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Peter Badejo: A brief legacy of Nigerian theatre in 70 years!


Peter Adegboyega Badejo

Tomorrow, Monday, December 11, culture producers will gather to celebrate their own, Peter Adegboyega Badejo, OBE, in what is tagged ‘Platinum Jubilee Honour for a Living Legend and Dance Ambassador. Leading the celebration train will be Prof. Wole Soyinka, with Makinde Adeniran and Dayo Liadi as hosts and Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi as chairman. In this excerpt from a forthcoming documentary on Nigerian Theatre, showcasing Wole Soyinka, Fracesca Emmanuel, Bayo Oduneye, Duro Oni, Jimi Solanke, Bolanle Austen-Peters and others, SEGUN OJEWUYI spares with the dance and theatre icon

When did you first come to know anything called Theatre?
I come from a tradition of performers in the sense that my father was a musician. I never saw that as theatre, but when I went to school – I went to a Catholic primary school, and the Reverend Fathers introduced theatre to us. I remember the first part I had in a play, was ‘Patrick the Wanderer’ and it was a drunkard’s part. I had to sing a song. I loved it so much. I was so proud of being a drunkard at the age six… So that was my first real encounter with live performance and being a performer. That was 1950 or ’49.

A six-year old drunk in a Catholic school?!
Yes, If you look at the Catholic masses, the Catholic rituals I call it, it’s the closest thing in terms of a foreign religion blended with the traditional religion of our people and their practices. The Catholic extracted things from our tradition and kind of inserted them into their religion and worship. If you look at it up till today, you go to a Catholic Church and you hear them playing the same drums that were exempted from the people’s religion in those days. They now say they are playing for God. The dundun, the bata, the agogo, they are all in the church now. So there is a correlation between the traditional religions and form of worship with Catholicism. It was therefore easier for them to introduce what we call western performing arts, you know, to the people and allowing our traditional performance elements and styles to flourish under colonialism, not out of love but because they wanted to bring Jesus closer to the people – so to say. The Church brought theatrical performances into the schools, using a fusion of our traditional performance elements with their mission stories to teach children, to be able to kind of bring them closer to God. So that was one of my first exposures to the theater.

In addition, traditionally, my house was full of artists. My father being a musician then and my mother being a royal craft woman, made royal beaded crowns and beaded shoes. It’s amazing to now understand the movement, the kind of theatre that came out of a house of that nature. The father goes drumming all over the place drumming and also playing his guitar. Mummy is at home sewing these delicate canvas shoes and beaded crowns. I remember in those days, I used to take some of those crowns, put them on my head and play Oba (king). I didn’t even know, then that we were from the royal family, but I was playing an Oba with my mum and calling my mum the wife of the Oba. So, it was a home of theatre.

So those were your beginnings…a blend of home grown traditional and school bred formal introduction…
Well, I also did a lot of, a lot of on-the-street masquerading, which was a bit difficult because my father didn’t want me to participate in those masquerade activities. But I used to steal out. I remember doing the Muslim masquerades too, they call it ‘Tashae’ in the North, which is like the ‘Ajiwere’ in Yoruba land. I being a Christian, it didn’t bother me. I used to kind of bear the mask for them and dance around in the evening and in the morning when they wake people up for their meals. And, so that’s another form of theatre that I came across. And during Christmas I used to do the Christmas masquerade. So we used to do a lot of that. And when I got to the secondary school in a town where I didn’t even belong – Inisha – I used to go and participate in the Tombolo masquerade. I remember one day they gave me a serious beating because I wasn’t part of the community. Tombolos are the young masquerades who performed the acrobatic displays and things in front of the big masquerades. They are part of larger festivals. In Yoruba communities, almost every community in Yoruba land has its own masquerade festival period and people come from villages or something to attend and participate in this very much anticipated communal gatherings. It was also where people got married and things, you know. And yes and these were cleansing festivals too for the people. So these were different forms of theatre that I got involved with before I then found the formal theatre approach at the University of Ife.

I thought I was going to be a mechanical engineer. After spells in the North and in Osogbo. In Osogbo I met with the traveling theatres – I used to steal in to see their shows. I became very close to yoruba Theater and their actors, dancers etc. I became very close with the Duro Ladipo theatre, the Kola Ogunmola theatre, you know, and the Oyin Adejobi theatre. Thorugh these I met with people like Gbenga Ajayi, and Kola Oyewo. I used to play around with them. Then one day I heard and went to the department of African studies of the then University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, to be part of the experimental workshop – the Ori-Olokun. There I met them again as co-participants and colleagues. Ori-Olokun became my first introduction to professional training in theatre practice.

What happened there?
The University of Ife, the African studies, was a research centre then. They had employed researchers, young Nigerians who had come back from their studies abroad. These were scholars like Professor Ola Rotimi who – theatre, Samuel Akpabot – music, Akin Euba – also in music, Professor of music. They also had Peggy Harper Professor of dance and some others like Professor Nwangboje – a visual artist. So they had these researchers conducting their research into different aspects of arts and culture. They wanted to use their practical experiences to enhance their research. And so they employed, they decided to audition for artists from all over the place. One, to partly train them and also to be able to utilize the experiences that these artist have in their own research. So I think in 1967 they advertised and in 1968 they recruited about twenty or twenty-five artists. It started as a one-week workshop. It was a rigorous training that started from six in the morning to about twelve at night. And it was an intensive work for that week and the experience that came out of it really got the University to build the workshop into what became the Ori-Olokun experience.

What, by the way, was the content of the six days workshop?
Performance forms. I mean for example it would start in the morning with physical work and dance with Peggy (Harper) and with musicians and then as the day went by at about ten we started the visual art work – sculpting, paint – just visual art from ten and then we went on break at about twelve or one p.m., only to come back for another dance event in the evening. Then we closed with drama and theatre in the night, with Ola Rotimi and others. So it was very, very intensive; very, very intensive. And that was what went on for a whole week. In addition, they started a little bit of theory of what was going on, explanation of what was going on here and there. After the one week they continued and turned it into three months of activities, of continuous exploratory performance work with these different researchers. This then dovetailed into the first Ife Festival of Arts which became very, very big.

We were just seven years into our independence in 1967. The Institute of African studies in Ibadan had just midwifed the University of Ibadan School of Drama. So then how did these young researchers in Ife fare?
Yes, that’s correct. What the researchers wanted to do, to present, were in direct conflict with the developed taste and forms of our people. It was the first time that Nigerians began to study the arts and culture of the people beyond the ordinary. I remember the first few performances these scholar-artistes presented were based on their training and experiences in the West. Akin Euba was doing something like Oluronbi Cantata, Sam Akpabot was doing some very British stuff, you know, just performances that reflected their experiences from Europe. These didn’t generally go down well with the community and I think they were advised or they were questioned by people who said something like ‘you are in Nigeria, you are back with these big degrees and things, but what is your own reflection of Nigerian culture?” To their credit, they took the note seriously and suddenly things changed from then, things changed. Even if the colonisers didn’t want us to be ourselves, when these researchers finally discovered themselves, they were so interesting that even their ethnicities began to be reflected in their performances.

Akin Euba for example searched his background and began a serious work on the dundun talking drum which led to one of his best, I think, performances so far, which is the exploration of the poem and the writing of late Wale Ogunyemi’s Obaluaye. Ola Rotimi in his case for example took Oedipus Rex by Sophocles and gave it a thoroughly Yoruba adaptation in his celebrated play The Gods are Not to Blame. It became something very, very understandable for our people. He used, for example the cities around Ife, the junction at Ede, Osogbo and others. It was so graphic and organic that people didn’t even know whether it was an adaption or not. Sam Akpabot too did something from his own culture. And all that was inspiring for us the young artists who were working with them, to be able to explore our own rather than look outward.

Actually the first few weeks and the three months was like an audition, after that they auditioned us and said well, you are going to be retained by African studies as artist to develop from. Ori-Olokun was formed about a year after that, when we did the first festival and it became very popular and performances from Ife went to different towns. We even went as far as Ghana and Sierra Leone. I remember Late Professor Michael Crowther was the one who initiated the first Ife festival and it became an annual festival. We went to Senegal as part of an exchange and the Senegalese dance company came to Ori-Olokun for one of the festivals. So it became an international festival. Unfortunately, I mean, things die their natural way in Nigeria and it didn’t continue.

What year was the festival?
I think it started in 1969, if I can remember, 1969 and I think it went for three years and it was aborted.

So what then followed?
Well, after the training, stability started setting in and people began to choose their different fields. We were all trained as sculptors, painters, dancers, actors, as much as you could take. But soon after, people began to narrow in and choose their specialisation. I love dance. I have loved dancing right from the beginning of my life and I now saw dance as a very sneaky medium of expression, in that you could tell people off even without really naming names, which means you don’t have to be verbal but yet you can carry the message across. So I decided I was going to be a dancer, even though at that period dancing wasn’t making that much money. People were making money from their visual art and things, and people were being recognised from their theatre work but I zeroed in on dance, I love dancing and I knew it was going to be my career. We all still worked as a unit, the sculptor, the painter all worked on set. These scholars first introduced us to this new world of theatre. I call it the new world of theatre whereby you have the audience not really as integrated as it was and still is in the traditional setting, where an onlooker can just join the performance. They – our European trained scholar-artistes, introduced us to a kind of theatre that integrated our two worlds and skills. The music director Akin Euba worked with the drama director and the choreographer. By the time of the performance, we had total theatre rather than the compartmentalised form of theatre of the Western world. So you are a dancer, an actor, a musician, a drummer, a storyteller – all folded in one. This really shaped the lives of some of us as actors, as artists.

These artists, like yourself, where did they come from. What were they doing before Ori-Olokun?
Oh most of us came from traditional pools. We were from families and traditional guilds of artists who had honed our skills and artistry with our people. The researchers tapped heavily from us. For example the language, some of the Hausa things you hear in The Gods are not to Blame were my own insertion because I had lived in the North. And the way the blind people behaved, for example, in terms of acting style and things, they didn’t have to teach us that. So they learnt from us as much as we learnt from them. And I think the total theatre form which wasn’t in their own background, was kind of picked up from working with the artist at Ori-Olokun.

Western Adventures
Now I think by 1970 I was beginning to get bored in Ife. They were paying us well, some good stipend, I remember my salary was about three pounds a month or something like that. But what really bored me was that we were not moving and I wanted to explore. The opportunity came when we were invited to a festival in France and I was the principal dancer. There were seventy-two countries participating in the festival and we were awarded the first prize. From there we had to come back to Paris to perform for the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of State. I think it was 1969 or 70. And I remember that was the first time I was opportune to be close to Professor Soyinka, because he came, for some reason, he wasn’t a head of state but he was at that gathering and I remember him congratulating me that that was a good performance. Anyway, after that I was given a scholarship to go and study at the London School of dance, the Palace Theatre in London.

So, I didn’t come back with the group. They all came home and I went straight to England. Unfortunately I didn’t like it much because it was a school of ballet and it was just not the form of dance I was used to. It was a bit too feminine for me, the expression was not the same. I spent six months there and I had to come back to Ife for the Ife festival of arts. I was recalled. So I thought no, this is the time for me to move. After the festival I went to Ghana to study for my certificate course and when I came back, Zaria was starting their own Centre for Nigerian Cultural studies. And, so we were the first staffs that were recruited – myself, Dexter Lynderson a technical director from Ibadan. Professor Duro Oni had just finished his diploma from Ibadan and he joined us. Yes Professor Crowther had gone to Zaria and had started the Centre for Nigerian Cultural Studies and it was similar to African studies Ife. It was a research centre and they wanted to start a performing arts organisation, so they recruited some of us. Fortunately for me I grew up in the North. I speak the language fluently and I was familiar with the culture and so also Duro Oni had also come from Minna.

We possessed some good Hausa background and so the plays, the language was no big deal for us, we were able to fit in comfortably. I had come back from Ghana, and I had began to use the title Choreographer in my repertoire, in my own CV. Before I left Ife I remember late Peggy Harper used to be the choreographer and she wouldn’t want me or some of us to attempt works ourselves, always saying to us ‘Oh get better trained, get better trained’ I remember at some point she travelled on leave, so I decided I was going to do a show myself and I remember the show was called Opa Oye. That was my first dance piece that I choreographed. It was with the help of people like Rufus Oritshayomi, Ademola Williams, Gbade Akintunde and others. We came up with a good show and we didn’t have money to buy costume, to do anything because we didn’t have a penny. I remember going to Professor Abiola Irele and he funded it with twenty pounds. We bought costumes, we bought props, we bought everything and we ran the show for a week at Ori-Olokun.

To our surprise we made eighty pounds in profit. I couldn’t believe it, we took it to Professor Irele and he said well that’s your start, go ahead, use it the way you want. So with that, that kind of gave me confidence. By the time I went to Zaria, I was now filling the gap of a choreographer with Dexter now being the director of the whole centre.

That was what developed and bred the department of Dramatic arts in Ahmadu Bello University today. Just like in Ife, the Ori-Olokun had bred the Ife theatre and the department of Dramatic arts. The same thing happened incame to Lagos too, where the Centre for Cultural studies in Lagos bred the department of Creative arts today.The interesting thing is that all these started and came from the African studies, University of Ibadan. So you can see its one big family and still growing!
* Interview by Segun Ojewuyi – Professor of Theatre, Southern Illinois University Carbondale and Convener, The Red Carpet Speaker Series, University of Ibadan

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