Journalism in the service of society

Commerce dragging theatre away from reach of its true owners – Adefila

(Being text of a keynote by Theatre contribution to Social Change and Development: Practice and Evaluation,” delivered by Segun Adefila, Founder/Artistic Director of Crown Troupe of Africa, CTA, at the Creative Imagination virtual conference on the theme, “Africa Hub for Sustainable Creative Economies” on June 10)

‘…three decades ago… Bariga was mainly known for poverty and violence but today, the story has changed. Young people have through the arts found a better channel for their youthful energy. Theatre therefore has provided an option to potential street soldiers who out of frustration might have diverted their energy towards antisocial engagements’

THEATRE for social change is one that is committed to making theatre that grows out of the communities it serves. Whether the community is in a location, such as Bariga, or of identity, such as the economically disadvantaged and violence prone demography or indeed an activist community, participation and access are core values. Such theatres have INTENTIONALITY at its core.

To help drive my point, may I then take us back to a time before now when the watchdogs of the early African societies were the custodians of their traditions. They were the priests, the bards, the griots, the drummers and other artisans. It was on their shoulders that the responsibility for checks and balance, continuance of order in times of ruptures etc., rested. They did not merely strive to exist; they existed for the purpose of their essence in their societies. For them, functionality was the essence of their existence.

Therefore, a society like Nigeria, that appears to be in constant strife with itself no doubt needs some attention and so cannot afford the luxury of art merely for the sake of art or art solely for commercial purposes. Do we only need the services of engineers, accountants, lawyers or doctors to make required realignment in our societies? Can the military or police solve the challenges posed by militants, terrorists, fanatics, freedom fighters, holy warriors or whatever name we choose to call them? Have the various agencies set up been able to curb the menace of drug abuse, corruption, or bad leadership etc.?

Here, as in the days of yore, theatre has a vital role to play. The communal nature of African theatre in its integrated form needs to be revived, polished and upgraded to fill the yawning gap of a gradually but surely decadent global society. Alarming as it may sound, it is a known fact that committed arts and complacency will likely forever remain strange bedfellows.

This perhaps may explain why the Nigerian dramatist, Ben Tomoloju, submitted in an interview granted the Guardian Newspaper of February 12, 2017 that ‘a nation without a theatre tradition is lost’.

In the same way, we believe and insist that our theatre must be a functional human engagement. Within its bowel, we must find that which fills a vacuum that not many other human endeavours can satiate. It is one that should be entertaining, informative, and sometimes didactic and caustic, as well as healing and communal. Our theater practice makes the comfortable uncomfortable and comforts the uncomfortable.

African theatre, by my reckoning, does not need only to be fossilized, frozen and presented to a world that appears to relish a ‘savage, primitive and uncultured’ Africa good enough for display on foreign stages and in museums ours is a living and organic theater.

My people would say, with due regards to the elderly members of this distinguished virtual audience before whom I dare not carelessly utter an (unfitting) proverb, that ‘Agba kii wa l’oja k’ori omo tuntun wo’. This is sometimes loosely translated to mean that ‘where there are elders in the market, a baby strapped to the back of a mother never has its head tilted’. The elders would quickly rise to the occasion by correcting the ‘anomaly’. This happens in order to avoid a rupture in the order of life. This, for me, means that the persistent wrong direction or position of a child’s head is an indication of the absence of elders in the market place of ideas. As my people would say, ‘Aiyé l’ojà…’loosely meaning the world is a market. Every market deserves its elders, so do societies, the artist.

This brings me to the contribution of arts and artists to social change and development. My discourse shall be more focused on theatre, I mean African Total Theatre, which is the melting pot of all other art forms. It is my belief, and I hope I am not in the wrong, that everyone here knows that art is a voice that echoes in a crisscross of seasons: night or day! Jubilation or tribulation!

For instance, the African masquerade tradition is a robust one; its coming into being requires the combined efforts of various artisans. The masquerade is regarded as the representative of the ancestors where I come from. Adorned in his costumes, the masquerade immediately assumes the multi-functional role of a caretaker whose duty it is to ensure the total well-being of his community. The masquerade is a virtuoso performer. Who chants, sings, dances and generally ‘acts’ out the role of warding off evil, while ushering in good tidings. Beyond performances, the masquerade also speaks to the conscience of the society. The spirit speaks truth to the hearts of kings and other rulers. This role is even so institutionalised by Yoruba people that they believe that ‘Oba kii pa Okorin’ loosely translated to mean that a king does not kill a bard .

However, whereas, art was previously chiefly for the nourishment and sustenance of both the metaphysical and physical essence of the African, today they tend to be more inclined towards the salient survivalist issues of tourism and its attendant materialism. The result is a reduced sense of responsibility by the artist and respect for the artist. At least in our local parlance, ‘Man must wack’. This appears like a coup deta’at where the head has been overthrown by the stomach. Little wonder, Solomon Irein Wangboje Nigeria’s pioneering Professor of Fine Art and a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Benin submits that:

The artists thus maintain their livelihood, but their arts degenerates’.

The question is, why and how close to the truth is this submission by Wagbonje? Does theatre have a space in the current globalization trend? How adaptive, proactive or reactive has it been? Has it been altered negatively in order to make it acceptable for the sole purpose of commercialization? How factual is Wole Soyinka’s assertion that the emotive progression which leads to communal ecstasy or catharsis has been destroyed in the process of re-staging?

As in the past, theatre in this age and time may regain its functional role of interventions and celebration in times of tribulations and triumphs.

As in the past, it may be mobile, flexible and adaptive without losing its authenticity.

Its authenticity, mobility, peculiarities, functionality as well as its exploratory abilities should be guided in order to save it from extinction or reduce it to the ‘bling-bling’ of current prevalent performances in the country.

African Theatre belonged to the people and it is oftentimes mass oriented so the damage done to it is gradually becoming more evident in the elitist toga it now seems to adorn where there are now fees for tables, VIP, VVIP and very soon maybe, over VIP. The implication is that theatre is gradually slipping out of the meagre reach of its true owners for the obvious reason of over commercialization.

The great Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who with his music, spoke truth to power remains our muse in Crown Troupe. We have decided to do with theatre, what Fela did with music. For like the ancient bards, Fela, a musician and social scientist never ceased to advocate for social rejuvenation through his music. His body of works are a testament to this fact. However, it would not escape a curious observer to wonder why, it appears the society turned a deaf ear while Fela spoke. For, what he saw and sang about in his time, are still present today like the predictions of a prophet. Though most times a daunting task and sometimes disheartening, some artists have taken it upon themselves to keep playing their traditional role in the society which are but not limited to, entertain, document and inform.

For instance, our company Crown Troupe is based in Bariga. The location is arguably the biggest academic and cultural community in Africa ,considering the fact that, within its environs are various schools from nursery to tertiary levels, including the University of Lagos, where I got my formal education, and also home to musicians of diverse generations and genres as well as theatre companies. For instance, the Bariga Artists Forum (BAF) has over 60 fine and performing arts companies ranging from budding to established ones.

Can you imagine that less than three decades ago, this same Bariga was mainly known for poverty and violence but today, the story has changed. Young people have through the arts found a better channel for their youthful energy. Theatre therefore has provided an option to potential street soldiers who out of frustration might have diverted their energy towards antisocial engagements. Theatre Therapy, Theatre-In- Education, Theatre for Development and other such applications of theatre practices are aimed at contributing to social change and development.

For its sustainability, let me round off with a quote from the great humanist and poet, Maya Angelou:

You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.

Thank you.

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