On stage and in print: Celebrating Yemi Ogunbiyi’s scholarship – Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
The handsome young lecturer ambled into the lecture room and did not waste any time with introductions before delivering his first lecture to the drama class.
The students did not understand a word of the teacher who had the movie star looks of Richard Roundtree, the famous actor who played John Shaft in the era of the Blaxploitation movies in early 1970s America.
Seeing that the students were not following his drift, the lecturer suddenly stopped and said: “You mean you have not read Fanon? I can’t waste my time talking to illiterates!” He packed his books and stormed out of the class.
The challenged students thenceforth foraged the libraries and bookshops, reading everything by Frantz Fanon. In the course of time, the students were made to read so many more books that they had to collectively confront the Head of Department, Professor Wole Soyinka, stressing that they had come to study for a bachelor’s degree and not a doctorate!
Soyinka explained that he was not to blame, that the students should take their complaints to their real “oppressor” who drew up the course contents. His name was Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi!
The rigour that Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi put his students through is amply replicated in Drama And Theatre In Nigeria: A Critical Source Book that he edited and published in 1981. A second edition of the trailblazing book was reissued in 2014.
In his 60-page Introduction, “Nigerian Theatre and Drama: A Critical Profile”, Ogunbiyi undertakes a grand sweep of the historical roots of theatre in magic and myth as theorised by George Thomson and intervolves the modern diversities of drama in Nigeria.
According to Ogunbiyi, “Prior to 1863, the twin face of British colonialism, the Church Missionary Society had, under a broad policy of the so-called three ‘C’s’ – Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation – pursued a systematic policy of producing an elite class of Nigerians who would be leaders in church, commerce, and politics.”
Popular traditional theatre ran alongside elitist theatre. Ogunbiyi concludes thusly: “The road to be walked is a torturous, long one involving political and social work, the reconciling of opposites, of theory and practice, even the combining of disparate groups, peasants, farmers’ cooperatives, teachers, educators, artists, politicians, students, etc., into one concerted push towards a society in which art serves the interests of all, where art and culture create the basis of the formulation of a common destiny and the collective cooperation in pursuing such a destiny, a society where art is meaningfully relevant and culture is not confined by the limitations of ethnicity or class. Only then can the search for a genuinely popular theatre be said to have begun, and perhaps, attained.”
The “General” lead-up to the multifarious essays is J.P. Clark’s “Aspects of Nigerian Drama” in which the playwright and poet states: “Contrary to what some seem to think, Nigerian drama did not begin at the University of Ibadan. The roots go beyond there, and one hopes, they are more enduring than that. Very likely, they lie where they have been found among other peoples of the earth, deep in the past of the race.”
Ogunbiyi in Drama And Theatre In Nigeria: A Critical Source Book plumbs the roots of theatre up to the flowers of drama. The book is divided into nine sections taking charge of the various areas.
The section, “Traditional Theatre 1: Dramatic Ritual”, features Ola Rotimi’s “The Drama in African Ritual Display”; Robin Horton’s “The Gods as Guests: An Aspect of Kalabari Religious Life”; James Amankulor’s “Ekpe Festival as Religious Ritual and Dance Drama”; Onuora Nzekwu’s “Masquerade”; M.J.C Echeruo’s “The Dramatic Limits of Igbo Ritual”; Ossie Enekwe’s “Myth, Ritual and Drama in Igboland”; E.O Kofoworola’s “Traditional Forms of Hausa Drama”; Andrew Horn’s “Ritual, Drama and the Theatrical: The Case of Bori Spirit Mediumship”, and Dapo Adelugba’s “Trance and Theatre: The Nigerian Experience” where he stresses: “That traditional festivals and rituals have influenced the form, content and structure of the artistic products of our national playwrights such as Wole Soyinka, Duro Ladipo, Hubert Ogunde, John Pepper Clark, Ola Rotimi, Wale Ogunyemi and Zulu Sofola, is an undisputed fact. What is now being recommended is a more scientific study by drama and theatre scholars and a more coherent and meaningful use of our traditional inheritance by theatre directors and actor-trainers.”
In the second part of the section, “Traditional Theatre II: The Popular Tradition”, J.A. Adedeji’s “Alarinjo: The Traditional Yoruba Travelling Theatre” bears this revelation: “Hubert Ogunde, who became the first Nigerian artist of the contemporary theatre to turn professional and assume the leadership of a flourishing theatre troupe, recalled that his experience and source of inspiration belonged to the Alarinjo theatre.” Other cultures are represented by Edith Enem’s “Kwagh-Hir Theatre”, R.E Ellison’s “A Borno Puppet Show”, and C.G.B Gidley’s “Yankamanci: The Craft of the Hausa Comedians.”
Drama And Theatre In Nigeria: A Critical Source Book gets into the next gear in “Modern Traditional Theatre: Yoruba Travelling Theatre” where Ebun Clark’s landmark essay “Ogunde Theatre: The Rise of Contemporary Professional Theatre in Nigeria 1946-72”, Ulli Beier’s distinctive “E.K Ogunmola: A Personal Memoir”, and Yemi Ogunbiyi’s inimitable “The Popular Theatre: A Tribute to Duro Ladipo” are preserved gems.
The section on “The Literary Tradition” showcases M.J.C Echeruo’s foundational “Concert and Theatre in late 19th Century Lagos”, Segun Olusola’s groundbreaking “The Advent of Television Drama in Nigeria”, Femi Euba’s insightful “The Nigerian Theatre and the Playwright”, Akinwumi Isola’s illuminating “Modern Yoruba Drama”, and Biodun Jeyifo’s radical “Literary Drama and the search for a Popular Theatre in Nigeria.”
On getting to “Theatre Management, Organisation And Production” and reading Olu Akomolafe’s “Theatre Management in Nigeria: Appraisal and Challenges”, I could not but remember how I annoyed the man as my lecturer back then in Ife by writing on “Rural Peasant Theatre Management” as opposed to what I considered “bourgeois theatre management” which he taught us! Meki Nzewi’s “Music, Dance, Drama and the Stage in Nigeria” throbs with vistas.
Wole Soyinka’s early essay “Towards a true Theatre” remains an enduring masterpiece while Demas Nwoko’s “Search for a New Theatre” is grandly iconoclastic.
There is no escaping the section on “The New Media: Nollywood and Nigerian Cinema” in which Biodun Jeyifo engages the question/s: “Will Nollywood Get Better? (Did Hollywood and Bollywood Get Better?)
In the “Postscript”, Wumi Raji’s “New Nigerian Playwrights: An Update” analyses the works of Femi Osofisan, Bode Sowande, Kole Omotoso, Olu Obafemi, Tess Onwueme, Uko Atai, Ahmed Yerima, Esiaba Irobi and Taiwo Oloruntoba-Oju.
In conclusion, there is the “Appendix: Play-texts” featuring Robin Horton’s “Ikaki: The Tortoise Masquerade”, Nnabuenyi Ugonna’s “Ezeigboezue: An Igbo Masquerade Play”, and G.G Darah’s “Dramatic Presentation in Udje Dance Performance of the Urhobo.”
Drama And Theatre In Nigeria: A Critical Source Book, edited by Yemi Ogunbiyi, is an authoritative institution in Nigerian theatre and drama scholarship.
Ever since its first publication in 1981, the book has continued to bear testimony to Ogunbiyi’s evergreen stamp of success like in all his endeavours such as facilitating the publishing of the two-volume Perspectives on Nigerian Literature whilst a top executive of Guardian Newspapers Limited in Lagos.
His excellent service as the Managing Director of Nigeria’s premier newspaper group, The Daily Times, and his entrepreneurial acumen as the Executive Chairman of Tanus Books would tend to make many forget that Ogunbiyi is at the core an academic and a scholar of the first grade.
The enduring relevance of Drama And Theatre In Nigeria: A Critical Source Book has rekindled Ogunbiyi’s standing in the higher echelons of intellection.
Drama And Theatre In Nigeria: A Critical Source Book : Edited By Yemi Ogunbiyi; Second Edition; Tanus Books Limited, Lagos; 2014; First Published 1981; 736pp