Essay: Theatre of the Enthusiasts

The others are doing the show the we are in limbo

Tuesday, July 03, 2007 at 3:49 PM WAT


a time the public culture circuit was enwrapped in despair on the future of the live stage and especially, the seeming helplessness and hopelessness of theatre practitioners on the viability of their professional calling, there emerged a new trend which suggested that something fundamental had been wrong with the approach of trained artistes to their vocation.
The past five years had witnessed not a drought of live theatre per se, but a seeming retreat by the club of regular theatre producers which used to keep the stage engaged. Various reasons were adduced for the retreat. The most frequent was the paucity of fund and as well diversion of interest of popular sponsoring institutions to other less intellectually engaging ventures such as sports and popular music.
Thus gradually, the stage dried up of real productions apart from the usual overtly mercantilist literature text productions, which are guaranteed to draw school audiences, even if the quality of show was poor.
Intriguingly however, at the same time that the major theatre producers were taking a break, certain unusual organisations, which are not necessarily into theatre production and are not composed of trained artistes, came on strongly on the scene.
Of interest was the fact that each of the groups had firm root in social activities of the Church, particularly, the Pentecostal variations. Membership of each of the groups usually comprise fellows of the same church who had decided to stretch the entertainment content of their praise and worship activities beyond the confine of the church. This fact is always vividly reflected in the theme and context of their productions.
Notable among these groups was the Rhythm of the Blackman, a band of young school leavers. The group came to popular attention with Going Back to My Root, a play which in content, form and context of production, was fashioned after the Negro theatre tradition. After a series of runs on the Lagos stage, the play was billed for an outside engagement. In its wake came two other plays which have also been performed to a variety of audience at some of the most expensive venues in Lagos, Abuja and parts of the South West.
Remarkably too, the Rhythm of the Blackman could be said to have come up with such an impressive business profile -- an aggressive marketing scheme that saw them doing costly adverts on the print and electronic media and selling their tickets at high-profile business concerns around the city.
Rhythm of the Blackman also broke into the diplomatic circle and soon set up as a model theatre producing outfit with its work staged so many times in cottage theatre formation. Significantly, there is much to learn from its experience.
The Rhythm of The Blackman has in its repertory:
*Going back to my roots by Dozie Atuenyi; January 2001.
*Dawn of a New Day by Dozie Atuenyi; April 2002
*A New Song by Dozie Atuenyi; November 2002
*Journey of the Drum by Dozie Atuenyi, 2002
Another group which has continued to exert such great impact on the theatre scene is the JASONVISION - also a team of young theatre enthusiasts led by the lawyer Wole Oguntokun. A few of the group's members had had romance with the Theatre 15, a troupe of students drawn from the humanities at the University of Lagos but which has for almost a decade made its mark producing plays and entertainment shows on the Akoka campus.
Indeed, the JASONVISION has produced some of the most thought-provoking theatre pieces that the Lagos scene has witnessed in the past few years. Its first major play was Who Is Afraid of Wole Soyinka (title modeled after Who is Afraid of Tai Solarin by Femi Osofisan), and well acknowledged was its boldness in the treatment of the theme of corruption and the intolerance of the political elite for criticism, transparency and probity. Next came Rage of the Pentecost, a steamy satire on the comic excesses of the new-found 'fishers of men' Pastors and their 'prosperity churches'. There have been other equally successful plays with equally radical thematic focus.
A third group in this neo-Pentecostal theatre movement was the Baneo Ventures which however, appears to be the most technically sophisticated of the new groups. Its marketing strategy made intense use of the electronic mailing system and it uses the web a lot in its publicity drive. It produced no less than five major plays in the past two years including the box-office romance drama hit, Private Lies. The group's clientele also consist of the top echelon of the society including key political figures and captains of industries. These are the classes of Nigerians that, sufficiently weaned on European cultural taste, always shun the local produce except when it is supported and promoted by the various foreign cultural agencies.
Another non-conventional group that had been something of a surprise on the theatre scene is the Spirit of David, which comprises young school leavers of strong Christian inclination. The troupe staged many dance drama at major performance venues around Lagos, particularly at key corporate events.
Like the other troupes in its class, the Spirit of David was very aggressive in its business approach. Theatre production was taken beyond the conventional, almost conservative feature that had defined the sixties through the mid-nineties.
To these groups, the age-long maxim, 'The Show Must Go On' which had defined the operative environment of theatre was out-dated. Theatre must be business-like in orientation. And this pretext conditioned the content, form, context and as well the approach of their productions.
Of course, the groups broke so many sacred rules of the theatre in the process, not the least, the quality of performance. It was most times difficult to apply the strict paradigms of dramatic theory and literary criticisms to their performances and operations because of their non-conformity to the basic rules of performance art. Yet they brought a fresh breath to the stage which had been rusticated by the poor patronage, dis-enabling economic environment and skepticism by the general public.
It could be said that the positive examples the groups set, particularly, the emphasis on commercial viability of the stage led to the seeming explosion of productions that the theatre scene was to witness in the past three years or so; maybe so, in the Lagos environs.
As a matter of fact, when a group of middle-age veterans of the Lagos-Ibadan-Ife stage circuit including Mahmoud Ali-Balogun, Lara Akinsola and Ayo Oluwasanmi among others, mid-last year, decided on a missionary project entitled: 'The Revival Of Dramatic Excellence On The Nigerian Stage' designed to "to rescue the Live Theatre from its current lack of excellence", they were perceived by some critics, as having been stimulated by the doors of possibilities flung open by the new non-conventional theatre groups.
The 'veterans' had teamed up under the name Stagecrafts Incorporated with Ali-Balogun's multi-media outfit, Brickwall Productions as motivator. They resolved to stage a play a year as a "way of setting examples of quality productions". They mounted a high-class production of Ola Rotimi's If... Tragedy of the Ruled which also featured top actors and actresses. But the financial failure of Stagecrafts no doubt, killed the dream at birth! The performance could only hold once and could not travel to Abuja and other parts of the country as had been projected.
Juxtaposed against the success of the neo-Pentecostal-church groups, the failure of Stagecrafts further signposted by its inability to be sustained in 2003, has further affirmed that there is much the school-trained artistes can learn from the business formula of the non-conventional troupes.
Aside of these groups, the various foreign cultural institutions continued to be at the forefront of theatre promotion and production. The front runners remained the Goethe Institut (German Cultural Centre) and the Maison de France (French Cultural Center) while occasionally the Public Affairs Department (which under the name United States Information Service, USIS had produced many plays through a seemly monopolized project by the Chuck Mike-led Collective Artistes and Performance Studio Workshop), remembers to mount a play.
The Goethe Institut had in 1996 developed a project with a group of artistes under the control of Kakaaki Arts Company led by Ben Tomoloju and, Jide Ogungbade-led Rotom Productions. Christened Africa Project, it was designed as an African-European (Nigerian-German) cultural dialogue which produced a global theatrical theme per year. Each year produced at least two plays that were then staged in Nigeria and later in various cities of Germany. The plays were usually co-directed by a German and a Nigerian director.
After its debut in 1996 with a Euro-African reinterpretation of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Ben Tomoloju's Amona (itself an African response to the question of guilt as espoused in Oedipus), the project took on an educational garb in 1997 when an award- winning playwright came in from Germany to hold a workshop with a select group of local actors, dramatists and directors.
The idea was to develop an 'authentic African life story' with universal thematic focus and performance style. The experiment led to the creation of A Horse on my Back. And in 1998, the play was staged with another, Andorra Goes Kinshasa (a Femi Osofisan's adaptation on Max Frisch's classic Andorra), in Lagos and parts of Germany. Africa Project produced Iphigenia Finds Aiyelala (adapted by Ben Tomoloju from Aeschylus' Iphigenia auf Tauris) in 1999.
In 2000, another the project presented Asylanten (Asylum Seekers) by Susanne Amatosero after a workshop with a group of local artistes. However, the cut in funding of its operations overseas by the Goethe headquarters in Munich Germany, led to a stoppage of the project as the budget was no longer realistic and; quest for local supplement sponsorship of the project had consistently failed to yield any fruit.
The French Cultural Centre on its own, has never really had a sustainable theatre project. But it has always had individual projects that brought in experts -- a director, actor or choreographer --- into workshop with select Nigerian artistes. Usually, a play or dance package is developed which is performed in Lagos and then sent on tour of many cities of the country. However, in the dance art, the Centre has had the most enduring project.
It had five years ago commenced the modern dance and choreography project which brought the famous French choregrapher, Claudio Brumachon into contact with a wide group of young Nigerian dance artistes. The workshop no doubt, radicalized the character of the dance theatre in the country. It opened a new vista of professionalism to the Nigerian dancers who before now had been confined to merely adapting the various traditional and ethnic dance steps and forms to the proscenium stage. The modern dance form as obtained in the West and to which the French are the greatest promoters, became a regular feature on the local stage.
The Brumachon workshop presented those (now) astute professionals as Ijo Dee, Omitun among others. These are groups, which have been competing well and winning awards at international events in the last few years. The profusion of these new professional modern dance companies led to the creation of the yearly project, Dance Meets Danse, an across-Africa (Nigeria-France cultural dialogue) project that in its three years, has brought dancers and choreographers from no less than 20 countries into the country.
For the theatre however, the French Centre last year teamed up with the National Troupe of Nigeria to launch the project, EXPLAFEST -- a festival of young theatre directors and dramatists. This was a low budget feast of performances that at its birth, showcased at least six short plays and gave the young directors a lot of work to do.
The first edition of Explafest held in the second quarter of 2002 featured six plays which were performed at the French Cultural Centre, Lagos and the National Theatre simultaneously. The plays included:
* The Bridge, written by Don Pedro Obaseki and directed by Henry Eze Sainyo; *Tai written by Sesan Ogunledun and directed by Makinde Adeniran;
*The Twist, written by Ahmed Yerimah and directed by Israel Eboh; and
*The Engagement, written by Femi Osofisan and directed by Nwachukwu.
Explafest which threw up a lot of promises unfortunately could not be sustained by the two collaborating institutions. No doubt, shortage of fund is at the root of death of the dream.
But the festival was probably the next big theatre show after the yearly Festival of Nigerian Theatre, FESTINA initiated by the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP). The project was organized in three-zone format such that it could cater for the commonest geo-polity of the country, since NANTAP purports to have membership spread in at least 18 states of the federation.
The first edition of FESTINA held in August 2001 at the Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos. Plays performed at the first edition were:
*Aikin Mata (based on the classic Lysisrata) by the Northern Zone;
*King Emene by Eastern Zone;
*Death and the King's Horseman by the Western Zone.
The second edition of FESTINA in 2002 was at the MUSON Centre, Lagos and the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos. The plays performed were:
*Ovonramwen Nogbaisi by Ola Rotimi directed by Israel Wekpe for the Eastern Zone;
*The Beggars' Strike, (an adaptation of an Aminata Sow Fall's novel The Beggars' Strike) by Teju Olaniyan directed by Tony Shittu for the Northern Zone;
*Aman-Iba by Amayo Uzo Phillips and directed by Ben Tomoloju for the Southern Zone.
The Third edition of FESTINA took place at MUSON Centre, Lagos in August 2003 and featured:
*The Divorce by Wale Ogunyemi, directed by Niji Akanni for the Western Zone;
*Mooremi Ajaasoro by Lekan Balogun and directed by Ahmed Yerima;
*Things Fall Apart (adapted from Chinua Achebe's classic by same title) by Bassey Effiong who also directed the play for the Eastern Zone.
Note that there was no play to represent the Northern Zone in the third edition of FESTINA.
There have been other theatre performances some of which are outlined below:
*Queen Amina of Zazzau by Wale Ogunyemi directed by Patrick Jude-Oteh at the yearly MUSON Festival in 1999. Another performance took place at National Theatre in May 2000.
*Jankariwo by Ben Tomoloju and directed by Tunji Azeez for the 2002 MUSON festival;
Also there were various drama skits by the King's Theatre led by the university teacher, Tosan Edremoda-Ugbeye which were presented every Monday evening at the Nimbus Art Centre on Victoria Island, Lagos, including the popular Romario and Jullieta adapted from William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
In another part of the city in Ikeja, another group of young enthusiasts under the name Black Image Theatre presents a monthly theatre show, more of drama skits, at the La Campaigne Tropicana. The project has been on for about two years and has an in-built cultural tourism dimension as it is done in conjunction with the management of the La Campagne Company.
In the neighbourhood also, African Film Company owned by the marketer-actor Yinka Ogundaisi, has revived the aged Little Theatre located in the elite Country Club. The company which has a track record of promoting the popular 1980s television Yoruba drama, Feyikogbon, had started out about two years ago with the idea of reviving the famous Duro Ladipo travelling theatre. It had struck a working relationship with the Duro Ladipo Memorial Theatre led by the wife of the legendary dramatist, actor, Biodun Ladipo. The collaboration early this year, marked 25 years of transition of Duro Ladipo with a revival of the classic, Oba Koso. The company has also launched Global Children Theatre and has plans to mount a children workshop theatre every month to cater for the needs of children of members of the Country Club.
In the past five years, the yearly International Theatre Day, ITD, as celebrated by the NANTAP has been a good source of theatrical activities. The practice had been to mount at least, a play a year. Sadly however, the celebration has not witnessed any theatre performance in the pats two years. The organisation had instead presented a night of variety entertainment. Also, the yearly International Dance Day (IDD) celebration every April 29 by the Guild of Nigerian Dancers, GOND, has often climaxed with the staging of a dance drama on performance. There was Victor Eze's - Nsibidi in 1998 and Osusu Owoh in 2000. 2002 had A Dance for Ola Rotimi and this year had Together As One.
The play reading sessions of the National Troupe of Nigeria which started in 2000 has also elicited much interest in theatrical activities. It usually featured public reading and critiquing of new scripts. Sometimes, selected scenes are enacted at the reading.
Other notable performances have been:
* Echoes from Lagoon by Rasheed Gbadamosi, directed by Shade Ogunde; 2000;
*Who is Afraid of Solarin by Femi Osofisan produced by NANTAP as part of activities marking the 2000 edition of International Theatre Day; 2000;
*Ire Olokun by Hubert Ogunde ; directed by George Ogunde; January, 2000;
*Locked Inside; March, 2002;
*Mbarra (dance drama) by Arnold Udoka and National Troupe; December, 2001
*The Sisters written and directed by Ahmed Yerima; January, 2001
*Song of a Goat by John Pepper Clark; directed by Ahmed Yerimah; 2001
*Kuluso - a theatre outreach programme performed at the University of Lagos in 1999 and 2000.
*Midnight Hotel by Femi Osofisan; directed by Abiodun Abe; June, 2001 (as part of activities marking Femi Osofisan's 55th birthday).
*Conflict Resolution by written and directed by Fred Agbeyegbe; 2002;
*Ojomolami by Martins Adaji; 2002;
oMekunu Melody written and directed by Felix Okolo for Tall and Wide, Communications; 2002;
*Iludun; March, 2002
*House of Gold written by Thomas Animashaun; March, 2002;
*Drums of War written and directed by Ojo Bakare Rasaki; 2002;
*Her Majesty's Visit by Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo; directed by Patrick Ombo; 2001;
* She stoops to conquer by Oliver Goldsmith; directed by Israel Eboh; February 2000 (as part of activities marking the 10th anniversary of Fezi Production);
*Yemoja - written and directed by Ahmed Yerima (National Troupe of Nigeria's presentation as part of activities marking the 41st Independence anniversary of Nigeria and a preview of the performance before its tour of Mexico); October, 2001;
*Madness Junction; directed by Binda Ngazolo; November, 2001;
*Epitaph for Simon Kisulu by Audu Ogbeh; directed by Gloria Ogunyemi; April, 2002;
*Strong Breed by Wole Soyinka; directed by Ahmed Yerima , 2002;
*Farewell to a cannibal rage by Femi Osifosan; directed by Israel Eboh, September 2002 (as part of activities marking United Nations' International peace day);
*The Scoundrel Suberu by Dapo Adelugba;
*Ori (Dance of Destiny) by Dayo Liadi;
February 2003;
*Ladugba; St. Dominic Catholic Church, Yaba; May , 2003;
*Agbedo; August, 2003;
*Genesis; August, 2003;
*Community Call - a theatre outreach programme staged at motor parks and markets in Lagos.
*Valley cry - a theatre outreach programme.
*One legend Many Season, written and directed by Femi Osofisan for the Christmas Season of 2001;
*The Sick People by Ahmed Yerima; directed by Israel Eboh; January 2001;
*Bishop Ajayi Crowther written and directed by Femi Osofisan 2002;
Other theatre related programmes in Lagos in the last five years include The Black Heritage Festival which had its first edition in Badagry between May 24-29, 2001.The second e edition held in Badagry and Epe between August 23-30, 2002;
*First ECOWAS Culture, Tourism and Fashion Festival; Grand Hotel Asaba, Delta State; January 2002;
*Pan Yoruba Festival of Arts and Culture; Oyo State Cultural Centre, Mokola, Ibadan
April 2002;
Other remarkable theatre producers in the past five years include the:
o Optimum Art Konsotium based at the Lagos State University which produces plays regularly on the campus with occasional foray to the public circuit.
oFred Agbeyegbe, the lawyer-playwright who had been instrumental to the flourish of theatrical activities of the eighties with the Ajo Productions has also been relatively active producing among others Human Cargo which toured Ghana recently.
o Kakaaki Arts Company led by Tomoloju and, which produced the huge Red Cross Theatre Project (Askari) in 1997 and toured 20 states of the federation in a project described as perhaps the biggest of its kind since FESTAC 77, has been on stage every year.
oCentrestage Productions led by the actor-teacher Sola Fosudo has also been active. It recently staged Osofisan's Twingle Twangle, to mark the 43rd Independence Day celebration.
oDon-Pedro Obaseki, a trained stage actor who has moved more into the video-drama genre has always returned to the stage. In his repertory in the last five years have been Obaseki, Azagidi, Idia among others. Azagidi will be presented in October 2003 as the drama entry for the yearly MUSON festival of arts and culture.
Significantly too, the various comedy and light entertainment shows have thrown up a lot of theatrical activities. Of note is the yearly Nite of A Thousand Laughter initiated by the movie artiste, Opa Williams and; the Crab Ya Rib by the dancer-actor, Julius Agu. Lately they have been joined by other comic actors such as Okey Bakassi, Yinka Adeyemi and Tunde Adewale a.k.a Tee-A.
The Creative Arts Department of the University of Lagos unde the tutelage of Tunji Sotimirin has also launched Arts-O'Clock, a mimi-festival of theatre, which presents a series of play per semester both as part of the students training and for the entertainment of the public.

Macintosh HD:Story of Nigerian Theatre2.doc


Unknown said…
a well trace history of the nigerian stage. hope our lecturers will borrow a leaf and allow such festivals at grass root level(universities) were students will be encouraged to try their hands on such master pieces without the lecturer trying to take their shine.

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