‘A playwright cannot sit while society degenerates ’
Ahmed Parker Yerima is a playwright and theatre director. He was Artistic Director of the Nigerian National Theatre, and also served as General Manager of the National Theatre. The professor of Theatre and Performing Arts has been dean of the College of Humanities, Redeemer’s University since 2013. In this interview, he spoke on his play titled, Brittle-ing Diamond, which is set to hit the stage for Project Nigeria@60 that is anchored on six women producers strength of Lilian Amah, overall producer; Dr Razinat Talabi-Muhammed, Associate Producer Adjudication; Ayobamidele Aladekomo, Associate Producer: Theatre for Nigeria @60; Haneefat Ikharo, Associate Producer, Essay: The Future is Now; Foluke Michael, Associate Producer, Painting for Unity; and Lynda Amadi, Associate Producer, Marketing, with Teju Kareem, CEO of Zmirage as Executive producer.
Why this play for 60th independence in particular?
THE major reason is the celebration. I think the Executive Producer, Alhaji Teju Kareem, wanted a celebration of Nigeria’s independence. He also wanted to look at the issue of the uprising and problems of Nigeria. He was equally concerned about the Army’s role in national development and the history of Nigeria. That was why he commissioned me to write the play.
The play examines our nationhood journey through the military and civilian interrelationship and interdependency; what lessons do we expect to learn as a nation going by the project’s theme: The future is Now?
The play looks at the role the Army has played in the development of Nigeria’s socio-political terrain. Being a social realist, I placed the play within a family, and within that family, I showed their losses. You know, there are some families that almost everybody is a soldier and I look at how they have given up their lives to serve the nation. And here, I critically examined the socio-political problems of Nigeria from when the Army, first appeared in 1966 till today, when they are fighting Boko Haram. I use that story to highlight the political landmarks of the Army, how they have resolved some of our problems, and how they have created some of the problems also. So, there is a social reality going on within the play.
There seems to be a huge sympathy or attention to families of the military. Is this, in any way, linked to the way families of military men alleged or convicted coup plotters have been treated, or is this a general recognition to the sacrifice of men in uniform?
I think it is both, because, if you remember my play, The Sisters, I looked at a woman trying to save her husband, who was involved in a coup plot, and that way she lost her husband, and she also lost her legs — she could not walk. These are the kind of problems that I was looking at. There is a short movie by a friend of mine, Deola Osukojo, which is on YouTube now. It looks at the 1976 coup. She interviewed the wives of those who lost their lives in the coup. That was a great inspiration for me. So, I wanted to see the losses, the ambition of young men, how it affected their families, and how these families themselves have had to cope with the losses that they incurred. But at the same time, I was looking at their contributions and the need for us to appreciate the lives of these soldiers. That is it. So, it becomes a celebration, but a very critical and realistic celebration of the army and the place of the army within the Nigerian polity.
You have written plays that mirror and ignite national developmental conversation; is this attempt to do such?
Yes. My teacher, Prof. Wole Soyinka, taught me that a playwright must be relevant. Even before him, Plato said it that if you are not relevant to the society, which you write for, then why are you writing? And the seriousness of the issues of uprising, the socio-economic problems of the country, they are beyond he sitting down and saying that I’m writing for love’s sake; I’m writing because of beauty. The aesthetic is not the issue. What are the socio-political realities? This is what has forced me to write about the Chibok girls in my play, Pari; it has also forced me to write about the Boko Haram, in my play, Heart of Stone; and equally forced me to write about the Fulani uprising too. So, as the problems occur, I find a sense of compulsion to write about these issues and look at them from, sometimes, a naive point of view. But being part of humanity, I can’t divorce myself from what is going on amongst my people. I must be relevant to the society that has given birth to me, so that, whatever I have to say, they can learn from it.
Have they had a meaningful impact on the society to your satisfaction?
Oh yes, they have. Some of my historical plays too have. And it’s good being in the academia because what I am able to be to sieve the works, the PhD works, the books that are coming out, the inspiration it has given to other people. If you look at my plays from the Niger Delta, Hard Ground, and Little Drops they have inspired new plays coming out from the Niger Delta. They have looked at people, examined the issue of trauma and of the uprising in the region. And I am happy that quite a lot of writers, like Soji Cole, and the younger writers are writing plays that are looking at the serious aspects of Nigeria, not just comedy anymore, but critical comedy. Even my comedy, The Lottery Ticket, was very critical of the issue of greed even amongst the Nigerian men in the society. So, you look at the problem there, and you will find out that the playwright cannot sit aloof while the problem of society continues to generate concern.
Do you think theatre can play a role in building an upright nation?
The theatre can play a role in building an upright nation through information, through informing the society about what is going on. I think that is what my over 70 plays have done. They’ve tried to tell you what is going on at any given time. I try to document that. In fact, my new play on COVID-19 will soon come out from the publishers so that people who are talking about COVID-19 will know how it affected the mind of the playwright at a particular time. And that these are the kind of problems that existed during the COVID-19 period, and how they affected me — the fear that I had as a playwright, and how I was able to transfer this fear, despair, and phobia into a play so that it documents the period that I wrote it. It also informs those that are coming on how to prepare and also prepares them for the whole issue. I examined the issue of: Where does COVID-19 come from? Is it from China? Is it the hand of God? Is it humanity destroying itself? Or is it nature destroying humanity.
So, I am hoping and praying that when people look at the play they would be able to say: ‘Okay, I think I am on this side.’ Because the play throws a lot of arguments. That is it. A playwright must contribute to an argument, a current argument going on within the society in order to find meaning to that society, and further explain to the society why certain things are happening among them. It is not to just sit down and give us love stories. If you look at even the play Aremu, which I wrote on former president Olusegun Obasanjo, and which my friend, Joseph Edgar, produced, in the play Obasanjo says: ‘I am not the character playing Obasanjo. I am not perfect.’ And then he asked the audience, are you perfect? That is the question that people are always asking. How does he claim that he knows everything or that he knows too much? And he says: ‘I, Olusegun Obasanjo, I am not perfect. Are you yourself perfect?’ And he points to the audience. During the performance, I looked at the audience, I found out that nobody could say that he is perfect. Therefore, that begins to change even their thinking about who Obasanjo is, and now accept it that no man is perfect.
We are going to make our contribution to the socio-political development of society at a particular time, and when we make our efforts, we should allow ourselves to grow within that particular period. That is what my plays are about — make a contribution, comment at a particular time.
The play we are told originated from your published work Mirror crack, that you developed this one for the independent theatre project with a new title, Fractured; and now the organisers have chosen to perform it under another title, Brittle-ing Diamond, any correlation?
Yes, the problem is that I had written The Mirror Crack during the Liberian Civil War, and the role that Nigerians played there. So, the play looks at how the Liberian war-affected Nigerian soldiers. When the executive producer, Kareem, came to me in my base and told me that he wants to use this play, I told him that the issue of the Nigerian army has gone beyond the Liberian war, the ECOMOG; we cannot talk of ECOMOG anymore, we have gone beyond that.
The Nigerian army as an institution has become a major aspect of our lives. I told him that now that we have talked, I do not think Mirror Crack is as relevant as it was then and that I should write another play. But when I sat down to write, I discovered that the new play that I was imagining was Fractured. And because we were looking at the process of diamond celebration, the process of reconstruction, we decided to rename the play so that even the title gives us a sense of hope; but the despair, the anger, the fear, the antagonism that the play talks about is still there, and very present.