, just as Chimalum Nwankwo had earlier in chapter 7 interestingly with the touch of a guru seen Mbarjiorgu’s text as “minimalism at its finest.” From turning open the rich vault of The Prime- Minister’s Son other practitioners of Solo Drama like Sotimirin, Funsho Alabi, Ahmed Yerima, Innua Ellams, Benedict Binebai have obviously drawn inspiration to unleash their enthralling art on the Nigerian theatre audience. Hence, the ace theatre practitioner and critic, Ben Tomoloju in chapter 5 deftly x-rays Sotimirin’s interesting play, “Molue” against the backdrop of the aesthetics of ‘One- man Showmanship.
Given the ambitious scope of this work and the depth of engaging analyses of the plays that hinge on mono-dramatic aesthetics, 50 Years of Solo Performing Art in Nigerian Theatre is clearly a timely arrival to confer some form of symmetry and authenticity on Solo Theatre scholarship in Nigeria. The errors- mostly typographical- are minimal, and the layout of the book is elegant and appealing. The issues thematized in the individual works of the core practitioners are many and exhaustively treated, although from the angle of personal predilection, there is need to have devoted more chapters to linguistic (phonological/phonetic) elements such as diction and the speaking cadence of the voice as primary forces that drive Solo theatre, beyond the first chapter “Words of Power, and the Power of Words…” by Moses Oludele Idowu, which is deftly executed.
Overall, this book convincingly establishes the fact that though Solo theatre reached its high water-mark in Europe and America in the hands of such masters as Samuel Beckett, Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, Bertolt Brecht and Loius Catron, Nigeria is not lacking in gifted practitioners of this subgenre who have through their remarkable genius at improvisation, inventiveness and acting prowess, taken this art to a clearly unprecedented height. This book is a testament of all that is ennobling in Solo Drama, without giving short shrift to its flaws, although the gifted editors- Greg and Amanze robustly contend in their well crafted introduction that the former elements outweigh the latter. Any library- national or local, public or private- that is not decorated at a vantage point with this gem is famished of a current intellectual sensation.
John Otu is a lecturer at the Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo