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Nigerian theatre practice yearns for home-grown Innovation, says Mbajiorgu

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Greg Mbajiorgu


GREG MBAJIORGU (a.k.a Wota Na Wota) is an exponent of solo/ecological theatre and the first African to publish a monodrama. He is also the first to launch a seminal drama on climate change. His eco-drama Wake Up Everyone, won the first prize for Arts and Humanities Research at the 2012 Inter-universities Research and Development competition organised by the National Universities Commission (NUC). From 1991 to 2000 during his self-sponsored historic national tour with his one-man show (The Prime Minister’s Son), Mbajiorgu recorded over 600 successful performances in universities, secondary schools, Army Barracks, cultural centres and many other educational institutions across Nigeria and beyond. Mbajiorgu, a senior lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Film Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, spoke to OMIKO AWA on matters relating to theatre and how it can be engaged to address socio-cultural and political challenges confronting Nigeria.

What is the role of drama in this season of crises and acrimony in the country?
It is for the same role that professional dramatists are trained for which our leaders hardly recognise and encourage. Conflict and conflict resolution is precisely what drama is all about. Dramatic art explores narratives that centre on the consequences of conflict. Through the drama medium, which has the advantage of using the provision of vicarious experience to deliver an empathetic understanding and knowledge of the human condition, and the reason humans act the way they do, we find ourselves placed in a better mindset to re-examine our decisions and actions. Empathy on its own has a way of instilling a deep felt awareness of where we had gone wrong in the past.

More than any other organ of mass education and public enlightenment, such as the print and the electronic media, drama is the most single and effective medium for theatricalising human problems, experiences and situations. As an illusion, it cuts across different fronts of audience mix and at a level of bi and multi-lingualism, functioning both within and beyond language in spatial and emotional terms.

Theatre’s technique of illusion distances an experience or problem, while at the same time making them proximate in such a way that the theatre audience becomes part of the process in the construction and production of meaning. My water conflict resolution drama Wota Na Wota (2003) and my experimental climate change drama (Wake Up Everyone: 2011) are among the few practical examples of how we can use drama and theatre to address serious national issues that threaten both our world and our existence.

The problem is that our national and local leaders do not seem to realise that theatre artists have proven practical expertise in matters relating to conflict resolution and management. It is this kind of functional and problem-solving theatre that Augusto Boal referred to as “Dialogic-Interactive-Theatre, the kind of theatre that compels us to ‘observe ourselves’ and through such conscious self observation, we discover what is not and imagine what we could become.” Having gained the mind-set for behavioral change, we make things easier for those in authority and leadership because, it will then require just a little effort from our leaders to accomplish that same task, which they had earlier considered impossible.

So, what steps must government take to calm the nerves of people injured and those still boiling in anger?
First of all, the President himself should visit the communities in Benue State that are affected and ensured that peace and order is restored. Then, the culprits must be brought to book. And to instill the correct mindset for behavioral change in the nation, government can only accomplish this by commissioning selected dramatists and musicians from the different regions to interact and engage community leader, stakeholders and victims, on the issue at stake, and through such first-hand interaction, they would research into the informational areas and issues and develop fact-driven plays that will not only be staged, published and read at all levels of our educational institutions, but will equally be adapted into movies and aired at prime times on all our national and local television stations.

Why are there few international prizes for drama as opposed to what obtains in fiction and prose?
It is because most people tend to forget that drama is a legitimate genre of literature in its own right and in every sense of the word. They tend to feel that drama is only a blue print for stage productions. Some also relate it to literature from the point of view of volume. The bigger the size, the more likely it will appeal to this class of readers. But they forget that drama is a hand grenade, so small in size, yet so mighty, powerful and persuasive in every sense of the word. It is a potent weapon of advocacy. Only an ignorant dramatist would compete with a novelist on the bases of length and volume.

Why are there few epic plays in our theatres today? Does it mean there are no writers?
Epic plays are very costly to produce. Period costumes are expensive to procure, while the historical set pieces do not come easy. Also, props are not easy to come by.

In a recent paper article, you doubted the credibility of the outcome of most literary awards organised in the country. What made you hold such opinion, especially when you are also a recipient of awards from different organizations in the country?
I have never accepted any award that is characterised or riddled with controversy. A few of the national and international awards that I have criticised did not attract criticism from me alone. The problem is that majority of us are usually afraid to speak out in spite of the level of injustice we go through. Most Nigerians prefer to stay silent; nobody wants to get into trouble or on the hot spot for speaking out, as Fela Anikulakpo Kuti rightly put it, ‘we like suffering and smiling,’ no one wants to be the scape-goat. This behaviour encourages our leaders to continue to toy with us irrespective of how we feel.

What is the impact of your over 25 years of solo theatrical experiment in Nigeria and beyond?
This question should come up in two months time when the Golden Jubilee Seminal Text on solo performing art in Modern Nigeria: 1966-2016 would be out from the press. The book will be unveiled in a press conference in Lagos. It will certainly speak for me and for all the other solo artists in Nigeria.

Do you think our filmmakers are truly telling the African story, presenting issues the way they are with their content development?
For as long as these Movie producers are out to make quick gains, they cannot tell the African story correctly. Government must step in. Only government-sponsored films can withstand the financial cost of such state-of-the-arts movie productions that can project our national image and present things the way they truly are.

Looking back at the stage and the screen, would you say that there is a bright future for the stage, especially as it is most often threatened by crisis in the country?
We can’t continue to practice theatre the way we did in the 70s and 80s and expect better result in today’s competitive world. Our educational theatre establishment and even our traveling theatre companies that still exist have no choice, but to learn to do things differently. To write plays in this 21st century that is competitive and economically disheartening, one must tow the part of Minimalism or reductionism both in the size of cast, crew and in every other aspect. What Nigerian theatre is in dire need of, today, is neologism; this is the time to prove who we truly are as African theatre artist? We cannot continue to imitate the trend in the western world with our drowning economy. What Nigerian theatre urgently yearns for as of now is nothing, but a home grown innovation and until Nigerian theatre directors, actors and playwrights begin to demonstrate their power and might as creative artists capable of doing things in a totally new way, the theatre industry will not make that desired progress we are praying for.

Why is it that new plays are most times, not presented at theatre festivals?
It is because the producers and the directors are looking for materials they are familiar with. That doesn’t mean that I have any problem with our known classical plays like the plays of Soyinka, Clark-Bekederemo, Osofisan, Rotimi, Yerima, Irobi or Sofola. Even the theatre festivals you are talking about will soon disappear. As long as the cultures of itinerant-traveling theatre practices are allowed to go extinct, live theatre productions will continue to dwindle in Nigeria. If we let traveling troupes die, we shall be destroying the cradle of professional theatre practice in Nigeria. The traveling theatre artists are the true professional theatre men and women. The last time I saw a travelling troupe in Nsukka was during the late Chinua Achebe’s 60th birthday. I think it was Duro Oladipo’s troupe that performed then. The question our cultural administrators should help to address is: “What can government do to help revive the culture of traveling performances in this Country?


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Greg Mbajiorgu
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