Fred Agbeyegbe: The playwright as historian
The task of pinning down Fred Agbeyegbe to a particular generation of modern Nigerian dramatists is quite tough. The reason is that his plays are not only people-oriented, but they reflect several ideological commitments of the various generations of Nigerian drama. Coming from a non-literary background, Agbeyegbe took the Nigerian theatre scene by storm in 1983 with the establishment of Ajo Production, a theatre group dedicated to staging plays written by him. His emergence on the literary scene was seen by theatre enthusiasts as a gap-bridging feat especially when the Nigerian theatre tradition was declining. The circumstance of his birth and the lively nature of his extended Ojobo family, to a large extent prepared Agbeyegbe for the onerous task of playwriting. Born into a prosperous and large family in 1935, Agbeyegbe was exposed early enough to western and indigenous education.
The Ojobo’s family compound in Ekurede-Itsekiri where Agbeyegbe grew up was a mini-theatre which served as impetus to members’ incurable passion for story-telling and cultural dance. As a theatre practitioner, Agbeyegbe has made several contributions to the development of the theatre. He has published more than thirteen (13) plays and three poetry collections and a book of selected articles published over the years in top Nigerian newspapers. Some of his plays are: Woe Unto Death, The King Must Dance Naked, My Grandfather’s Ghost, The Last Omen, Budiso, The Will, Human Cargo, Conflict Resolution, Stop and Bullet, The Reincarnation Lovers and The Tombs of Westminster Abbey. In recognition of Agbeyegbe’s versatility, Jahman Anikulapo says “he is one of those entitled to the appellation; ‘a man of many parts’. In the same vein, G.G. Darah opines that:
“Agbeyegbe is one of Africa’s most gifted and multi-talented intellectuals. As a lawyer, and human rights defender, he qualifies to be saluted as a revolutionary democrat and activist. He has earned himself other iconic sobriquets: newspaper columnist anti-military and anti-apartheid militant, nationalist, Pan Africanist, iconoclast, and ideological rebel.”
Agbeyegbe’s plays tilt towards social reformation by putting culture and history in perspective. His theatre also reveals his obsession for the ‘total theatre tradition’ of song, dance and chorus of the people of the Niger Delta as popularized by J.P Clark. However, Adebola Ademeso affirms that: “although, Fred Agbeyegbe’s plays may not have gained much publicity in scholarship, his works may not have attracted wide study or research, it is essential to note that the messages of his works are needed by the people”. Suffice it to say here that the reason most of his plays are relatively unknown is because conscious effort has not been made in introducing Agbeyegbe’s plays into the school curricula, both at the secondary and the tertiary levels.
A playwright may not be an historian. Yet, the former shares some qualities with the latter. Most African playwrights have consistently shown fidelity to historical materials in their dramaturgy and Agbeyegbe is one of such dramatists that has shown great passion for historical materials of his Itsekiri provenance in his creative endeavours. While history is taken to mean ‘all the events that happened in the past’, drama, on the other hand, is a literary and visual representation of human behaviour using action, words and symbols. The main difference between both disciplines is that history records facts while drama dissolves facts into fiction. It should be added that this is a kind of fiction which reflects fact.
This leads to the dynamics of historical truth and artistic truth. Sunny Awhefeada’s perspective on history and literature is apposite here: “History and social events constitute the pool from which literature draws its materials just as works of art serve as pointers to social and historical currents. This tendency establishes a reciprocity between history and literature. History has much in common with literature in mirroring and recreating human experience.”
In view of the foregoing, Chinua Achebe affirms that: “The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self respect. The writer’s duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to, what they lost”. Agreeably one of such reasons for writing is the innate desire to adapt past events in addressing contemporary issues of ‘our times’. Also, the need to affirm the inspiring endeavours of past heroes and patriots as we have seen in the stories of Ovonramwen Nogbaisi (1974) by Ola Rotimi and Inikpi (1994) by Emmy Idegu is instructive, and significantly why Agbeyegbe goes to his Itsekiri roots for the story and culture upon which his plays are based.
The plot of The King Must Dance Naked romanticizes the history of the exploits of Princess Idolu (alias Iye), the daughter of Erejuwa 1 (1760-1795 A.D), who manipulated her way into becoming a Regent over her people. The spiritual tsunami that swept through the ruling house of Akengbuwa 1 in 1848 prompted Princess Idolu to seize power. After the death of Prince Eyolusan who reigned as Akengbuwa 1 in 1848, his two sons, Princes Omatseye and Ejo died the same year in quick succession. The mysterious death of both princes led to a revolt by the Otonlu , the Omajajas and palace regiment. The revolt led to the 88years of interregnum (1848-1936) that the Itsekiris were without kings. History, further has it that Princess Idolu, one of the daughters of Erejuwa 1 failed in her several attempts to transmute from a Regent Princess to a ‘crowned king’ on account of oracular rejection, which till date is a strong factor in the Itsekiri kingship eligibility tradition. It should be added here that in Itsekiri oral tradition exists a folktale which tries to legitimize the primogeniture tradition of the Itsekiri people. In that story, Princess Idolu’s attempt to become king was frustrated by an unprecedented rush of her monthly menstrual flow, a taboo so to speak.
Hence, it is not out of place to describe Fred Agbeyegbe’s The King Must Dance Naked as a story woven around a man-woman riddle. Princess Omajuwa is crowned king following the disappearance of her half-brother, Prince Omagbemi, whom Queen Odosun, mother to King Omajuwa , had earlier plotted to assassinate. At birth, and on consultation of the gods on what the future holds for Omajuwa and her twin brother, Afinotan, the chief priest, through the oracle, reveals that the female child is destined to succeed her father as king.
The revelation is seen as a taboo, which must be circumvented. The queen believes she has tricked the gods when she substitutes the female child with the male immediately before the sacrifice is to be performed.
The maverick Odosun tricks the people of Ogbodume by presenting disguised Omajuwa as male successor to the throne. Hence, the land is plagued by famine and diseases, and the cause, attributed to the inability of the reigning king to procreate. The cause of the king’s inability to produce an heir-apparent is not known until Mejebi appears. Mejebi is Omagbemi’s son. Before giving up the ghost, Omagbemi reveals the story of the deception surrounding the kingship of Ogbodume to Mejebi. Omagbemi uncovers Mejebi’s mother’s identity, and how he, Omagbemi impregnated Omajuwa his step-sister and the reigning king. This is the reason for the plagues that are inflicted on the land. Fate brings Mejebi to Ogbodume and this unravels all that has been hidden from the people. He claims that the king is his mother. This disclosure takes place when the oracle, through Afinotan, divines that the solution to the continuous suffering of the people is for the king to dance naked in the presence of the chiefs. The king dances naked and her feminine features are revealed.
Agbeyegbe’s recreation of historical materials to comment on contemporary issues such as leadership ineptitude in Nigeria is instructive here. In an interview with Fred Agbeyegbe on his plays by this writer in 2013, he explains that: “The story of the play The King Must Dance Naked is a dramatization of a radical quest for change through the confrontation of unbalanced laws of human existence, vis-a-viz tradition and imperial succession which Odosun represents”. Here the playwright is alluding to his preference for change. He seems to be asking why the best and most competent do not lead. Rather, it is from the mediocre segment that Nigerian leadership appears to always come from.
It can be inferred from the treatment of the issue of succession that the playwright is uncomfortable with the tradition which reserves the kingship for only the royalty. As the tradition stands, no matter how unfit the first male surviving son of a dead king may be, he inherits his father’s throne. This is also the situation in The Last Omen and Woe unto Death. While Demeyin is of the view that the hereditary culture should be done away with, Ogbodu is angry that tradition forbids a woman from ascending the throne of a ‘departed’ king.
In My Grandfather’s Ghost, Agbeyegbe recreated the story of Prince Eyeomasan (1625-1643 AD, the 7th Olu of Warri), whose baptismal name was Dom Domigos and reigned as Olu Atuwatse 1. He was the first graduate king in Sub-Sahara Africa. Don Domigos graduated from Coimbra College of Theology, Portugal in 1611. He was the first Olu to have married a white lady. In the play, Agbeyegbe ingeniously crafted that aspect of the former to be the main conflict around which other incidents revolve.
The play also highlights the danger of the contact of African culture with that of the colonisers. Prince Eyinsan studied abroad, and on completion of his studies, he takes Cynthia, a white woman as wife. The implication of his action is that he has a white Queen who does not understand the tradition of the people. Again, it is believed that Eyinsan’s western education, perhaps, is responsible for his refusal to take another wife as advised by Ologban. It is imperative to note that the anxiety to have a successor pushes the king into flirting with other religions instead of the African traditional religion of which he is supposed to be a custodian. Agbeyegbe is critical of the reign of Prince Eyeomasan who took a baptismal name; Don Domigos and almost became a Roman Catholic priest.
The years of interregnum (1848-1936) in the history of Itsekiri monarchical system represents the disappearance of a reigning king in The Last Omen. Yet the oracle says that the lost king is still “alive and king of two domains”. This is central to the evolution of the play’s conflict. The play affords the playwright the opportunity to push for a democratic system which is often adjudged the ideal form of government. In doing this, he creates a strong character- Demeyin, using same as his mouthpiece to confront and to condemn what he considers as undemocratic in the same way that Ogbodu in Woe Unto Death condemns a succession system which stipulates that only the first male child inherits the kingship stool of a demised king. Agbeyegbe’s position is that regency which held sway during the 88years of interregnum is an aberration in Itsekiri monarchical history.
Demeyin who is Agbeyegbe’s voice does not subscribe to the ideologies of the gods, ancestors and fate. He believes man could work out his salvation by himself if only he would allow the best citizen, or a philosopher to preside over his affairs. On the strength of Demeyin’s philosophy, Darah argues that Demeyin is the echoing iconoclastic voice of the German philosopher, Karl Marx, who said that “religion is the opium of the oppressed and the poor”. But we cannot on the strength of Demeyin’s stoicism conclude that the playwright is an atheist.
Rule by decrees, guns, jackboots and command is the motif in Agbeyegbe’s Budiso which dramatises terror and absolutism. Historically, these were the realities that held Nigerians by the jugular between 1983 and 1985 when Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (rtd) and Gen. Tunde Idiagbon held sway as the nation’s military rulers. The play is a farcical re-enactment of the days of despotic rule in Nigeria. Achebe, in his novel A Man of the People (1966) writes about a possible coup de’ tat in Nigeria as a result of corruption among the first republic politicians, and true to his ‘literary prophecy’, the military struck in 1966, 1983 and 1993. In essence, Agbeyegbe’s Budiso satirizes the recklessness of the military that on mounting the dais of power claims to be messianic, but ends up destroying what they ought to correct. It is worthy of note that the title of the play is an acronym derived from the names of Buhari, Idiagbon and Sowemim, Nigeria’s Chief Justice at that point in time.
The play engages nuggets of history identifiable with the period. At one point, fifty three suitcases stuffed with dollars were intercepted at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos. The supervisors of the illegally imported dollars were appendages of the military junta. The then Director of the Nigerian Customs was an accomplice in the dollar saga which was one of the several apparent cases of corruption and lawlessness under the military rule of that time. These incidences rolled into one avails Agbeyegbe the artistic impetus to present a caricature of military recklessness.
Another historical subject of attack and derision in the play is the judiciary under Justice Sodeinde Sowemimo who, was the Chief Justice of Nigeria at that time, allowed himself to be used in truncating the rule of law. The creation of ‘So’ as a character by the playwright is to highlight the connivance of a few sycophantic civilians in the whole scenario of terror by the military. This is captured by Augustine Anigala when he opines that the military ‘succeed in wielding political power with the connivance of a few sycophants who constitute the pseudo-ruling cabinet.’
Despite a unanimous critical verdict that Agbeyegbe’s dramaturgy parades a robust stage craft of song, mime, dance, chorus and the story-teller’s techniques as popularized by Sam Ukala, Fred Agbeyegbe has been criticized for his use of ‘unsequential’ Acts and Scenes. Dapo Adelugba, in his review of Agbeyegbe’s Woe unto Death frowns at what he refers to as ‘mixing up of Acts and Scenes. However, the erudite lawyer turned playwright argued that as a philologist, meaning of words was sacred to him. Hence, he prefers the scene heralding the action. For him, ‘Act’ deals with action while ‘Scene’ involves space and time. This, being so, a scene should take precedence. In all Agbeyegbe’s plays, actions are buried in scenes. It is imperative to state here that the mixing up of Acts and Scenes do not impair meaning in the plays.
• Okofu, a lawyer, is presently a postgraduate student in the Department of English and Literary Studies, Delta State University, Abraka.
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