Mr. Fred Agbeyegbe, also fondly called ‘Uncel Fred’ in theatre cirlces, is a powerful voice in the Nigerian theatre. Although trained as a lawyer, his fame in the theatre far exceeds his involvement in the legal profession. This sage of the Nigerian theatre turned 76 last Friday and had a big celebratory event in his honour yesterday at the National Theatre, where he was given the Grand Living Legend of the NigerianTheatre award, the first of its kind. His play BUDISO also enjoyed a command performance. Early in the week, ANOTE AJELUOROU sought him out on a revelatory journey into his first involvement in the theatre and how he was able to sustain it close to two decades with such impact. Excerpts:
What special feeling comes with attaining 76 years, sir?
Well, it’s been a long way coming. I thank God for everything; for being born, and for making us to realise that life is about doing it the way God wants it done. I have the good lord to thank for the way I am; that’s part of the gratitude I mentioned. In fact, people say I look well for my age, although people flatter a lot.
You actually studied law but your involvement in the theatre tends to have over-shadowed that. What informed the direction, or co-directions, in fact?
Within the Nigerian context, my fame, as it is, may have come from theatre because that is the place you easily get public applause. But I don’t think I have been any less a lawyer in the sense that I have practised law without any break. In terms of number of years, I’ve been in more legal situations than I’ve been in theatrical projects. That might be difficult to believe.
But, of course, one, I mean the theatre, is more attractive of popular acclaim than the other. The other is done within the sacrosanct walls of a court. I was brought up as a lawyer not to advertise. I think I’ve stepped within those bounds. A good number of people perhaps don’t know that I read law. They are more likely to describe me first as a writer or journalist, which I’m not, although I write. I think you need a number of attributes to be called a journalist. In spite of my having had columns in the papers, I still don’t regard myself as a journalist.
Your writing career can be described as impressive. How did it come into you? It wasn’y happenstance, was it?
It can’t be called happenstance because of the length of time I’ve been involved in it. But it has been the joy of my life; I’ve gone after it deliberately. But one can trace its origin to youthful exuberance, especially in those days when upbringing dictates that you must show commitment, usefulness. Even as young persons, you must be a role model; and I think it’s the absence of consistent role modeling on the part of today’s leaders that has brought Nigeria to where it is today.
When I was young, it was almost compulsory to show that you have God-given gifts, that you have talents and you’re prepared to use them for the benefit of society. We were made to write a play, which I did at the age of 14. A welfare lady, who was in charge of my area in Warri, my hometown, set us to it. She was very creative, and she wanted us to be creative as well. She encouraged us to do things; to be proactive and to be ready to be useful members of society, as it were.
The belief was not anything less at the time that the youths of today are the leaders of tomorrow. Today, they say it more flippantly than they said it then; but it meant a lot and we imbibed it. So, I wrote a play at 14; it wasn’t happenstance. It was an annual activity for the youth club.
That play might not have been published, and it may not be that The King Must Dance Naked was your first play to be published. Or was it?
The one I wrote at 14 was not published; yes. But it attracted its own level of interest, which it generated all over the place. We were British subjects at the time and the subject matter was to do, funnily enough, with what effectively was the burial ground of the English royal family – Westminster Abbey. I got there eventually at my adult age; but at the time, I knew nothing about it other than what I saw on an almanac on the wall.
Subsequent plays before The King Must Dance Naked were many: The Reincarnating Lovers, which was broadcast on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), The Will, Competition Forever all came before it. The King Must Dance Naked was my debutant play in Nigeria, and because of the time and what was happening in the theatre world, it gave it some impetus in that for some of those who were here before I got back from the U.K., theatre was dead. There was this big edifice, the National Theatre, at which next to nothing was happening. I remember, in fact, Dr. Ola Balogun was incensed at the then director of the National Theatre for participating in the plays of Ajo Productions, Jide Ogungbade and my humble self at the time following the success of The King Must Dance Naked.
Incensed? To what effect?
He actually wrote an article on it, his review of the play. But he didn’t confine it to the play, saying the play was fantastic play, that it was good for English theatre and drama; but he went on a barrage against the National Theatre director, I can’t remember his name now, saying all he used the theatre for was for American films; that he didn’t give theatre practitioners opportunity to use the place to do the sort of thing that Ajo Productions and Fred Agbeyegbe had just done. How dare he come to participate in the glory of something that was good for the theatre. It was really incredible.
But that was the trend of the comment at the time, actually. That was why everybody believed that Ajo Productions, The King Must Dance Naked and Fred Agbeyegbe, the three of them, all came to enliven the National Theatre. And thereafter, we never looked back until many years ago when the Federal Government tried to sell it off.
There was the Ajo festival series that spanned many years. How did you sustain the festival for so long?
It was sheer madness (laughs). I remember Prof. Femi Osofisan came to one of our events in Abuja, when the head of Department of Theatre Arts, Ibadan, came to review my book, a play, Woe unto Death at the National University Commission conference centre, and we put up the play as well. Coincidently, Osofisan was in town; so, he came to see the play. It was the beginning of my escapade in trying to make Abuja not to be a weekend ghost town. It was where they do their business, do their politics, but by Thursday everybody is rushing out. That is why I call it madness.
But I said that wasn’t good enough. This is meant to be the capital of Nigeria with all the diplomatic community, who find themselves left alone in someone else’s town or capital every weekend. And, since they seem to understand and enjoy theatre more than the average Nigerian, we thought that we could get something like that going, that it would interest them; that it would bring about some change and make Abuja more lively.
So, we set a theatre club called Ajo-Lamb, a fusion with a young man who had a theatre group called Lamb in 2002. Osofisan wrote an article, in which he said it was a demonstration of commitment, love for the country, theatre art and all that but that it takes a different kind of Nigerian to do a things like that, where there was no recompense at all. That was it.
In 1983, we did The King Must Dance Naked; in 1984, we did Woe unto Death; in 1985, we did The Last Omen; in 1986, we did BUDISO; and repeated all four at this festival in 1996. So it was a play a year and, of course, it was also the discovery of new talents every year. Something at which, Ogungbade, then director of Ajo Production, my theatre group, was very good at.
The Clarion Chukwuras, the Richard Mofe-Damijos, the Antar Laniyans, the Tunji Sotimiris, the Lara Akinsolas and so on and so on; they were all Ogungbade’s protégé. There was that enthusiasm for the arts; it was like there was this longing but they didn’t have any opportunity to showcase it.
How did you fund these productions?
It’s part of my madness! I had a furniture company; it was supposed to be the best around at the time in which I did all the designs myself; it was called Plush Furniture. In fact, it was because of Plush Furniture that I got into the theatre, ironically. A director with the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), one Ogbemi, who wanted to put up a play had approached me to supply furniture for her set.
I was asking her questions that baffled her; she couldn’t understand why a lawyer, who is doing furniture, would be asking her ‘what type of play do you want it for’, so as to know what exactly to provide. She, too, started asking me questions in return. She wanted to know why it mattered to me the type of furniture to make. I said since I’m going to get credit (she wasn’t hiring or paying me for it), and my name was going to be there, I wouldn’t want to supply something that is shoddy and that bore no relevance to the type of play she had.
It occurred to her that I knew about plays; I told her I had a rough idea. I opened a drawer and brought out scripts. She said I must meet somebody, who could make sure that I got on stage properly. That was how I met Jide Ogungbade. She was the one who knew Jide Ogungbade, and it became the two of us after that.
And it was this play, The Rock Has Moved; that is the name I gave to the play, when I wrote it. The King Must Dance Naked was just a line in the play. Each time they consulted the oracle, all he said was The King Must Dance Naked! It baffled everybody; Jide spotted that and pulled it out as title and changed the name from The Rock Has Moved. There is a rock that moved in the play. Of course, it is the most significant event in the play. You can imagine a rock moving – the awe and everything about it. Jide saw it and said, Uncle, let’s use it.
BUDISO appears to be the most political of your plays. And then it was written and performed during the military era. How did you manage to get away with it?
Well, I didn’t use to be just mad; I used to be very stubborn as well. And, if I believe in anything, I didn’t care provided I didn’t steal. A number of things led to BUDISO. I had been writing articles in the papers condemning military intervention into politics and governance. As a member of the Lagos branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), it was one of the very critical one, I was member of the executive. At that time when Buhari and Idiagbon were in power, there was also Sowemimo
as the Chief Justice of the federation. I was one of those who could not stomach what was happening to Nigerians’ fundamental human rights; they were really battered and bastardised by, as far as I’m concerned, the three of them. What the courts were doing was just giving in to whatever the military wanted. Yes, it’s natural that when there is a military regime, all three organs of state become agglomerated into one. But I’ve always hoped that the judiciary will do something, at least, to ameliorate the harshness of what the military was doing. But at time, there didn’t seem to be any difference anymore even though they didn’t abolish the courts.
Yes, they did some retroactive legislation; they made a number of things injusticeable, in terms of, ‘you cannot take them to court’ and all that. But a lawyer like us (and I used to say, a lawyer like me), expect that in spite of all that, the judiciary would stand by the citizens and protect them to the last. This was not happening. So, I read it to mean that Sowemimo had given in and there was no need for the courts. So, there was nothing the courts were doing in the face of Buhari and Idiagbon. So, when we went to the Nigerian Bar Association conference (coincidentally, Sowemimo was on his way out), I moved a motion that he should not be honoured with a Valedictory Session, which was a normal thing to do for judges them when they were going. I think until date, Sowemimo stands as the one Chief Judge, who never got an exit court sitting.
And then again, this was before 1986, when the legal profession was one hundred years old in Nigeria. So, the NBA commissioned me to write a play as part of the celebration or commemoration of 100 years of legal practice in Nigeria. And, I came up with a play called BUDISO. BU stands for Buhari; DI stands for Idiagbon, and SO stands for Sowemimo. And again, coincidentally, when put literally together in Yoruba, it budiso means ‘grab your ass’! That’s why in the play, when you hear BUDISO, people grab their ass. It depicts the unacceptability of the mangling of laws by the courts, albeit under the military regime. BUDISO is a farce but it reflects an era in the Nigeria bench/bar relationship.
In speaking to some of those who acted in your plays, allusion was made to a strong of sense of Itsekiri history in them. Was that a conscious undertaking?
Well, that’s part of what’s going on in this country. I was an Itsekiri man before I became a Nigerian. In fact, I was naturally an Itsekiri man; I became a Nigerian by accident. And, after seeing the way it has gone, I regretted being a Nigerian, detests being a Nigerian, because of what I have been put through. But that bit about being Itsekiri, I didn’t have a choice; that’s how the good lord made me and put me in Itsekiri land. So, my custom, my traditions, my comings and goings, the things that I knew as I grew up, the first language I spoke in my life is Itsekiri.
Then you have this imposition. Here I am; the Constitution of the country I belong to says, in effect, there are four languages as lingua franca: English, but you can use Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba. None of those four languages is my language. Although it has been said, and I believe it is so, that my plays are universally applicable, either in their nuances or in the ways of life. I can only better relate to those things in life when I want to put them across to other people the best way I understand them. So, in the plays, the names are largely Itsekiri names; the costumes are largely Itsekiri costumes; the traditions are largely Itsekiri traditions.
For instance, in a scene where a king dies and another is going to be put on the throne, I can’t put what they do in Sokoto or Owerri; it’s what they do in Warri, what they do in Itsekiri land. Where I come from featured. As I always say, if Moses wrote the bible in Warri, Itsekiri, Urhobo and Ijaw will be in it but he did not (laughs). The bible carries the language of the person who put it down. Everything after that is interpretation but those interpretations are linguistic interpretations. You could not interpret Galili by writing Liverpool there; so Galili is Galili and it remains so in the bible. Jordan is Jordan as it is written down even when you and I read it in the English language.
So, that is what Itsekiri traditions, history and language are all doing in my plays.
And, then you chose to live on the outskirts of Lagos. Why did you decide to do so?
Quite frankly, I thought I’d had enough of this country, and I was on my way out…
..to Itsekiri land?
No, not necessarily; the way it is now, that Itsekiri land is part of this madness called Nigeria. Never mind that they are the ones being oppressed or part of those that are being oppressed. It’s part of the nightmare called Nigeria because I don’t dictate what I do in Itsekiri land. That’s the bit that pains, when somebody sits down in Abuja and insists that the burst pipe in my backyard in Koko or Ekurede can only be fixed when he comes. Why? Is it because I am inept or because I don’t know what I’m doing? It doesn’t make sense. So, being an Itsekiri man, being in Itsekiri land, as it is now, is part of being a slave; because that’s what it’s all about: a situation that exposes everything of mine; my person, my resources, my thinking to the control of people I don’t even know.
So, I wasn’t going back to Itsekiri land; I was just leaving the hectic life of Lagos behind. At my age, I was thinking I was going to retire but I had an unfortunate incident of robbery. But I’ve always had that place on the outskirts of town. It’s a place, in fact, where we do all our rehearsals; we camp there. Like when I was taking artists to Ghana to represent Nigeria at Panafest. That is why I’m there.