* ‘Drama now taking backseat with the rise of cinema, television culture’
* ‘We can’t give drama the responsibility of solving problems, but to ask questions, to investigate society‘
Henry Akubuiro; Olubunmi Familoni; Olatunbosun Taofeek; Prof. Obari Gomba; Nigeria LNG’s GM, External Relations and Sustainable Development, Mr. Andy Odeh; Prof. Chris Anyokwu; Cheta Igbokwe; Prof. Victor Dugga and Abuchi Modilim shortly after the conversation with the 11 playwrights
By Godwin Okondo
ACTORS Francis Onwochei, Ropo Ewenla, Hadiza Yadoo, Anwuli Onwochei and Bridget Okonkwo provided the first insight into the plays competing for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2023 worth USD$100,000, as they regaled the on-site and online audience of literary enthusiasts with excerpts from the 11 plays. This was after the Programme Chair of Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), Mr. Jahman Anikulapo had steered proceedings to the point of close conversation with the playwrights and their motivations for writing and how their plays respond to the socio-cultural milieu they are set. On hand to steer the conversation was journalist and writer, Mr. Anote Ajeluorou, through whom the audience gained further insight into the works at yet another memorable CORA-NLNG Book Party at the Shell Hall of MUSON Centre, Onikan, Lagos on Sunday, August 6, 2023. This year is dedicated to the genre of drama. However, technical issues prevented author of Dance of the Sacred Feet, Ade Adedeji, fom joining the conversation virtually.
First was the author of The Brigadiers of a Mad Tribe, Abuchi Modilim, who said his play “explores the Igbo metaphysics, world view and cosmology. It’s also a political satire that mirrors our society and most prominent matters ongoing now.” Modilim further provided his thoughts on the state of drama in the society, noting that the challenge of staging a play, an essential requirement for good drama, was huge, adding, “A play is not complete (without performing it on stage), because like everyone said, it’s not like other genres that you just have to read. A play is fully appreciated when it is staged in theatre, so it’s not easy for playwrights, because when you don’t have producers to stage your play, you have to do that with your money and writers don’t make much from writing in this part of the world.”
US-based Abideen Abolaji Ojomu, author of Ojuelegba Crossroads, who joined virtually, said his play is about self-hate among Africans, a situation he said has stifled meaningful development on the continent and why others, look down on Africans. He canvassed a change of attitude and self-love.
“My book explores the need for Africans to come together,” Ojomu said. “As Africans, we don’t love ourselves and that’s the reason for racism. My book is trying to project a paradigm where Africans appreciate the fact that we need to unite, and that’s only when we can take advantage of our resources without being at the mercy of the world. Ojuelegba teaches that if we take care of ourselves, we can take Africa to a greater place. The reasons for the Nigeria Civil War are still with us. We are unable to resolve our differences. Every time there is discussion on the need for us to go our separate ways, but we can do more when we work together.”
Titled in Hausa, Gidan Juju, according to Prof. Victor S. Dugga, “tells a story of the ethnic groups in North Central Nigeria. It is said that if the story of the hunt is told from the perspective of the hunter, the lion will always die. So, the lion needs to tell his own story, so you can see his perspective. There are many groups in North Central Nigeria with untold stories, or told from the perspective of the hunter. What I’ve done is tell the story that has not been heard, in the last days of colonialism, going back to history and forecasting to the present where we seem to be losing tradition and are at a crossroads, and not knowing how to embrace technology and modernity. I have some suggestions in the play as to how this should go forward. I want to thank the Nigeria LNG for the prize because it has become increasingly difficult for writers to continue to write without encouragement, and the expectation, for me, is that people will read and understand, and continue bringing ideas on board because ideas build a nation. This engagement with literature is to enhance our ideas.”
Although drama is a compelling genre that should have mass appeal on account of its communal nature, Dugga said the reality on ground was different, because, according to him, “The first challenge is lack of theatre houses, so we have not built a culture of raising an audience to promote your plays. Compared to the novel genre, drama is the one that can educate more people, especially in a very large, illiterate population. People can understand your drama, even if they don’t understand the grammar you are speaking. You need to raise an audience and also perform the plays. I took a look at the generation of Soyinka; today he is called Kongi, even though he has written other genres, but drama seems to be the most outstanding. I teach playwriting, and some of the ideas that come up are really fantastic, but when people are out of this training with motive to display their art, it mortifies and they simply find their way into some other industries. We have damaged a lot of playwrights by not giving them expression. We need to encourage more of corporate sponsorships, and I think that would encourage people.”
Prof. Victor Dugga making a point while Cheta Igbokwe (left) and Abuchi Modilim (right) look on
For Cheta Igbokwe, Homecoming was borne out a particular moment in his family life when he had to receive a relative he had not seen in 11 years. The weight of waiting became the subject that informed his crafting the Homecoming. He expressed gratitude to the prize sponsor, Nigeria LNG, saying, “I want to thank Nigeria LNG for bringing me to Lagos, because I wrote the very first dialogue of Homecoming here in Lagos, at Murtala Mohammed airport in January 18, 2019. I was in Lagos to receive my sister who had been out of the country for 11 years, and I was the only family member in Lagos then. Every flight that came in looked like hers. The family had given me the burden to receive her on arrival, but my own burden was if I would be able to recognize someone who left when I was 11. Though we see pictures on social media, but I wondered what it would feel like if I failed to recognize my beloved sister, and I had this burden of waiting for her and praying that I recognize her, and I then decided to write a story about the problem of recognition, and that is the story of Homecoming.”
Like Duga, Igbokwe also enumerated the challenges of staging a play in an impoverished environment where tickets for a show might be unaffordable for most citizens.
“Homecoming was first performed at the Arts Theatre at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), on May 6, 2021, and August 5, 2021,” he informed his audience. “And earlier this year, it was read at the University of Iowa, US, on May 5. And recently, I also had a new play, Awele, performed at UNN. So, I could say that I have two experiences of my play being performed on stage, and I can start now to make the argument of how expensive theatre is. If you were in Nsukka last month to see Awele, you wouldn’t believe it cost us N1.5 million to put it on stage, because you are going to pay actors and directors, and producers will look for funding to make sure the lighting manager, stage designer and theatre hall are being paid for. And then it is even cheaper in universities, because students come for rehearsals and don’t even get the payment that established actors get.
“Imagine taking this play out of the school to a place where the people who are working in different sectors come for rehearsals after work. Will you pay their transport fare? What are you going to pay them if you decide to make it their fulltime job? It’s really expensive, and I think what helped past generations of Nigerian playwrights was because most of them were professors. So, it was easy to write plays and it gets into the hands of students who dramatize them, but if you do not have the luxury of teaching in the university, you just rely on producers finding your play worthy and performing it. With the kind of budget in the country now, directors are struggling and you are talking about a stage play where people find it difficult to pay N1,000 for ticket to see it. You can’t take it outside because of funding.”
Fifth timer on the longlist with poetry and drama, and author of Grit, Prof. Obari Gomba is not new to political themes as his last drama outing Gorilla Post threads a similar path. Gomba’s candour earned him applause as to the mechanics of a jury in a prestigious prize as The Nigeria Prize for Literature, and commended the prize sponsors for energising the Nigerian literary scene. Gomba called on other corporate entities to emulate Nigeria LNG to expand the scope and reach of the literary scene.
According to him, “I wanted to write a play about politics. It turned out to be that there is an interface between the domestic family and the public in the play, and it creates abrasions between the central characters, until we come to a point where the family is as endangered as the society. I’m also excited about the infusion of music and spectacles in the play.
“I’ve learnt something about cautious optimism, because I have been on this stage for the fifth time, but what I do understand is that the value of this prize is bigger than the verdict of the jury. This is the biggest reward system for the creative writing sector in Nigeria, and every year, we get to position ourselves for this prize which brings blessings to the life of the winner. I pray that the Nigeria LNG continues to thrive and invest in this prize, and let’s hope other companies can learn from what they are doing. We have a cast of writers across generations every year. This shows that our creativity is not tied to any age bracket. Nigerians are creating works of excellence across generations. That is the biggest story from this investment.”
Actors Ropo Ewenla and Hadiza Yadoo performing excerpts from the plays
“There isn’t a single role for drama if we are trying to establish a role it plays,” Gomba said in response to his thoughts on the state of drama and literature in Nigerian society today, stating that Nigerian drama has a fantastic future in spite it seeming to have taken a backseat on account of technology. “The primary role of a play is to be a play, and that does not mean that it has no social value. It has to be a good play, and the old maxim: ‘to teach and delight’ has been established through time; so, what drama does is representation.
“As to where it is today, it is fantastic that we have this cast of playwrights, because if you look at Nigerian literature, it seems that drama is now taking a backseat with the rise of cinema and television culture. But we must give credit to those who are continuously creating plays. If we talk about playwriting, it doesn’t have the same visibility as prose fiction and poetry in contemporary Nigerian literary space, which is to say that the playwrights on this table are lovers of drama. If there is a genre that deserves a greater intervention now it’s drama, because a lot of things go into the production of a play. If I write a novel and go through the editorial process, I find myself a publisher and the book is out in the public. But for a play to be a play, I have to do a presentation and stage it, which is also part of the coming alive of that play, and I hope to publish it.
“The investment has many layers you did not find applicable to the other genres, but the good thing is that we are still producing drama, even if it is not as big as those days when (Femi) Osofisan, Bode Sowande, (Wole) Soyinka and Ola Rotimi were producing good plays in our university system. What this means is that there is a call on all of us to take drama from the closets of the universities, bring them squarely to town, and we must thank those who are doing it now, because all of us must get involved in that process.”
Illegal or irregular migration is theme of Prof. Chris Anyokwu’s The Boat People, who said his play is based on “a great motif, an organizing principle behind the global concept of migration. The two biggest topics of global discuss in the 21st century are climate crisis and migration. The Boat People addresses the latter. This is about the whole concept of people migrating from the Global South to the Northern Hemisphere. The Boat People dramatizes this concept of people from African countries moving through Niger to Libya, through the Mediterranean Sea on rickety boats that very often capsize. We are talking of Africans who try to travel to Europe on overloaded boats and end up drowning. We have a plethora of stories in that regard. The idea is for the government and that of the Global South to look inward to see how they can fix their economies to create a better life for their citizens.”
Although drama or play might not solve social problems, Anyokwu said, however, that “Drama, and every profession under the sun, is a form of storytelling. For drama, you tell stories by acting it out on stage, and drama is an imitation of an action, and right at the heart of the philosophy of drama is mimicry, which rides on the principle of entertainment, but you are joking seriously. I believe that a writer who abandons his serious duty is just like that ridiculous person in the tale who runs after a rat fleeing from the flames, when his house is on fire. What writers do, as the moral barometer of society, is to hold up the mirror, bring out their strengths and weaknesses. I believe that drama plays an important role in society, one of which is therapy. Drama, as a genre of literature, is there to address problems of society with a view to making sure that people in society are able to overcome them. Drama is very important. People go to the theatre to see a play and are entertained, laugh and overcome some anxiety, and they feel better.”
Olubunmi Familoni’s When Big Masquerades Dance Naked also threshes political theme in response to how the people are serially betrayed by politicians and the need for their unmasking.
“Masquerades are a representation of African spirits, and that mask is what makes them accessible to humans,” he said. “So, I used that as a metaphor for the story I’m telling in this book, because it’s the story of the tussle between the elites and the people. In this case, the masquerades are the elites the people are fighting against. You are not supposed to unmask a masquerade, because it’s a taboo and it would cause problems for that person or community. At the climax of this book, the politicians and king were unmasked, and that’s where the shame and disgrace come from. We have seen the resistance of the people against the power of the elites, and we have seen this happening and that is the story I’m trying to tell. The people were putting up a resistance against a corrupt politician and also their king who is colluding with him as well.”
The role of drama, according to Familoni, is not to be prescriptive or provide answers to social problems, but to engage in the philosophical quest of providing stimuli that point the people in the right direction.
“Just like every other literary genre, people talk about how art is something that is supposed to teach, build a moralistic society and things like that,” Familoni offered. “This question has been a debate as far back as the 17th century, but I think we have to situate these questions in societies, because societies are not homogeneous. One of the things drama should do in a society is answer very important philosophical and political questions. We can’t give drama the responsibility of solving problems, but you have to be able to ask questions, to investigate society. When mirroring society, you are also investigating the problem as well. In my book, I talked about the people rising up against the elites; it asks the question: ‘why are they inaccessible in the first place and why are they binding together against the lower classes?”
“Ask these questions and let society see your play and think about how things are. After drama has done all of that in the society, then it can entertain, because you can’t begin to dance when you haven’t solved your problems. In society where they don’t have as much basic problems as we have, then you can argue about art for arts sake and make people laugh, but we can’t afford that in our society. First, you have to teach, then ask questions, before you think about making people laugh.”
With Where is Patient Zero?, Olatunbosun Taofeek is asking questions about the politics of medicine, ethical questions about the conduct of pharmaceutical companies during the pandemic and the high drama about Covid-19 that held the world hostage and lockdown.
According to him, “The inspiration came from the Covid-19 period, and out of everything happening at that period, there was this problem everyone kept ignoring and the West tried to cover it up, and that question is, ‘who is patient zero – the first carrier of the virus?’ At a point in the discourse, China was being accused and UK talked about a lab, and at a point, we couldn’t hear anything. At that point in time, I was close to my television to monitor the case to see how these guys want to disguise or answer this question, because I believe the response would have been answered if we knew the first carrier, but since we don’t know who he was, another virus which would be more deadly is likely to surface. If the leaders and scientists could not provide that answer, I thought a creative work should respond to this question, and that was how the play came about. The president in the play is fed up with the university institutions, and he decides to lock them up and give the keys to people in Europe. He gathers scientists from this side of the country but it seems like a political game, people moderating the happenings behind the scene, and when the president could not give a solution, he decides to go into the virus business and introduce it into the environment.”
Taofeek’s play sums up the West’s attitude to the non-democratisation of Covid-19 vaccines, the unfairness of it all and calls for accountability of medical and pharmaceutical practitioners to the shroud of secrecy that tended t becloud the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccines for it.
“Looking at what is happening at the global level, we have come to understand that there seems to be a very high level of unfair play, and this unfair game going on at the international level is seriously affecting everyone,” he said. “Actually, science should be devoid of politics, but what we have come to realize is that there seems to be politics in medical practice. Was it a experiment that went wrong, and the people involved were not accountable? Similarly, ebola virus came and it was shrouded in secrecy, and they tell us the story of people eating bats. You need to be an intellectual to understand the questions being asked, and the fact is that everybody must be accountable of every patient dying in the hospital. That way they will be careful whatever they’re doing. Likewise, you need to hold me accountable if I’m not able to perform up to the expectation of a literary person.
“We are yet to hold people in medicine accountable for what happened to us during Covid19. Look at the way the vaccine went. Some pharmaceutical companies made billions from it, and the vaccines were not available to some people in parts of the world. Do you want to tell me that all those are not conspiracies? The play is trying to tell the world that they shouldn’t think we’re not intelligent, because of our level of poverty, or that we don’t know what is happening at the global scene. We have to hold them accountable. After this, let us ask them to provide patient zero to the world.”
Henry Akubuiro’s historical play Yamtarawala – The Warrior King takes a different tone, however, but also extends the interrogation intent of drama with a view to unearthing the less known cultural life of a people. But like all kingdoms, there’s always trouble, as Yamtarawala’s own son rose up against him.
“I want to interrogate history, and when I come across the story of Yamtarawala, who was a Kanuri priest from the Borno Empire,” Akubuiro explained. “The story is set in the 16th century. Nothing seems to be coming out of that part of Nigeria, and they have lots of stories that haven’t been dramatized. There’s this real life character that founded Biu kingdom. The kingdom is the second largest emirate in Borno State after Maiduguri. They broke away from Gazagamo, which was the capital of ancient Kanem Borno Empire that was founded in the 7th century. By the 16th century, there was a division in Kanem Borno Empire over the right of succession between the two sons of the living king of Gazagamo. Abdullahi, who later became Yamtarawala, was the first son of the king, and the younger son moved southward to found his kingdom, which is Biu, which is the only place that has never been overrun by Boko Haram until now.
“In the play, I tried to interrogate history as to how it relates to the present. This powerful personality who is being compared to Shaka Zulu or Moremi, why are we not celebrating these kind of personalities? These are untold stories of Northeast Nigeria, so I decided to recreate this story using drama. I’m talking about the resilience of man. If you read the play, you find out that when Yamtarawala fell out with Kanem Borno Empire, instead of fighting his brother, he moved southward to found his own empire, and it wasn’t an easy journey for him. It took him many years. He conquered territories and came across so many kingdoms and chiefdoms, and he was coming from an Islamic background. He showed resilience and that he was born a king. So, he was able to overcome all obstacles in his way. Another one is that you find culture and dances (in the play) you have never seen in Nigerian theatre before. So, I’m trying to bring into focus this part of Nigeria – culture-wise and history-wise.
“What do you learn from Yamtarawala? Aside founding the kingdom, towards the end of his lifetime, he decided to conquer his own family, and his son rose up against him. The father became larger than life. He was scared of his own shadow. He saw his son as a threat and his son revolted against him, and then he committed suicide. So, when you become a leader, how do you manage your success? Yamtawarala got what he wanted , but he couldn’t manage it eventually, so he died. That’s in a nutshell.
Author of The Spellbinder, elder Prof. Bode Sowande, who also joined the conversation virtually, has mental health in society as his preoccupation. However, the subjects of his drama are politicians whose inquiry illuminates in an intriguing manner, as to the cause of most political actions, whether they shouldn’t be traced to mental illness that these characters secretly suffer.
“My motivation for my play has many layers,” according to septuagenarian. “The challenge of mental health is monumental. There is a lot of it in Nigerian politics. Not everyone with mental health challenge roams the streets in rags. It’s the inability to communicate, feeling locked in or out, and can be defined in so many words by psychiatrists. In my play, there are lots of characters troubled by this issue, in different situations, and therapy comes through the ability to break down barriers of communication. In the play, you have three billionaires, two suffering from mental health challenge and one suffering from the stigma of mental health challenge, not even remembering that his wife had post-partum psychosis when his child was born. How do you handle mental health in Nigeria? That is the whole purpose of the play.”
The audience, too, had a say in the matter as they asked the writers questions of their own. For instance, what are the chances of using drama to change politicians to work for society. Duga’s response was illuminating and points to the view held in some quarters that literature may not change society so easily, when he said, “If you want to use your drama to change politicians, you may fail woefully. They do not necessarily have the time to attend to you or read. However, drama is used to conscientise people, and when they are, the politicians will get to know and listen to the people. On the digital aspect, we are facing a challenge. AI is coming through. I’ve done some analysis and that thing is so sharp. We have to do a lot to get our books out there. If we are going to produce an audiobook, we need industries to digitize them. We need secondary industries to support creative writers.”
On how to maximise virtual performances and audiobooks, Gomba said although he was open to such possibility, he was however, cautious especially of putting his plays in the film format, as he has been variously advised: “I want to make copies of this play for people to read and also make it available online, and hope those who can’t buy physical copies can buy them. They are already accessible in online platforms. People have asked me to convert the play to screen script, but I’m very cautious about moving forward. Let’s hope I get to win, then I can make big investments.”
For young writers wishing to horn their craft using older writers as mirrors, Anyokwu advised that “Writers should write in a way that their books get to the end user, so upcoming writers use them as models for their own work. We have lots of challenges in Nigeria, but it’s important to have a value chain in the book business, so that the writer is not the one who does everything. For those of us who write, drama comes to us better than other genres, and drama is the most conventional platform. You just see your work memorized and it is so immediate. You don’t need to sit alone like a solo reader, but you are in a community of co-creators.”
In an era of tech, digital marketing and Artificial Intelligence (AI), Familoni provided a context for playwrights to navigate the tricky terrain, saying, “Literature has to move in time with technological advancement, and it has become easier for poetry and prose. Drama has had challenges, because we know that from the history of drama, it is primarily on stage, and very much versatile. When you start filming it, it is no longer on stage. Removing drama from the stage medium makes it no longer a play.
“Using tech, people film dramas on stage and put it on streaming platforms, so it’s still there in its original form and it’s married to tech. There is a negative aspect to it, like AI. There is currently a writers’ strike in the US, because they are being replaced with AI, and if that begins to happen in drama, playwrights will be out of work. We have felt these things and are writing from experiences which technology doesn’t have.”
For a writer who hails from Nigeria’s Southeast, but lives in the Southwest, how did Akubuiro manage to gather resources for a play steeped in Northeast’s oral history?
According to him, “There is a book written by the president of the Nigerian Folklore Society (NFS), Dr. Bukar Usman, The History of Biu. He gave it to me to review. After reading, I saw something beyond review and he asked if I wanted to go to Borno State to do a journalistic story on that part of the state, but I refused. So he sent the Galadima of the state to convince me to go and see things from that part of Nigeria, and I did and was fascinated by the culture. My interest for that drama grew, and last year when I was writing this play, I went to the Emir’s palace in Borno and asked him questions on the artifacts and Yamtarawa story. I also spent time with the people to learn about them and I used that information to write this play. I’m happy that the people from that part are excited because an Igbo man came from the east to write their story.”
Conversation moderator, Ajeluorou, could only wish the 11 playwrights luck, and for the best book to win the ultimate literary prize in Nigeria.