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My theatre odyssey — Wole Soyinka


“A scene from Soyinka’s The Road directed by Segun Ojewuyi at the Yale Repertory Theatre…The two actors are Kyle Leland Rivers (L) and John Ecklund (R).

In 1984, I directed Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka at the University of Ibadan. It was the first production other than that directed by the playwright himself. Very positively received by the audience, was also highly praised by Nigeria’s foremost directors at the time — Ola Rotimi and Dapo Adelugba. It would become the staging template repeated by several directors since. The production would also be the beginning of a long association with the Nobel Laureate, one that now crosses four continents of theatrical and other engagements/collaborations. So much is written of his plays, his activism and little of his very active life and contributions in shaping Nigerian, African and world theatre. This is an informal conversation conducted in Lagos to simply focus on his journey in theatre.

In some easy narrative, what were your earliest recollections, your points of entry so-to-speak, into Theatre?
My whole life as a child was very much surrounded by theatre, including traditional theatre, the Egungun performances, the masquerades. The Egungun used to come and perform, not so much in the compound, but outside the missionary compound, and they did not just parade, they would stage some, you know, magical shows, acrobatics … I think, they would have been the Agbegijo, the Alapansonpa Egungun masquerades and so on. So, performance was all around, even in church, there was no way you could evade theatre. I think it was in primary school that I participated in a play called The Magician. I don’t remember the writer. But, who directed it? My father, who was headmaster of the school! And I was the ‘Magician’. The whole process of putting it together fascinated me; the whole idea behind it, the hard labour, the discipline involved and, at the same time, the fun, that mixture of hard work as well as pleasure. And I discovered at that time that I really was drawn towards performance. Of course, later on, we had the early traveling theatre, which was before, even Ogunde. I also participated in the hundredth anniversary celebrations of; I think the advent of Christianity into Abeokuta. This was a sprawling series of events, performances, and, I found myself drawn and thrown into it. I was playing little roles in the depictions and representations of the early missionaries and so on…

It seems as if theatre was woven into the fabric of your culture and specific environment, through festivals, religious worships, education and professions. As you grew older and went to secondary school, what connections did you begin to make of these socio-cultural experiences?

I spent some time at Abeokuta Grammar School before I went to Government College, Ibadan. But, it was mostly music in Abeokuta Grammar School, because the Principal, my uncle, Ransome Kuti; Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s father, he loved conducting the school. The school was one vast choir. He loved cantatas and so on. Government College… I joined the dramatic society. It seemed the most natural thing to do, and I actually played the role of a princess (laughter). Yes, a girl…I remember being the princess in this performance (laughter), but I can’t remember what the play was (laughter).

The world of drama, that is, writing plays, when did it start, especially, the dramatic type?
Well, good question for the simple reason that I wondered when I actually began to separate drama as such from writing literature. We used to…on reading a story for instance, my siblings, both immediate family siblings and outsiders, would enact these folktales and act these stories. We would take different roles. If I read something, I was not satisfied in acting it exactly how it was. I had to make variations and I suppose that’s where this instinct to creativity begins. And literature, I just read and began to rewrite, you know, kind of short stories, and then rewrite them for performance. So, the two things sort of grew side by side, both drama and then what you might call literature, literary compositions as such. I remember sending in a short story when the Nigerian Broadcasting Service began. I listened on radio to performances of plays. Radio was just the loud speakers at the time. Then, it was ‘Rediffusion,’ yes! I used to listen to these plays, and that was how it all started.

Out of curiosity, in the realm of theatrical exploits and skills, did you at any point participate in a dance performance?
Dancer? Em, no, but if necessary on stage I’ll do anything – Acrobatics, anything. So, no doubt at all that em, oh yes, I think I even remember distinctly participating at U. I., (University of Ibadan) in an Atilogwu dance. (Chuckling)

Atilogwu…Who or what lured you into that?
Oh, I was doing a sketch with my group, Orisun Theatre. I remember we were lampooning some misconceptions about Nigeria. I remember an American Peace Corp volunteer was here and she made some statement that people considered derogatory to Nigeria. So, we were lampooning the over-sensitivity, and I directed what was supposed to be a warlike dance, something to slaughter this Peace Corp person. We were just making fun of the whole chauvinist stupidity in the reaction to what she said. So, I enjoyed participating in the Atilogwu dance. I remember that.

Soyinka in Atilogwu, that must have been a sight… Going back to writing. You started with short stories…remember your first attempt?
Very difficult to remember that; but I remember it involves some most atrocious punning. The whole story was built on the misunderstanding of a steward who was told to prepare cocktails, and it was bad pun…that was the whole story, just punning on ‘cocktails’. I always found that word so ridiculous, you know, cocktails. What’s ‘cocktails’? What’s that got to do with the tails of a cock? That kind of thing…I was still battling with language at the time. I do remember that distinctly.

And the travelling theatres of your childhood were still playing, and, getting bigger nationally. Were you observing this trend and how did that have any effect on your own development and forays?
Yes, again the travelling theatre was very prevalent. The theatres of Hubert Ogunde, Duro Ladipo, Kola Ogunmola, Oyin Adejobi and a few others, including of course, the church… Anglican Church drama. It consisted of many songs, concert and then a piece of enactment from the bible maybe. Well, it was in Lagos in particular. No question, there was an active theatre in Nigeria. And then, I was shortly on my way to Leeds.

Yes, Leeds…Now you were there grappling with the challenges of studying and living in Britain?
In Leeds, I was not terribly active in the drama society, for the simple reason that I was shocked to find that it was peopled, not just as leaders or directors, but also as performers; by the staff. Even G. Wilson Knight performed. There was very little, I noticed, space for students. I didn’t see why the lecturers should monopolise the dramatic space, so, I concentrated on writing. First of all I decided to specialise in dramatic literature, not just prose and so on. So, I was trying to write plays and studying dramatic literature. I don’t remember how it happened, but I was connected to the Royal Court Theatre in London, which then was undergoing a very drastic transformation of what British Theatre was at the time. Lion and the Jewel earned me an internship at the Royal Court Theatre. I was invited to become one of the readers and then eventually do a Sunday Night theatre.

Coming from a vibrant and distinctly Nigerian Theatre, what did you observe or learn of British Theatre at the time?
Oh, first of all British Theatre was very staid at the time, you could almost say still Victorian. And then came the phenomenon of the Royal Court Theatre, which produced John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and British Theatre never looked back after that experience. This consciousness, that theatre could be used, for instance, to comment on society and to make a protest or whatever. It was somehow already percolating, already intrinsic in my consciousness. I saw it in action, you know, in London. I participated in what was an improvised piece titled, Eleven Men dead at Holla. This centred on the report, the judicial report on the killing of 11 so-called Mau Mau terrorists, who were actually beaten to death by colonial warders. Somebody stood at the lectern reading sections of the report, while we on the other side, enacted what we considered was the truth about what happened. The dynamics really fascinated me… theatre making a statement on that kind of situation…

This was a very socially significant immersion in theatre. What plays did you work on or write around this time?
Well, I wrote…I remember the title of a play I destroyed. It was called The House of Banigeji. I spent over a whole year working on that play and finally, I just threw it in the fire and said this is not working. I wanted to write a full-length play, and it never worked. One day, I just went and set it on fire,

After a year of creative labour! What was it about?
It was exploring the traditional, transitional kind of life, in transitional summit to colonialism. I was very much fascinated by that, especially finding myself in Great Britain. The idea of what this British culture did in Nigeria; how it faired, how people responded. It was a very complex play. I heard the expression ‘purple passages’ for the first time when I showed it to my drama teacher, one of the drama lecturers. He said “hmm quite a lot of purple passages here.” First, I was confused and angry. Then, I found that yes, they were pretty purple. One day, since I couldn’t ‘decolourise’ it; I decided to let it go.

A Dance of the Forests, your Nigerian showing, was written in 1959?
Yes, it was written ’59. Uli Beier heard about The Swamp Dweller, which I had written earlier. So, he brought the Swamp dwellers and the Lion and the Jewel back with him to Nigeria, to show Geoffrey Axworthy who was, you know, involved in the University of Ibadan Theatre, developing the company at the time, side-by-side. Axworthy was fascinated by the idea of being able to stage a Nigerian play and they did a two-piece show, The Lion and the Jewel and The Swamp dwellers. Then, I staged a play during the yearly Students Theatre Festival in London, sponsored by the Sunday Times. Beier got to hear about it and then contacted me. I told him I was working on a certain historical play, which he took and submitted it to the Independence panel, the jury, and that’s how A Dance of the forest came to be performed.

A Dance of the Forests was written at the point of Nigeria’s transition from colonial rule to independence. It seemed you were still wrestling with the subject of transition, a continuation of your exploration of the same theme in the play with the ‘purple passages’. Were you conscious of this?
Well, very much so, because I had become very increasingly, I should say, politically conscious. I always was politically conscious, with independence, racism, South Africa as a theme, almost as an obsession. And I had turned inwards, to examine more closely the society, you know, to which I belong. And it became of more interest to me than even the fact of transition from here, colonial to quote – unquote ‘independent society’. I had been running into all these politicians coming in for meetings in London, you know, constitution making meetings, and I began to wonder if the first line enemy was not internal, far more than external at that particular place, you know, we took independence for granted. So, what we brought into independence became a theme with which I was obsessed.

These politicians, what was your immediate impression of them?
Largely profligate, you know, few exceptions of course there were. Happy to meet those, but generally they just came to, I felt, to preen themselves as inheritors of departing colonial power. Discussions in terms of what should be the internal formulation of society…No. Notion of even South Africa which was our obsession at the time, my class, my group, for them all this was secondary. It was all just a question of how; let me purchase my independence vehicle, the bigger, the better. Conferring largess right, left too, it was not a very pleasant, not a very edifying spectacle of transition. So, that was when I began to write A Dance of the Forest.

How have they advanced? Have they moved us forward?
I regret to say not much, not by much. Not anything we can call advance. The ones who are very committed or very idealistic either get smoldered politically or physically extinguished. Very few have actually emerged as committed beings to society; very, very few. But they exist, thank goodness; otherwise the place will be unlivable.

That sums it up. So you named your theatre group, the 1960 Masks. 1960 was obviously a pointed reference to that year of Nigeria’s independence. What exactly was the 1960 Masks?
Yes, it was intended, 1960, the year of independence. We were excited about independence, apprehensive, but the important thing was we felt we were on our own as a people, as a nation. And so, I wanted that sense of demarcation, that notation 1960. And of course mask is just a generic name for acting, theatre, performance, the whole lot.

Can you elaborate? What was it about the mission of the 1960 Masks or the play that targeted the new nation?
Well, we could say that the play itself to start with, with which the 1960 mask broke surface was supposed to be symbolic. I don’t want to use the word prophetic, but cautionary about what lay in store from 1960. We shouldn’t be too complacent, we should watch, look at history and see that human beings have not really changed that much, the elements of history, which we would rather take into consideration in our optimism, in our assessment of the present. It was, that the very naming as well as the play that inaugurated the company; were hinged on that sense of both euphoria and apprehension.

And that apprehension has now become the nightmare we live everyday…

It’s been reported that the play met with an unfriendly evaluation by the government…
Yes, the competition for which the play was submitted carried with it a prize and at the same time some money towards its production, because it was supposed to be part of the 1960 celebrations. So I used the money to produce the play and also to inaugurate the 1960 mask. We performed; I remember, at the Federal Palace theatre, in the hall, a kind of banqueting hall. The reception was very positive.

How did you rehearse, where did you rehearse?
We were a company constantly on the move, without a home. Everywhere, everywhere, in Ibadan, in Lagos, in the back of the Land rover which I drove everywhere at the time, we held rehearsals, individual rehearsals, in pubs, Caban Bamboo Night Club on Ikorodu Road and anywhere. We were constantly on the move. Because the 1960 mask consisted of civil servants, again, some worked for corporations, Monday to Friday etc. So, I could only rehearse people individually. And then we all came together on weekends, you know. But from the beginning they had problems because they were civil servants, and, they stated it frankly that they couldn’t afford to be inside a theatre company that was considered hostile to the government or negative to the government. That was when I began looking for people for the Orisun Theatre, adventurous people who had nothing to lose. Eventually I pulled out Orisun Theatre to take on the more risk laden theatre, sketches, go for it no matter what and how.

How and when did Mbari come into the picture?
Mbari came up about the same time as an independence product. There was a context, a very subtle cultural context, which echoed what was going on in the cold war. The Eastern block and the capitalist west were both trying to capture the minds of the newly emerging global citizens after independence. And a foundation in the United States put down money to set up a cultural sort of movement. And Beier who was very energetic about cultural promotion, told us again about it. And it was to be a cafe theatre, a place to hold workshops. That was actually the blue print I was trying to execute. And he said, well, I could present it to this foundation and you get some funds. We quickly held a meeting with Chinua (Achebe), Mabel Segun, Amos Tutuola, and, of course JP Clark, Christopher Okigbo and Aig-Imokhuede. We held a meeting quickly, appointed officers, and presented our project and we got some money. We were able to establish right in the heart of Ibadan at Adamasingba. That’s how Mbari began.

Here you were, setting up a theatre in town whilst the Arts Theatre at the University of Ibadan was also your responsibility. How did you see this interchange, if one can call it that?
I had never separated the two things. For me, theatre was already, you know, established in town so to speak, and it was only its role in gown that, you know, had to be defined and for me, it was a laboratory, traveling theatre. And remember, Ife already had its theatre under Ola Rotimi which did these historical plays especially Kurunmi. They were established at Ori-Olokun in Osogbo. Somehow, theatre was always inside the town and then brought within. I also used my position in the university as a research fellow to bring in others; from the so-called traditional traveling theatre — Kola Ogunmola, Duro Ladipo etc. This was not my pioneer effort. For instance. Duro Ladipo was already doing his own thing in Osogbo. But what I did was offer them the platform of the university to the extent of running a repertory event, which involved all of them, or rather, the two men of Yoruba theatre. And camped them outside, in Agodi as a matter of fact, in a hijacked government house where they stayed for weeks rehearsing their shows while I also contributed The Lion and the Jewel. So we did for the first time and maybe for that decade, the first repertory, the only repertory performance in which plays succeeded one another and the acting companies were actually economically freed.

It was theatre, that’s it. I saw no difference frankly, except in style etc, etc. And I envisage theatre as a phenomenon in which various genres flow, you know, effortlessly. And you just move in, seeing this one-day, seeing another the following day. This was the kind of theatrical atmosphere I envisaged and I felt it was healthy both for the university and for the town.

With all these, there was traction; some traction until the civil war, your incarceration and the death of Orisun… But would you say the effort was not all lost and we would later find the Yoruba traveling theater and your 1960 Masks/Orisun experiments showing up… I mean, what about their antecedents in Yoruba festival theatre?
Yoruba festival, if you like, reflects the protean nature of Yoruba cultural manifestations. If you want to look at paintings for instance, if you want to look at richness of Yoruba sculptures, especially sacred sculptures, if you want to listen to the rhythm of Yoruba music, traditional rhythm, there is a kind of protean direction, a manifestation, which is perhaps why Yoruba culture has survived in the Diaspora far more and much more authentically. So, I don’t separate theatre from other artistic manifestations. All of them are related to one another. Yoruba is a very exceptional culture, whether we like it or not.

Well then, let’s examine the allegations that you took over a radio station, staged a government take over and in another situation related to the civil war, you were in fact incarcerated. Can you shed light on these allegations and your incarceration?
Well, the first thing I have to re-enact always is that I believe very much in Nigeria’s judicial order. And I was acquitted in court for allegedly taking over a radio station. And for me what it meant was that I never committed any criminal act. It is possible that the allegations were correct but I absolutely deny doing anything against the law, anything to warrant my being charged with armed robbery. Remember, that was the charge. I was charged with armed robbery. And I said I am not a robber, ‘I no be armed robber…’ to sort of quote Fela’s lyrics.

As for the civil war and my incarceration, I will again take the trouble to stress that I didn’t go there to make peace. I am not a pacifist. But I believe that that war was wrong and was very unjust to the Igbo people who had undergone the traumatising experience known as genocide. I use no other word for it. And when a people feel that they have been subjected to that level of decimation and they have been ejected from a larger entity, those people have a right to seek the salvation of their welfare in an enclave of their own. I don’t accept this business of what God has put together let no man put asunder in political terms. And then there is a personal aspect, I would ask myself, what about Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, Equinos, the others…Demas Nwoko they now belonged to a different entity? I didn’t like that aspect of it. I did not. And so since I felt the war would have been stupid if it had taken place, I took the action to try and contact our own family of artist, writers on the other side to see whether they were in a position to prevent the, for me, avoidable. And of course I met Ojukwu, and I became involved in The Third Force as we called it, which was meant to neutralise both belligerents and hence my incarceration…
Ojewuyi is Professor and Chair, Department of Theatre, Southern Illinois University, USA.

After that experience, that long incarceration during which you continued to be creatively productive as a writer, you were released and you went straight back to your work.
And this was now in the early 70s…
Seventies, yes, I came out in 69, and, I resumed my position almost immediately the work with Orisun was picked up again.

But then you had to shut it down in Ibadan and move on to Ile Ife…
Now when I took over in Ife, I then brought, created a new company, which was the laboratory for teaching in Ife, but the spirit, the orientation was towards Ori-Olokun. Ife already had, remember Ori-Olokun, so I was able to, I worked with some of them, and we recruited new hands you know, and, of course there were one or two old hands like Jimi Solanke who ended up in Ife. The Ori-Olokun was under Ola Rotimi and under African studies department, and they operated largely in town.

You did all this with the Unife Theatre, your new company…yes?
The Uni-Ife theatre company, correct.
The late 50s and 60s saw the birth of plays like The Swamp Dwellers, Lion and the Jewel, A Dance of the Forest and peaking with Death and the King’s Horseman. Then came the very late 70s into the 80s and you became more combative, more stringent with plays like Opera Wonyosi, A Play of Giants, Requiem for a Futurologist. What had changed or what was changing? What were you responding to?

My response to this is that all these plays had been gestating in my mind, cohabiting the same creative space. And one might emerge before the other. See this kind of, if you like; mood transition on a structured basis is not true of most artists that I know. Take for instance Death and the King’s horseman; the inspiration, the impulse did not reach a certain level where it had to come out, not until at least fifteen years after I came into that story, more than that in fact. Duro Ladipo and I heard it from Beier around the same time. You know, at Mbari, we discussed things and so on. But Duro did such a beautiful job, it’s a marvelous classic, you know, and I didn’t really feel compelled in that direction. Now, A play of Giants; I just wanted to do a thing like that about Africa’s monsters. From time-to-time I would look at people like Mobutu Sese Seko and wonder. And already these scenes were forming in one’s mind and until one day… that’s the way it happens. And Futurologist was of course more or less spontaneous, but then how spontaneous is it? Futurologist is just a continuation of the Trials of Brother Jero. You know superstition, exploitation, religious hypocrisy, the whole lot. They are constantly with us. And even the more introspective plays you know, they didn’t just start when they eventually emerged. So this kind of time schemer, you know, which is very much beloved of critics and so on, is very much often far from the truth.

Your… our beloved country suddenly in the 70s was swimming in money, a lot of money and we came up with FESTAC.
FESTAC was painful. FESTAC has come to denote for me the Nigerian talent for colossal waste for little returns. FESTAC had money. Oh my God, did FESTAC blow money? It was just unbelievable and of course it was a disaster. I got disgusted and walked out completely, you know. Obasanjo later called Francesca Emmanuel; who was the only artist he knew in the civil service and said, could you organise something to recover a little bit of dignity. So, Francesca said Wole Soyinka. He said Wole Soyinka? He won’t come. No, he will refuse. So Francesca said leave it to me. To cut a long story short, I did go back and the air force planes were put at our disposal to bring performance from different corners of the world. I said I wanted the entire FESTAC Village to be swimming in palm wine, in ‘suya’, in food of all sorts. I wanted these people, anywhere they turned they could eat, they could drink because at this stage, you had only one more chance to retrieve the reputation, just one more chance and this had to be it, so improve the performances, slaughter goats, cows, chickens and so on. So, they are coming from a show, they are meeting food and drink and everything came alive. We also tried to assist Obasanjo politically. Anyway, I think we managed to remove some of the ugly taste, which had lasted within that period.

A lot of theatre has happened between then and now. We had the flourish of the cultural centres, then the growth of university theatres and then the wave of independent efforts. These would all come to a halt in the mid-90s, where people began to say Nigerian Theatre was dead. My quick response was always that theatre never dies and Nigerian Theatre could be described as being in hibernation. What are your views on the state of theatre now?

Well, it’s positive, you know, development. At intervals, there will be bursts of fierce independence and moments of regrouping. They are all in the same continuum. The word you used was very correct. Theatre was merely hibernating, awaiting the opportunity, a little bit of moisture to grow and flourish in all kinds of directions. So theatre is always very much alive. Theatre is part of the magma of existence, you know, the creative intelligence, which belongs in every community. And you can, you can express that physically, this is what I think theatre is very good at. So theatre will take place in the most unusual, unexpected spaces and then let governments catch up with structures since we waited so long and the structures didn’t happen and neither you nor I have one kobo to put up one structure so we better convert what exist into performance spaces.
We saw in the production of Beatification of the Area Boys, how you worked creatively and in a nurturing manner, with young actors and actresses infused with some older members of the Orisun group – Peter Badejo and Tunji Oyelana. The Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange Project, which emerged from Preemptive/Seven: African lives that I started in 2010 with Zmirage, now features an annual essay competition for children. What is motivating this fresh push with children and young people?

Well, first of all I have always been interested in children. That doesn’t make me a good father, I have several of them, but I just believe in growth, let’s just put it that way. I now have the opportunity to induct youths into the creative process and then to engage them especially in this country where generations have failed and I have said again and again, either failed on their own or been wasted by other people. So, it’s a kind of consolation to me to see potential being developed.
Thank you very much for your generous time and open conversation.
You are most welcome.
Segun Ojewuyi is Professor and Chair, Department of Theater, Southern Illinois University, USA.

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