By Anote Ajeluorou
Lawyer, poet and eminent playwright, Fred Agbeyegbe, who is fondly called Uncle Fred in theatre circles, turns 76 today, Friday, July 22. Already, theatre scholars and producers have lined up activities to honour one of the pillars of Nigerian theatre. Revered as a staunch patron of theatre, Agbeyegbe’s contributions to the theatre is legendary and many of those he touched or who watched him from the side-lines took time to pay special tribute to the man, who made an indelible mark with his Ajo Production company. Agbeyegbe will be honoured today with the Grand Living Legend of Nigerian Theatre award at Cinema II, National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, by the Lagos State chapter of National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners. He is the first to receive this award of exceptional excellence in theatre support in Nigeria. Also, a command performance of Agbeyegbe’s play BUDISO will be performed in his honour during the ceremony Prof. Duro Oni (Dean, Faculty of Arts and lecturer, Creative Arts Department, University of Lagos) I think he has effectively combined his law practice with the theatre and produced remarkable works in the 1980s and 1990s. The most memorable one is The King Must Dance Naked, which a woman, Clarion Chukwura played a lead role. It was very well done. Then there was BUDISO that Jide Ogungbade directed. Agbeyegbe has done very well for the theatre; he is somebody we wish to emulate. He did many cases as a lawyer. And he lived a clean life. He wrote plays and gave theatre people opportunity to produce them and work with him. At 76, he may want to revisit some of the works and look at a possible revival of live theatre, which is on the decline now. He is a man we respect very much in the theatre. We salute him for his courage. Rechard Mofe-Damijo -RMD (star actor in the Ajo Productions series of the plays and the Ajo Festival of plays, 1996 and culture administration) Fred Agbeyegbe can be described as the person who gave of his substance and soul for the survival of the theatre in the ‘80s. If not for him, I would not have been able to express my talent as I did with his Ajo Production. He gave me my first major character. Thank God for keeping his life till now. One thing that happened with him was the intellectualisation of the theatre. With him, we’d look at the sociological backgrounds to the plays and discuss the plays while rehearsing them. Uncle Agbeyegbe is an amazing man; when everybody was busy building houses, he spent whatever he had on the theatre. What I missed most was the fact that we are not able to sustain the legacy he established in the theatre. Art needs sustenance. He turned his plays into festivals, where activities took place. Royalties that used to sustain the arts no longer exists. Things have changed. It’s a pity we are not able to sustain what he left behind, his legacy in the theatre. Terra Kulture is trying its best to sustain it. But I’m glad some replication is taking place right now, especially in a place like Delta State and some other states that have some of my colleagues as advisers on entertainment. Clarion Chukwura (star actress, who was also involved in Ajo plays) That God for giving the thespian of my generation somebody like Fred Agbeyegbe because if we have people like Uncle Agbeyegbe, we’ll still have live theatre in this country, we’d still be staging plays everyday in this country. But he’s one theatre person; he couldn’t do it alone. For what he did, he wouldn’t be forgotten in a lifetime. Uncle Fred was the first person, who paid me one thousand naira (N1000) for performing in his play (The King Must Dance Naked), in 1983. He is the first non-theatre person to invest in it because of his love. He is easily the first patron of the theatre in the country. He invested so much in the theatre. I wish him the best from my heart. Of course, I do have a sense of nostalgia with him. He gave me an experience; we used to spend two to three months in hotels rehearsing, and everything was provided. He treated us like stars. When I did The King Must Dance Naked, I had just done Ali Balogun’s movie and Wole Soyinka’s Camwood on the Leaves. Both Balogun and Agbeyegbe had taken their wives to watch the command performance of Camwood on the Leaves and they liked what they saw me do. Uncle Fred, although he didn’t make any money, he kept at it with Ajo Productions and Ajofest. He just loved the theatre. He has the feeling that the original Englishman has about the theatre. There was an intellectual side to him as well. He wrote these plays and funded them. He was a true patron of the theatre. He is a gifted writer and he allowed the artists to do their job. He never interfered with what the director was doing with his plays. Unlike other playwrights at the time that personally directed their own plays, Uncle Fred gave you a free hand to work to your creative best. He had implicit trust in the creative community. But first, he would do his research on the director, who must understand his plays. He just wanted to see what they would come forth with in his work. One thing I took away from his works is a sense of history, particularly of his Itsekiri people. As an actor and a student of history, I came away with a lot of knowledge about the Itsekiri and his depth of love and need to tell stories about his people. Lara Akinsola (acted in his plays) I think in the ‘80s, he contributed a lot to the growth of the theatre. He wrote plays and had them performed. We had Ajofest, which was his project. He wrote plays; had them performed and made a festival out of them. No one has ever done so ever since. I see him as a benefactor of the theatre industry. He is a legend in a way. He was one of the few that paid so well; he camped artists and ensured everybody was happy. However, since his time, things have gone down in the theatre. Nevertheless, we appreciate him a lot; he was one of a few that made things happen back then. I say kudos to him. He is somebody well respected in the theatre. I acted in all his four plays back then. I once played in The King Must Dance Naked, Woe unto Death, The Last Omen and BUDISO in 1986. I will also perform in BUDISO today, Friday to honour Uncle Fred at his 76th birthday. Well, I wish him all the best, and long life. You know, 76 is not old enough. He came to watch the rehearsals of BUDISO; he didn’t look that old. He looked healthy. Prof. Ahmed Yerima (Theatre scholar and administrator) Fred Agbeyegbe’s contribution to the theatre is enormous. What he did was to show us that you don’t have to be a core theatre person to be a lover of theatre. He didn’t only participate, he gave his best. He also created jobs with his Ajo Productions company. Nigerians will not forget his plays easily: The King Must Dance Naked, Woe unto Death and BUDISO. He is a trailblazer for people like Wole Oguntokun of Theatre@Terra; he is also a lawyer and a theatre lover. He began to define for us what a playwright-producer is in the theatre. However, I don’t think Nigerians appreciated him much. That is very regrettable. So, I want him to first forgive us, the Nigerian society. As a journalist, he was a very angry young man. He was a very restless social commentator. In fact, he had his hands on a number of pies, but especially in the arts. Unfortunately, he has not been given the accolades he deserves. We must have frustrated him with our kind of environment, the kind Soyinka called a ‘wasted generation’. I wish him, first that God grant him the loving grace to forgive Nigerians, who didn’t appreciate him. And for him to know that we now appreciate him, both his legal and artistic legacies. Antar Laniyan (actor, who acted in allof Ajo Productions plays in the ‘80s) In a few words, I’d say that he happens to be one man that gave my talent a boost when I was very young and as far back as 1983. I met him through Ben Tomoloju. Uncle Fred gave me some challenges and through him I got into the newspapers for doing a role in his plays. I will never forget him; he gave me my first break as an actor. My generation was the one that came in contact with him; he spent his money to make many of us realise what we stood for. Some of us discovered ourselves through him, and we’re still in the profession. Others drifted into banking and other areas... Prof. Segun Ojewuyi (Theatre scholar, South Illinois State University, U.S.) There are definite points in Nigerian history where certain individuals came at the right moment. Uncle Fred Agbeyegbe represents one of those moments. He committed his resources to what is known as Ajofest; that was 10 years post-FESTAC, when the energy generated by FESTAC was fizzling out but still latent. He worked with Jide Ogungbade and Ben Tomoloju to bring his plays to the public. Uncle Fred had a vision and a mission in the theatre and he committed his resources, and he had a good sense to partner with people to make the theatre come alive. We just walked into this whirlwind, where he built a new generation of individuals. He brought uncommon insight into theatre production. That is what he represents. His contribution to the arts and cultural revival of our country is vital for the development of our country. For a man to have the vision and to commit his resources as he did was phenomenal. Mind you, others were doing their funding of theatre productions in installments by giving little amount of money here and there to different theatre groups. But he committed so much. Apart from reviving theatre, Uncle Fred kick-started the careers of many stars in the theatre, who eventually moved over to what is known as Nollywood today. What we had before he came into the scene was largely the Nigerian Television Authority, and professional theatre practice was still hazy. But the FESTAC energy showed that professional theatre practice was possible. Agbeyegbe’s projects gave us the first viable option to what was to come in professional theatre in Nigeria. Now, his plays were another thing. If you go back in time, you will remember that Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan and Ola Rotimi, who were coming from the universities, had been doing things from pre-independence time. There was a reinvention of the self after independence in the works of these professionals. But Fred was riding on the back of the era after the Nigerian Civil War in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. So, he didn’t just commit his money, vision and time, he wrote boldly about our history. The plays gave us another vision of our history. They were topical, huge and served that purposeful mission of the theatre as tool for social re-engineering. For our society, we need corporate sponsors, committed citizens like Agbeyegbe to say and do what needs to be said and done with the instrumentality of the theatre. Mufu Onifade (visual artist, playwright and chairman, Lagos State chapter, National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners of Nigeria -NANTAP) Uncle Fred heralded the Lagos theatre scene in the ‘80s with his plays, using his Ajo Productions as a platform to generate employment for theatre practitioners of that time. With his plays and funding of a series of performances by self, his efforts led to the discovery and rediscovery of talents and new talents who later became celebrities and star actors of our time. With about 17 plays in his kitty, most of them well performed and adopted in theatre schools in Nigeria and abroad, he is a celebrated playwright, who has used his plays for strong advocacy!