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National Theatre ‘name-change’ sparks controversy among culture workers, scholars

*‘…Govt erasing institutional memory, lacks sense of history’

*‘…Important to change perception people have of National Theatre’

*‘…Name-change is to move National Theatre to Abuja, a political mis-culturing’

*‘…National Theatre is a creation of a law, not repealed yet’

By Ozoro Opute

IT came as a rude shock to Nigeria’s culture community yesterday when news filtered in from faraway Madrid, Spain that the beloved but neglected (although now being renovated) iconic National Theatre that once defined the country’s cultural landscape now has a new name, Lagos Creative and Entertainment Centre.

The Federal Government, led by its Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, was reported to have disclosed this while signing agreement with United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) for Nigeria to host Global Conference on Cultural Tourism and Creative Industry from November 14 through 17, 2022.

Mohammed, in the report by News Agency of Nigeria, NAN, said the new hubs in fashion, film, music, information and technology being constructed around the National Theatre necessitated the name-change from National Theatre to Lagos Creative and Entertainment Centre, adding that $100 million is being expended by the Federal Government and the Bankers’ Committee/Central Bank of Nigeria for the edifice’s ongoing renovation due to be completed before November when the global conference for tourism and creative industry will be held.

But a professor of English and Literature and poet at the University of Benin, Benin City, Tony Afejuku said the Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government lacks institutional memory and so could embark on a meaningless name-change that has no bearing on history for the National Theatre.
“What do you want me to say?” he asked resignedly, as though every venture by the Buhari administration is hopeless. “What’s in a name? The change of name is, in any case, meaningless. How will the change of name affect performance? Clearly, in this country we don’t know the definition and meaning of History. The (National) Theatre has a history. They have forgotten how it came into being. They have forgotten how the theatre was established as the iconic symbol of our arts and culture. I have wasted my time by commenting as I have done.”

Notable poet and polemicist, Odia Ofeimun, is of the same view as Afejuku, but goes further to state that the name-change is in a bid to pave the way to move the National Theatre from Lagos to Abuja. He argued that the action is not for the interest and benefit of the country’s arts and culture, but other ulterior, wayward motives that characterise the retrogression that the country currently faces.
“The bid to remove the National Theatre from Lagos has finally reached its full realization,” Ofeimun declared. “Moving it to Abuja is really not about the arts or culture. It is about political mis-culturing. Once done, creativity can be removed from national purview except as grand killjoying. Controlled by clerics and scribes who have no commitment to God, Allah, or the future, but self-worship and loot-sharing, the purpose is flatly to remove diversity from our sense of life and living.

“Don’t let anyone browbeat you with insensate accountancy schemes pricing paper money above genuine finance. The National Theatre is being renovated without a sense of striving for any national ideals. The implied movement to Abuja has the narrowing of national consciousness as goal. While the renovation of every part of Nigeria is crying to begin, the two likely centres being consigned are for the constriction of cultural rights and the enthronement of flashy mediocrity. Take it from me: this age of wastrels shall pass away. Sooner than later, the die is cast.”

Literqry activist, Richard Mammah also echoes Ofeimun’s fears about making way for a National Theatre in Abuja as imperative for the name-change.

According to him, “No. I do not agree with name-change for the National Theatre itself on the face of it. Not necessary as a nation needs a National Theatre and that is what we have had and still have by way of National Theatre.

“My reading of the situation is that the facilities in the area are being expanded with new ones coming in. This may justify the fresh naming of the larger area as Lagos Creative and Entertainment Centre or so, but that should not preclude the fact that the extant and renovated National Theatre, Lagos, can still remain with its iconic name even within the expanded complex. Except they are fully handing over the theatre to Lagos, which in my view also is not necessary, as the only obvious reason perhaps for doing this would be to build a new National Theatre in Abuja.

“But two points on that: not all national structures need to be domiciled in the current federal capital, and two, if we take the example of the Abuja stadium that we continue throwing open for free use to attract home support crowds each time we have a major match, the economics of insisting on a new National Theatre at Abuja now may also not add up.”

A professor of theatre studies at the University of Abuja, FCT, Mabel Evwierhoma wondered who is afraid of the word ‘theatre,’ noting, “The name change is unnecessary, fatuous and divisive, by creating the impression that there is no longer a national impetus to the edifice and institution of multifaceted memories. My worry is the possibility of a provincial claim to it as the fate that has befallen some federal institutions. Why the name-change was announced suddenly and shortly before a global tourism meet is baffling.”

Evwierhoma is worried that the national edifice continues to under-perform in its mandate of bringing national cohesion among Nigerians, adding that even if the name-change stands, the edifice should work in favour of artists and audience alike.
According to her, “What is necessary is not the name-change, but the need to use the edifice to create national fusion and cohesion among true Nigerians. The change of name for the theatre should be utilised to energise the artistes and audience. The edifice should continue to be a magnetic force as it has done in only recent times. The pertinent questions are: what legal backing does the change of name have? Was it done by executive fiat? Is there another national theatre in the making? How does the Cultural Policy address or embrace this change?
“Any theatre of national force should be centripetal, a place of fecund national ideas and ideals. The renovated structure should be for ideological and educational empowerment of Nigerian citizens where ethos from the three tiers of government fuse for cultural and other forms development with a national face.”

For award-winning poet and lawyer, Tade Ipadeola, “This purported name-change is quite in character for this administration. It is a hollow and regressive gesture, a juvenile experiment, a parochial joke. It is as if no one in this administration has an expansive imagination. They can purport to do this because they neither really understood what a National Theatre means nor what names are supposed to do. They are a callow sort and the popular imagination will restore this monument in time.”

Award-winning novelist and communication expert, Odili Ujubuonu prefers the National Theatre to remain as it is: National Theatre, saying, it “is a better name. I know some may argue that it does not fully represent all of the creative industries. It doesn’t matter; we can exist comfortably under that iconic cap of a building which by its design speaks volumes of everything creativity.”

Professor of English and Literature, Austin Amanze Akpuda of Abia State University, Uturu, is of the same mind, arguing, “The name-change is not necessary because it is a national edifice and symbol. Where the (new) name is retained, there will be a tendency to constrict and diminish the national significance of the National Theatre.”

For performance/spoken word poet and lawyer, Dike Chukwumerije, name-change need not be the problem so long the edifice, its administration and technical reach, lives up to given mandate in meeting the core areas of lack that artists have been crying for over the years.

“Our hope is for a space proactively committed to promoting arts and culture,” he stated. “We would like to see greater commitment from the government at all levels to the sector in terms of providing grants and financial support to artists and creative entrepreneurs. We would like to see spaces like the National Theatre made accessible to local artists, with year-round programmes featuring different projects. Artists need to be able to apply to use such spaces, and on the basis of the quality of their proposals, gain free or highly subsidized access.

“We would also like to see spaces like the National Theatre live up to their full potential. Not just as empty rental halls, but as fully integrated performance spaces with all the technical requirements and administrative support that make such spaces functional. If a name-change means a decisive shift in the direction outlined above then, regardless of one’s personal preference for the former name, we can live with. However, if the name-change signals nothing more than an attempt (as we Nigerians call it) at re-packaging, then it is unnecessary.”

But retired Permanent Secretary of Lagos State Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture and founder of Badagry Diaspora Festival, Dr. Babatunde Olaide-Mesewaku, is of a different view, arguing instead that although name-change may not be a priority, doing so might gift Lagos a lot of mileage, locally and globally.

According to him, “Though it shouldn’t be the priority for now but nothing essentially is wrong with it. As Lagos Creative and Entertainment Centre, it will sell the edifice to the creative industries, moreso that government, especially Lagos State Government, does not have any purpose-built event centre that could take more than 5,000 guests at a time. Note that Lagos is the entertainment hub of West Africa. The (new) name and the edifice have only consolidated the position of Lagos in this direction.
“I don’t think the name is academic in nature. It’s conceived out of various considerations, one of which I have mentioned above. It gives Lagos a lot of mileage, both locally and internationally.

“That said, the theatre management should device methods of identifying, integrating and encouraging the local artists at the grassroots level. Give access to them to make use of the facility, and I think by this, the management would have chosen a path to deliver better to the creative community in Lagos State. The management should not limit its focus to Lagos alone, but veer its focus to other states to be able to fulfil its potential.”

Perhaps, it’s time to break away from the National Theatre’s bad reputation in the recent past with name-change that would reset people’s perception of the edifice, so it gets a new leash of life. This is the position of filmmaker and coach, Femi Odugbemi, who argues for perception-shifting lens about the iconic edifice, noting, however, that the main mandate for the theatre as rallying point for creatives and consumers of creatives should be imperative in the emerging calculations.

“I suspect that given the deal Lagos State Government put together with corporate investors to redesign the National Theatre environment and to create an entertainment hub certainly might have influenced the name-change of the National Theatre. My suspicion is that the National Theatre will continue to be National Theatre in the centre of all of this. Perhaps, the name-change is likely a branding initiative to cover the totality of the experiences that the environment will then be. It’s also important to state that given the number of years the National Theatre was neglected, the name-change might also be important to change the perception of people when they hear ‘National Theatre’, because unlike in the old days when the National Theatre was a golden national heritage – you talk of FESTAC, you talk of cultural expressions, you talk of great plays, you know, it was an amazing experience. The place was neat and clean; it was air-conditioned.

“Our recent experience of the National Theatre in the last 20 years has been poor security, bad toilets, poor facilities, crumbling infrastructure. So sometimes, the change of name might do some good, in order to reshape how we think of that place, and hopefully invite us to go there and experience something more pleasant.”

But Odugbemi is careful about what the outcome of the name-change should be for creatives, noting, “But does the new name alone do it? No; I hope that the new name is just the beginning, and that the Lagos Creative and Entertainment Centre is a hub for creative people – those who create and those who go there to experience entertainment in films, performances, arts and theatre. I hope it’s a lot more than just a name-change; I hope it’s a place of hope for young creatives, especially our large community of filmmakers and writers and dancers and poets.

“It so important for a city like Lagos to have a space that speaks to our cultural expressions, that speaks to our creative productions. I’m just hoping that those that put the new plan for the Lagos Creative and Entertainment Centre together have dotted the ‘i’s and crossed the ‘t’s in terms of making it not just a commercial opportunity, but also a cultural hub, a place to experience what it means to be a Nigerian!”

Also, President, Poets in Nigeria Initiative, Sir Eriata Oribhabor, said “renaming National Theatre, Lagos, as Lagos Creative and Entertainment Centre is a welcome development that should be commended,” saying it makes for inclusivity that the name did not allowed all along.
According to him, “The name-change may be unnecessary because a theatre is a place for creative expressions, inclusive of all forms of entertainment. However, considering what I suppose may be the general thinking of the average Nigerian, a theatre is purely for drama performances. It becomes necessary to open up people’s perspectives to see the theatre beyond drama or play performance.
“It will definitely help the edifice deliver more on the overall essence of its establishment. Creatives in the wider sense of the word will see it as home for both the honing and expression of their creative parts.

“The renovated National Theatre should first and foremost be seen as a touristic piece and destination. By so doing, it should be properly packaged for the world in such a way that a section of its managers should be trained to handle tourism and tourists as an added source of revenue. In this wise, everyone will take the aesthetic worth of the complex very seriously. Secondly, stakeholders covering all shades of creativity should be carried along to bring their activities to the theatre. A situation where the very expensive hotel halls in Lagos are being seen as all-in-all in hosting events will be a thing of the past.”

National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) also reacted to the purported name-change in statement signed by its president, Israel Eboh, titled ‘RE: RENAMING NATIONAL THEATRE’, it said, “Since this (name-change) was reported, stakeholders have expressed their surprise, wonderment and frustration at this “renaming” of a national edifice. As a responsible association, despite the many calls to comment, it was incumbent on us to consult and verify the truth in the renaming story. From our consultations across multiple sources, the following facts have emerged: 1.) The National Theatre remains National Theatre; 2.) The report is either a misrepresentation of facts or a misquote of the Hon. Minister, and 3.) The Lagos Creative and Entertainment Centre is the other four hubs of music, fashion, film and ICT that is (sic) to be built on the fallow ground around the National Theatre Complex by the CBN/Bankers Committee and the Lagos State Government.

“As a major stakeholder within the sector, NANTAP shall continue to monitor and engage government on the need to not only revamp this global iconic edifice, but also retain it as a national monument.”

…National Theatre is host to the proposed Lagos Creative and Entertainment Centre – GM, Ododo

HOWEVER, clarification came swiftly from the General Manager/Chief Executive Officer of the National Theatre, Prof. Sunnie Ododo, when contacted regarding the purported name-change, saying, “There is no name change. The news making the round could be seen as sensational journalism. The content of the minister’s address does not suggest change of the name of the National Theatre.”
According to Ododo, “This is what sparked the controversy from the minister’s address in Madrid, I guess: “In addition to the renovation, new hubs are being constructed, within the premises of the National Theatre, for fashion, Information, technology, film and music. With that, the National Theatre is now known as the Lagos Creative and Entertainment Centre.”

Ododo further explained that the Lagos Creative and Entertainment Centre referred to in the minister’s address are “the four vertical hubs that the Lagos State Government is co-building within the National Theatre environment. You take time and read the minister’s quoted lines in the story. National Theatre occupies (a) prominent space as an extant government agency. National Theatre is the host of the new centre (Lagos Creative and Entertainment Centre); that’s it, period. Besides, the National Theatre is a creation of a law! That law has not been repealed and there is no process in motion to do so as far as I know.”

The National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, was completed in 1976 when Lagos was still the seat of Nigeria’s political power and the Federal Government, led by Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo (rtd), was preparing the country to host the 2nd World Festival of African Arts and Culture, held a year later in Lagos in 1977, also known as FESTAC ’77. The 2022 edition of FESTAC will be held in May in Stone Town, Zanzibar, 45 years after the Lagos showpiece. FESTAC Town in Amuwo-Odofin was specially built as residence for the artists and scholars from around the world who would visit for the month-long artistic and cultural fiesta.

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