‘Theatre is a functional art to correct societal ills’
Paul Ugbede is a budding playwright who has been using his plays to tell the African story and interrogate social issues with a view to proffering solutions. His play, Patches the Musical, which is children living with cancer has been shortlisted for the African Playwriting Competition (APC) and would be performed in South Africa and other places if he wins. He tells OMIKO AWA, his reasons for writing plays and how writing plays have given expression.
How did you come into writing plays; was there any thing urging you to do this?
My journey into playwriting actually started in my 100 Level in the University of Jos. I had come to school to study theatre arts and mass communication and playwriting was the last thing on my mind. However, I had started to express myself in the art from when I was a kid growing up in Idah, Kogi State, where my elder brother, Isaac Simon, taught me to draw. I was drawing on the ground. Subsequently, I began to paint in books. I was drawing comic characters and stringing stories together too. Wale Adenuga Super Story comics and the Marvel comics influenced me to do this. I was creating local characters and telling local stories. I was making my comics on cut out cartons, but they were so good that even adults read them. With my elder brother and my late younger brother, Monday, we started a form of entertainment we called Kpombo-kpombo. We would create 2D characters with electric wires and use them to tell stories, while we narrated and spoke the lines of the characters. Anytime we were performing our kpombo-kpombo, it would always be like a big show, even with adults finding seats and watching with rapt attention. It was like the puppet theatre. At that age, I may say it was my first foray into the theatre, but I didn’t know. We had no one to encourage us; my father would throw all my characters away and tear up my comic books. My dad wanted me to be a medical doctor, so, when I gained admission to St. Charles College, Ankpa, years later; it was with my father’s wish at the back of my mind. I found myself in the science class, but that salient voice in me was struggling to be heard. I was no longer a kid drawing on cutout cartons, so, I chose another form of expression; writing. By my SS1, I had written my first Novel and while in SS3, I wrote my second Novel. Looking back now, I don’t think I can rarely call them full novels because I wrote them in exercise books, but because I don’t think they were up to even 20,000 words. But it created a kind of excitement among my friends and people come to my house to read them with dedication. I showed them to my vice principal, Mr. Francis Odiniya, and he said ‘why don’t you go to the Art Class?’ Down my heart, I wanted to. I realised I really was not enjoying the sciences, but I could not change classes because I was afraid people would call me a dullard.
You see back then, anybody in the sciences was regarded to be intelligent and anybody in the arts was taken for a dunce. It was a narrative I also helped push; I knew how much we laughed at our friends in the arts; so, I did not want to get the same treatment. I stuck to the sciences until after school. After Secondary School, I joined a Christian club called All Talented Christian Club in Ankpa, Kogi State. The club helped me discover the path I was to take in life. So by the time I wrote what was called the Senior JAMB by 2001, I had a clear direction of the path I wanted to take: I was going to study theatre arts in University of Jos and I was going to major in directing and maybe write a novel.
Playwriting was the last thing on my mind. One day, everything changed. In my Introduction to playwriting class, Mr. Lateef Rasheed gave us an assignment to write a full play and after reading what I wrote he advised I should continue writing plays. It was the booster my low esteem needed because I knew for sure if Lateef said you are good then you are good. So that was the beginning of my journey into playwriting. I am a product of total encouragement and support, especially from my friends and the Department of Theatre and Communication Art. I remembered when my entire class performed my play Our People Shall Die No More! Ernest Agoba, my lecturer, directed it. I think it still recorded the highest turn out till now. I also remembered writing one of my first comedies Trading Places inspired by my wonderful lecturer Irene Salami Agunloye for her Women in the Media class. Trading Places is my most performed play. It has been performed as the command performance for University of Jos Convocation. It has also won an award for the school. My mentor Victor Dugga was also instrumental to my growth in playwriting. In fact it was through him I had my first published play; A Letter from Jonathan Gullible (An Adaptation of Adventures of Jonathan Gullible), which I co-wrote with Adedayo Thomas (Director, National Film and Video Censors Board).
You recently won NI million in the Beeta Play Competition (BPC); have you collected the money and what was it like winning such amount from writing?
The competition was the first major competition I won. I think it marked the major turning point in my career. I moved to Lagos in 2014 or so, to find a space to grow my writing. You know how it is coming from a conservative background into this big Lagos space. Before the playwriting competition, my play Dialing Love had been accepted as one of the curated play for Lagos Theatre Festival 2016. So, when I saw the BPC entry form, I entered my play Our Son the Minister. I was just coming from my father’s burial when I got the text message that my play had been shortlisted and I must come for a workshop. I went for the workshop anchored by Ahmed Yerima, Keneth Uphopho and Wole Oguntokun. I met other shortlisted candidates too. I never imagined I would win, so, when they said we should come for the grand finale with our friends and relatives, I didn’t come with any one. When I heard my name as the winner, I didn’t believe it at first; it was like a dream. I, an Igala village boy, winning a national competition?
Winning the completion was for all dreamers like me too. Dreams come true, no matter your background. I was given the money, but the thrill was not in winning the money; in fact, N1 million may not do much in today’s economy, so, it was not about the money. It was the opportunity that came with it. I was not only given the money, my play was published! I am currently enjoying a great relationship with my publishers Paperworth Publishers and on January 1, 2019, my collection of short stories Piece and Pieces would be released online. Hard copies would be available as from March 1. Also, the play has enjoyed two running on national stage in one year alone! And currently, we are doing the Beeta Campus Outreach in which five selected universities will perform Our Son the Minister. Winner will go home with a prize, courtesy Union Bank! Winning the award has brought me more recognition as a Nigerian playwright. I have worked with some of the biggest names in theatre industry. So it has been an upward exciting journey for me and I am grateful.
What had you in mind when you wrote the August Meeting, a play on Aba Women riot?
August Meeting came by chance. Chioma Onyenwe wanted to do a play for the Lagos Theatre Festival and I was contacted. She wanted a story that would centre on popular Igbo August meeting and the Aba women protest. I had always been interested in the story of the riot. Long ago, Mrs Gbemi Sashore had introduced me to the major character of the riot, Nwanyewura. On A Platter Of Gold by Olasupo Sashore had almost a whole chapter dedicated to the riot, chronicling reports and statistics. So you see, I already knew the major characters, but the Igbo August Meeting did not start during the riot. It started way after, so, the onus on me was to create a story that would factor in a piece of history and a well-known sociocultural event. So, I created this scenario: the riot was just over and the women are returning home to the realities of their lives. They are returning home to another battle different from the one with the white man. This was the crux of the play.
Chioma and I went back and forth on it until we arrived at the final script. I think August Meeting will be more relevant even in years to come. The issues raised by the play are the issues faced by women not only in Eastern Nigeria, but also in different countries of the world. And the fact that we are seeing real life characters in this fictitious world makes it more interesting. Nobody knows what happened to the women after the riot, so, I think August Meeting has given us a peep into the life we assume they will go back to, their everyday patriarchal world. The battle of the Nigerian woman did not end with the Aba riot. It continues till date.
Your play, Patches the Musical, has just been shortlisted for the African playwrights and would be performed on different stages abroad.
How do you feel to be shortlisted? What does this portend for you and other young playwrights?
Patches the Musical holds a special place in my heart. First, it is my first children play. Second, the theme, pediatric cancer, concerns all of us. Before I started writing the play I had to go to the Oncology Ward in LUTH with Doctor Nwobi who runs the Children Living with Cancer Foundation and Babs, the Director. The emotional scar of that visit to see the children living with cancer is still in me. I think the play being shortlisted for the African Playwriting Competition (APC) tells us that the entire Africa is interested in the subject of children living with cancer. If the play wins, it will be performed in South Africa. But that is not on my mind right now. There will be the process of reworking on the script. I would be paired with a dramaturge from the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC and for three months I shall undergo an online mentoring. I look forward to it because I believe the experience will rub off on my playwriting, especially on how I write musicals. Being shortlisted also is a testament to the work we are doing in Nigeria as young playwrights. It is a win for young playwrights in Nigeria. It shows nothing can limit us if we put our minds to it. The environment may not be conducive, but it cannot stop us from putting in our best. There is no limit to what we can achieve if we work hard and believe in ourselves no matter how difficult things might seem.
What was the core message in the Patches and why did you come up with it?
The message of Patches is the message of hope to children living with cancer. Over 1000 children are living with cancer in Nigeria and South Africa. But the difference between children living with cancer in Nigeria and those in South Africa is in how we respond. More children are likely to die with cancer in Nigeria than in South Africa. Why? Here, we have no ready and dedicated intervention to help the children. This is a country where government will tell you to your face that they may not be able to support children living with cancer because the money that would be used to treat one child with cancer can be used to provide malaria treatment for one thousand children. It means a child with cancer in Nigeria die many times before he or she finally dies. It is heartbreaking. You need to see these brave children in the hospital; playing through unbearable pain. And it pains my heart so much that there is a little one can do. Cancer treatment is expensive. We are looking at hundreds of thousands to millions. And most of these children come from poor homes. That is why when my attention was drawn to what Dr. Nwobi is doing with these children at LUTH, I became very interested. She organises Christmas parties for them every year. She gives them access to free screening and free drugs. If not for her, most of these children would have died. She’s an amazing woman. Patches was written as a support; to help draw attention to these wonderful children. We are producing the play again next year. A percentage of any money realised will go to getting treatment for the children living with cancer. I call on individuals and organisations to support this course.
What do you gain allowing your plays to be freely performed by different theatre troupes in the country?
I gain a lot although not financially. I am happy to see young directors venturing into this murky water of the theatre industry. It is not as palatable and promising as the movie industry, so, it takes sheer passion to come into it. When I started I didn’t think about money. I only wanted to get my voice heard. I am sure a lot of us coming into the industry want the same thing. So allowing them produce my plays for free is my support to the growth of careers and the growth of the industry. I know these people may not be able to pay me if I asked them to. Of course, they pay in a subtle kind of way; they give me free publicity so at the end it is not totally free. And when they come for my play, I see it as a privilege. I got a lot of things in life for free; the air I breathe, the opportunity to go to London for one month playwriting workshop at the Royal Court Theatre in 2007, the opportunity to come to Lagos and be accepted. So, I do not hesitate to give young directors my plays for free. It is a privilege I will never take for granted.
Nigeria and Africa are versed and wide; can the theatre really be used to correct the various ills of the continent?
My motto in life is this: writing is not about writing something; it is about righting something. It is what drives through all my writings. It is what motivates me to write. Outside this then I will stop writing. I do not believe in the art for art’s sake. Theatre as a form of art has its function; which is to show society how to live. I think in Africa right now we do not have the leisure to even create any other function for the theatre outside to use it as a tool for self-discovery and societal development. When I come to watch a play in the theatre, I do not only come to be entertained; I come to be purged. I come to hold a mirror before myself. I come to learn to live and live well. When I right, I first think of what common good can my writing achieve. This does not take away from the entertainment. In fact most of my plays are hilarious satires, but the underlining message still tries to hold our hands at the end. Theatre is the hospital of the society. It is more functional than any other art form in correcting societal ill. Do you know the impact your work will make when your leaders are sitting in the audience and watching a slice of their society? Nothing can straighten us more than this.
Do you have the intension of turning any of your stage plays into a movie?
Yes I do. In fact right now there is a project in the pipeline for one of my works. I don’t know if the producers will want to open the lid on it now, so, I will prefer to keep mute until the right time. But I know I have plans to turn some of my stage scripts into movie scripts although it is not really my priority now. My priority right now is to publish more of my plays and get them to schools, so, they can be studied. The pride of the playwright above seeing his or her play as a movie is to be studied. This can happen faster if his plays are published. It is my uttermost goal for now and in 2019 that will be my first priority.