“The real language of African Theatre could only be found among the people – the peasantry in particular – in their life, history and struggles”
Ngugi Wa Thiongo
We can begin with the moment I became one with the theatre. That temporal existence in my first year when I completed the triangle of actor, audience and stage with a young actor whose performance put me into a silent serendipity – a state that would manifest two years after that fateful performance. Those two years have led up to this day, as I put this to paper as a third year student of a Theatre Arts department. Or we could begin further back in time with Chief Hubert Ogunde, to 1944 when he created his professional theatre company which after two years – just as my fateful coincidental theatrical realization – he performed “Tiger’s Empire”, a stage performance that attacked colonial rule. Chief Hubert Ogunde would go on to put up a myriad of theatrical performances that enjoyed the people’s enthusiasm and satiated their need for a pristine allusion to the African self and a voice against national subjugation. Or we might as well go as far back in time as possible, to a moment in our collective history, where one amongst our forefathers wore the Egungu masquerade costume or the Adanma masquerade of the Igbos and the people escorted him in a unified theatrical and ritualistic expression. Our people are a people of ritual, and ritual to a large extent connotes repetition and cyclical definitions, so I must return to that place, that moment this all began – with me, an actor, and a stage.
I do not love the theatre as a space. I love the theatre as an entity of people, an agglomeration of varying artistic presentations and its two-way communication express – actor and audience. The theatre, given a modicum, can mend social boundaries, can make statements, can create awareness and in its simplest form, can light fire in the eyes of a vast number of audience members or a greenhorn undergraduate. The European theatre today enjoys – as it always has – all the enthusiasm and acknowledgement Chief Hubert Ogunde’s theatre enjoyed from the 40s till the death of the Chief in 1990. The Nigerian theatre today however, has lost that glimmer, respect and awe it used to command from the audience. This death of a national theatre culture – by theatre culture, I mean the acknowledgement and appreciation of theatre – can be associated to a number of reasons; the rise of the equally defunct film industry; lack of intensive governmental support; the repulsive state of the national theatre; the massive crossover of theatre stage directors into the film industry; and the exorbitant price of theatre performance tickets today. Our people have been so bludgeoned by the over-productivity of the film industry that they have forgotten the immediacy of the theatre. I am most certain that my parents have never been to the theatre and this will most likely be the same story with all the people in my age range. Is it that in our history of juntas, a civil war, juntas, an ambiguous democratic rule, juntas and an ambiguous democratic rule we have forgotten a means of protest so interwoven with our existence? Or is it simply that the film did this before the theatre and thus usurped the theatre at speaking for and to the people?
There are a number of functional theatres today – with quasi-professional spaces and spurious theatrical offerings – but they are highly commercialized because gate fees stand averagely at ₦5,000. And those rare ₦1,000 offers fall into found-and-created spaces and further down the ladder of performances and spaces are those found in the nation’s higher institutions which start from ₦300. An important factor in the demise of theatre culture among our people today is the exorbitant fees at the entrance of performances that have all the money to spend on colours and glimmer and spectacle but lack qualitative truthful theatrical experiences. For fear of being misunderstood, I present an iota of clarity. The theatre must at all times be an exaggerated and glamourized form of reality. Colours, glimmers and audacious spectacle are allowed to be present in the art form. But this extravagance and actor exaggeration must be done consciously with the audience (the final consumer) in mind. Audience in this respect unambiguously means every class in the social system. The Nigerian theatre’s glimmers and colours are only for a particular class. This type of theatre, I’ll term ‘Theatre for the Rich’. This theatre pushes the bourgeois and the common man out its door and exists simply for commercial gain. Arguments for this type of theatre must undisputedly be termed selfish and myopic because in a clime where the theatre culture is abysmal and that sacred art form silenced by a noisy film industry, this type of theatre is suicidal to the national theatre culture. The key figure of this piece, Hubert Ogunde is credited to have contemporized and commercialized the Nigerian theatre (the Yoruban theatre in particular), but even Hubert Ogunde’s theatre was open to all classes of people. And if we go back momentarily in time (again), we will arrive at the doorstep of our initiation rites, wedding ceremonies, our funeral passages, and find that the theatre never selected or rejected only a particular class. The theatre – as I have said earlier – is a singular entity of different peoples, races, sexes and classes. And if for variety purpose, we divert to a colonial selection as prototype, we will find that although the Roman, Greek and Shakespearean theatres had demarcations, all classes of the people were present for performances or better put, were allowed financially to see performances. The doors of the Nigerian theatre today are largely closed to the common man. The absence of the common man in the theatre has irrevocably contributed to dearth of the country’s theatre culture. The common man in Nigeria are those who do not have ₦5,000 (and sometimes even, ₦1,000) to spare for a ‘side attraction’. They are those who haven’t had their salaries credited to them by the state or federal government (the almighty civil service). The common man is the bus conductor, the petty trader, the taxi driver, the bank attendant. The common man is (possibly) you and me. The absence of the aforementioned set of people has reduced the potential revenue that the theatre could present to the country’s economy through taxation of spaces by state and local government. The theatre has core elements that define its existence – a space, a performer and an audience. One element is substantially missing in this holy triangle and its absence has thus subjected the theatre to artistic profanity.
The revival of theatre culture cannot be sensitized with exorbitant gate fees. To reawaken this ancient urge within the people, we must obviously fling the doors of theatre open to all classes and perhaps show elements hitherto present in our own form of theatre, which in this case are ritual and communality. When I speak of the common man, I speak even for the market woman and those who have never heard and will most likely never hear of the theatre. When I speak about the revival of the theatre, I speak of a holistic national revival. This can first be arrived by the theatre itself answering a collectively silent but pertinent. question; what does this audience want? This question is there, laying underneath rubbles of forgotten actor-audience interrelated immediacy. Forgotten beneath years and years of active and authentic theatrical spatial existence available for all classes. Sadly, throwing the theatre back in the face of the audience will not solve this problem. It will be procedural and excruciating. I do not believe in fact, that it can be reawakened completely in my lifetime (and I am a young man). But it must start somewhere and if not now, then when? If not us, then who?
Some solutions are presented in this fashion:
1. A collective, national competition that holds at the end of every year, around the festive period (when we are most simultaneously active and relaxed) where each theatre department in every university in the country selects its best student play performance and these plays are run before seasoned theatre directors at the National Theatre before a national audience and a winner is selected. Of course a form of incentive must be made available. This gives a national platform of exposure for upcoming stage directors (and even potential screen directors) to express their talents.
2. If the people will not go to the theatre, then the theatre will go to the people. Ngugi Wa Thiongo held rehearsals in open spaces in the eyes of the Kenyan people thus demystifying the theatrical process. He accepted contributions from strangers and passers-by. When the performances got to the people, they found their contributions in them. This undoubtedly solidifies the communal theme of African theatre. Although, Ngugi isn’t totally our solution, he is a valid example.
3. A more active (than the current taciturn ones) and necessarily proactive and collective theatre student association be created that addresses issues concerning this problem and those to arise to replace it when it is finally battled. Membership into this body should be compulsory for every theatre arts department in the country’s higher institutions.
I have been accosted verbally and labelled an idealist for believing the Nigerian theatre stage can be a valid platform for directorial, musical, dance and generally, theatrical inclined artistic expression. I find this distasteful because if we all spend an average of four years in theatre departments at our various universities only to graduate and serve the film industry, why come into the department to begin with? I also understand that there is a faction of students who find themselves in the department because of lack of adequate film schools in the country. I am amongst those people, but from that moment I saw that actor – in my first year –, that momentous spark between audience and performer that film mediates, that silent acknowledgement and recognition of audience in performer and vice versa, that immediacy gifted to performer and audience by the stage, it all changed for me. I understand that this might not be the same for others, but certainly, these film enthusiasts if presented with a functional theatre and a willing audience (of all classes) might be converted into the light of the stage.
I must end this as I began, due to the cyclical nature of my essence as an African – with a new and more defining theatrical moment (this time not with a student actor, but a student director) in my third year. The climax of any theatrical experience can either be a resounding applause and shouts by the audience in acceptance of the performance presented to them. Or it could be a deafening silence which is birthed by an audience that has seen something truly profound and has been transported into the endless realm of introspection. I found myself a member of the latter recently when Sarah Kane’s “4.48 psychosis” was presented by a student director in my department. An audience of near 300 left the theatre thinking and rethinking critically about what depression and insanity are and how these conditions affect the human psyche. I imagined how theatre could hold the common man and enlighten the pastor beating a depressed child to cure her of “witchcraft”. How that theatre could enlighten the common man about the true colours of an oppressive but ambiguously deceitful government. Or simply, as it did two years ago for me, spark interest for the stage in a random young enthusiastic audience member.