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Reviving Theatre In Nigeria: The Show Must Go On!

The origin of theatre in Nigeria can be traced back to the 18th century with the emergence of court jesters in royal settings all over the regions. There were rampant displays of traditional masquerades and cultural troupes which added theatrical performances to their craft and provided cultural balance to the scale of tradition. It was also an avenue to savour important comic relief for the people.

The “Gelede Masquerade” in Yoruba land was synonymous with satire and comic approaches to significant issues in the society. The Igbo Agbaasa Masquerade was known for inducing laughter and, at the same time, creating socio-cultural awareness and education. This is not forgetting the “Yankamanci” craft of the famous Hausa minstrels who specialised in comedy, the “Eyo Masquerade of Lagos” and so on and so forth. All these formed the bedrock of what later became the theatre in Nigeria.

The dawn of the early 20th century saw the active participation of notable theatre practitioners like Chief Hubert Ogunde, who formed one of the first indigenous travelling theatre companies. Ogunde evolved and transformed his arts into film production. The innovative and cultural prowess of Duro Ladipo in his quest for portraying legend of the famous Alaafin of Oyo and Sango eventually became a god on stage when he successfully breathed fire and smoke while performing his famous play Oba K’oso at the Berlin festival 1965. The incredible works of icons like Kola Ogunmola, Moses Olaiya(Baba Sala) and Ade Love also come to mind.

Saro the Musical. Photo Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo

Later on, the emergence of notable playwrights and literary giants such as Wole Soyinka, J.P Clarke, Christopher Okigbo, Nkem Nwankwo, Ola Rotimi and Chinua Achebe stamped Nigeria on the map of world literary excellence. The theatre world wasn’t left out in the remarkable impact either.

The formation of The Mbari Centre in Ibadan gave birth to a new school of theatre juggernauts whose massive influence spread across the country. Theatre was taking the centre stage locally and internationally.

The advent of the military regimes saw a clampdown on theatre practitioners and writers who were at the forefront in the struggle for democratic governance. Thus, when the nation returned to democracy in 1999, it ushered in many dividends including untrammelled theatre practices.

Theatre lovers at the Lagos Theatre festival. Photo ASIRI magazine

The later years would see the rise of private participation in the Nigeria Theatre and arts scenes with the arrival of new arts centres dotting the landscapes particularly in Lagos like Terra Kulture. CHARMS LTD also came on board and showed exactly what had been missing within the sphere when it sponsored and staged D.O Fagunwa’s iconic Ogboju Ode at the Muson Centre. These and many more undertakings resurrected the spirit of theatre in Nigeria.

The number of theatre and art lovers in the country has tripled from what it used to be in the early 90s. Yet, there are limited spaces for performances, making most theatre companies financially unstable since their outings are restricted.

Notwithstanding, it is obvious that, over the years, the theatre has played a leading role in uniting the country.

Most importantly, it has been at the centre of socio-economic development. Although the future looks bleak and bright at the same time for theatre in Nigeria, all we can do is to keep striving and making every performance count.

For the sake of the arts, the show must go on!!!

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