Sam Ukala, the folklorist as dramatist, @ 70
Nigerian literature remains a significant site in contesting and negotiating what constitutes the Nigerian experience. An experience that has been so complex and baffling, it aptly reflects the many painful twists and turns inherent in the few triumphs and many travails of national evolution. This experience continues to feed the mill of our artistic imagination and engender critical engagements. The harvest has also been bountiful in all the genres; prose. drama and poetry. This remarkable productivity in quantity and quality has made Nigeria one of the most productive spaces for literature in the contemporary world.. The sheer number of verse, narratives and plays that are given life by Nigerian writers, their thematic aptness and artistic finesse, their capacity to reflect both local and global trends and sensibilities foreground the literature as striking a delicate balance between commitment and aesthetics. One must add that this favourable perception of Nigerian literature may sound patronizingly romantic and unacceptable to some critics and even writers, especially of the older generation who delight in sneering at the work of younger writers. Such is the capacity for self-negation which characterizes the temperament of some writers and critics in their engagement with Nigerian literature. This is not arguing that there are no poorly written works. They abound, however there is a great deal of poetry, prose and drama by Nigerians that can be classified for their distinctiveness. Yes, the literature has evolved, taken a unique character of its own and providing what passes for a literary beacon for Africa and the black Diaspora. What is more? There is no doubting that Nigerian literature has attained the status of a national literature.
If there is any national literature which approximates its nation’s history, Nigerian literature should be it as it provides an alternative historiography which does not just map the trajectory of nationhood, but initiates an apt critical dialogue which is aimed at collective national retrieval. This is so because Nigerian literature has never had the luxury of supple romanticism. The writers, from inception till date, took their role as tribunes seriously and used their works to flay the socio-economic and political malaise that has become endemic in Nigeria.
Nigerian literature dazzles in all the genres. However, it is in prose and poetry that an overwhelming number of works can be located. The domain of drama has not been as heavily thronged as those of poetry and drama. Nevertheless, this is not to submit that the harvest of drama has been lean. In fact, drama came alive from inception as James Ene Henshaw’s This is Our Chance (1954), predates Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) in publication. The phenomenal achievement of Wole Soyinka and J. P. Clark in drama, entrenched by Ola Rotimi, Zulu Sofola, Bode Sowande, Femi Osofisan, Tunde Fatunde, Sam Ukala, Olu Obafemi, Tess Onwueme, Bode Osanyin, Stella Oyedepo, Hope Eghagha, Eni Jologho-Umuko, Ahmed Yerimah, Greg Mbajiorgu, Chinyere Okafor, Chris Anyokwu, Chukwuma Anyanwu, Alex Roy-Omoni, Peter Omoko, Stephen Kekeghe vivify the Nigerian stage with dramatic enactments of the nation’s evolutionary contradictions. Despite not matching the other genres numerically, it is in Nigerian drama that the Nigerian experience is given a most refreshing telling expression. The dramatists, ever conscious of the rich indigenous dramatic elements have been quite faithful in deploying them in their dramaturgy to give the plays a unique and enchanting aesthetic pleasure. Since drama is imbued with a sense of immediacy, it is also in Nigerian drama that the Nigerian experience which constitutes the Nigerian narrative comes alive more pungently. The many indices of nationhood, state formation, political imperatives, socio-economic woes and their attendant national anxieties peculiar to Nigeria and to some extent Africa are given expression in print and on stage where both foreign ideologies and indigenous folkloric elements interface.
Samuel Chinedu Ukala, professor of theatre arts, playwright, theatre director, actor, poet, short story writer, theorist, folklorist and university administrator who turns seventy, the coveted threescore and ten, on 18th April, 2018, has been part of the foregoing literary and critical ferment. Best known as a dramatist, Ukala burst on to the Nigerian stage as a university undergraduate with his 1976 play titled Whiteness is Barren which he directed and acted in. Ukala was educated at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he took a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1977 and at the University of Ibadan where he obtained Master’s and doctoral degrees in Theatre Arts. Nsukka and Ibadan were significant in the making of Ukala as a writer. He met the artistic recrudescence at Nsukka after the civil war and ended up becoming one of its exponents. His years at Ibadan were to complement the dramatic insemination at Nsukka. Ibadan brought Ukala in contact with Professors Joel Adedeji, Dapo Adelugba, Isidore Okpewho, Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan and others who made the University of Ibadan artistic and academic milieu to bubble over at that time.
However, before delving into Ukala’s calling as a writer, it is expedient to give a hint of some other paths, far removed from that trod by a creative writer, which Ukala once walked. Apart from being a primary school teacher for two years, Ukala was also a produce buyer for three years before going to the university. After his first degree, he was a management trainee and assistant personnel manager with Lever Brothers Nigeria Limited in Lagos for three years. He also sojourned in the glittering world of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) for another two years! In all of these, Agwu (see Achebe’s Anthills…) was patiently watching Ukala until, seeing that he was inching too far away, he touched his tongue with the brew of creativity and ringed his eyes with the white chalk of prophecy! Agwu pulled Ukala from NNPC’s walls of complacent oil bureaucracy and tossed him into the knowledge strewn and artistic ambience of the University of Ibadan. It was in the cloister of Ibadan that Ukala’s calling as a writer began to take shape and got imbued with a clear vision.
Ukala’s trove of plays is an exciting and enchanting repertoire which limns the primeval and explicates the modern in its interrogation of contemporary Nigerian reality. His dramatic sensibility is firmly moored in indigenous theatrical traditions as well as foreign models. It is in Ukala’s plays that the storyteller (narrator) draws an innocent audience into a rite it didn’t bargain for. It is also in his plays that one hears the echoes of Bertolt Brecht in collaboration with Ukala’s storytelling ancestors thus privileging the communal essence of drama.
To evaluate and locate Ukala’s plays correctly, one must of necessity be acquainted with his theoretical construct known as “folkism”. In giving a defining character to “folkism”, Ukala says it is “the tendency to base literary plays on the history, culture, and concerns of the folk…and to compose and perform them in accordance with African conventions for composing and performing the folktale”. Some of the plays by earlier Nigerian dramatists such as Soyinka, Rotimi and Osofisan appropriate some of the touchstones in folkism, but they did not reflect its full manifestation. However, Ukala’s plays have again and again demonstrated their fidelity to the poetics of the African folktale medium. What is engendered by the experimentation with folkism is what Ukala calls folkscript. A reading of the plays of Sam Ukala often approximates a story telling session and leaves the reader with a therapeutic feeling of having just participated in one.
His published plays The Slave Wife (1982), The Log in Your Eye (1986), Akpakaland (1990), The Trials of Obiamaka Elema (1992), Break a Boil (1992), Two Plays: The Placenta of Death and The Last Heroes (1997), Akpakaland and Other Plays (2004) and Iredi War (2014) demonstrate a keen awareness of the historical tendencies they dramatize. Whether the encounter with the plays is on the stage or in cold print, they elicit the same empathy with Ukala’s profound sense of humanity. His recourse to folklore which he theoretically codified as folkism remains the binding cord which knits the plays into one aesthetic continuum with the Nigerian experience. It is to Ukala’s artistic credit that he is able to delicately negotiate contemporary experience through the folktale medium despite its being primordial.
Three of the plays are central to the thematic and technical configuration of his dramatic oeuvre. The plays are The Slave Wife (1982), Akpakaland (1990) and Iredi War (2014). It is instructive to observe that the time of publication of the three plays in a way indicate their strategic import. While The Slave Wife can be said to formally launch his career as a playwright, Akpakaland occupies an approximately median position which logically signposts his maturity as a playwright even though The Slave Wife is by all standard is a tour de force. The Slave Wife uses the folktale motif to dramatize the questions of identity, hegemony, and subversion. A simple play on the surface, it makes a permanent statement on the power struggle and tension that now exists in many African states including Nigeria. The play speaks to ethnic jingoism and supremacists tendencies inherent in the power dynamics in contemporary societies. The questions of injustice, oppression, exploitation which are central to all of Ukala’s plays are given significant focus here. Akpakaland unrelentingly pursues the concerns of The Save Wife using similar tropes and techniques. But in Akpakaland, the stakes are higher to reflect an urgent need for engagement with the contemporary ogre of abuse of power. Akpakaland passes for any African country of the 1980s and 1990s. Faced with many socio-economic and political crises which threaten the state, Akpaka the depraved ruler gets manipulated by his wife Fulama, his authority gets undermined and the play’s resolution envisions a revolution. On stage in this drama of contemporary African political intrigues are looming spectre of misrule, corruption, injustice, exploitation, class conflict and the struggle for power and resources. Remarkable in this play is the definitive role played by women who are not only visible but given authoritative voices in the court of power.
If The Slave Wife and Akpakaland are suffused with the folktale motif through which they are mediated, Ukala’s most recent play, Iredi War, a historical play, is less indebted to the tradition. Not in Iredi War does one encounter the fable motif as in the other two plays, although the playwright still deploys aspects of orality in it. Deeply ensconced in history, Iredi War revisits the narrative of the colonial encounter and its consequences in a way that is both magical and enlightening. What Ukala did in Iredi War finds similarity in Ola Rotimi’s Ovonranwen Nogbaisi. In revisiting the history of colonial conquest, Ukala has succeeded in expanding the literature of colonialism beyond what was generally known to the public. Iredi War’s depiction of the colonial conflict again brings to the fore the politics of culture conflicts and the disaster which often attends the subjugation of one culture by another. The play dramatizes African resistance in a way which foregrounds a well organized society that is not only rational, but with a philosophy of life. The African characters in the play are presented to be humane and considerate in their dealings which the British colonizers took for granted. The ensuing military clash is devastating for both parties, but in the end the resistance is subdued and imperialism comes to stay.
The general impression in almost every discourse woven around the writings of Ukala is that he is a playwright only. This assumption is erroneous as Ukala has had a good outing as a short story writer and poet. His short stories have been put together as Skeletons: A Collection of Short Stories (2000) while his poetry come under the title In My Hermitage (2000). The short stories are told in the frame of social realism with occasional incursions into magical realism. However, a great deal of experimentation abounds in them. His prowess as a dramatist is evident in the stories many of which are infused with fragmentary scenes which confer a cinematographic essence on them. The stories also evince didactic features infused with humour. His poetry, In My Hermitage, adumbrates the solitary character of the poet who functions not just as a seer, but as the conscience of society. The poems one after the other explore the varied vistas of humanity with some degree of distancing from the political muscle flexing in the plays. However, it is apt to conclude that the short stories and poems reinforce the tone of the plays which is to evolve a more humane and just society.
Much of Ukala’s plays appeared in the 1980s, the period when Nigerian literature not only provided an alternative view to official historiography, but took the imprimatur of the Marxist ideology reflecting the writer’s solidarity with the people. Although, Ukala inhabited the same Ibadan space with the arch-chanters of the Marxist credo like Osundare and Osofisan, and later shared a contiguous location with two other Marxist avatars in Festus Iyayi and Tunde Fatunde around Benin and Ekpoma, he delicately, and may be deliberately, avoided patronizing the Marxist lingo used to depict the tango between the oppressor and the oppressed. Yet, Ukala’s works throb with pro-people sentiments, a sense of fairness, quest for justice and a rejection of exploitation and oppression. His plays castigate misrule and lacerate despots calling for the subversion of their ill-appropriated power.
Ukala’s many submissions on the place of folklore in drama which he branded “folkism” as earlier stated has earned him a hallowed slot as a theorist of African poetics. He has also distinguished himself as a highly inventive theatre director and actor with nearly fifty years on stage from his native Mbiri to Abraka.
The internationalization of Ukala’s dramatic virtuosity began in 1993 when he clinched the prestigious Commonwealth Fellowship at the English Workshop Theatre of the University of Leeds where he was for a year. He has after that been involved in teaching and directing theatre in Manchester, Coventry, Lancanshire, Ireland, Holland among other places. Back home he has received prestigious literary awards ranging from the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA)/British Council Prize for drama in 1989, the 2000 ANA prize for prose as well as the first runner up for poetry. His most recent prize was the 2014 Nigeria Prize for Literature which he won with Iredi War.
As a teacher, Ukala bestrode classrooms at the Bendel State University now Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma and at the Delta State University, Abraka for many years. His foreign engagements have also enabled him to teach in Europe and other places. Ukala also ventured into film thus giving his career a multiplicity of callings; teacher, folklorist, playwright, actor, director, poet, short story writer, film maker, etc. The ambidextrous Ukala had his years as Dean of Faculty and Provost of a Campus at the Delta State University, Abraka. As he turns seventy, officialdom demands that he steps down from active teaching, but his mind and hands shall remain busy and the theatre stage in universities across the globe will remain restless with his many plays.