By Anote Ajeluorou
Activist poet, Odia Ofeimun has been waxing strong on the theatrical turf, with his poetic dance drama, in which he stages one piece after another month after month for free to Nigerian theatre-goers. His dance showpieces include A Feast of Return, Nigeria the Beautiful and Itoya, a Dance for Africa, which started when he wrote Under African Skies in the 1990s in London on commission. The heated political era of the military era ensured the pieces remained under lock and key. But since the return to democracy, especially after seeing South Africa’s dance drama Umoja brought to Nigeria to celebrate Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s birthday, Ofeimun felt challenged and promptly approached the godfather of Lagos State politics for a chance to show off his stuff. Since then, Ofeimun has not looked back, as he did so again three days ago on Christmas Eve. Here, Ofeimun gives background to his interest in poetic dance drama pieces and the void they are intended to fill in Africa’s seeming historical amnesia
How it all began
I found myself in Britain researching a fragment of Nigerian history, and people who got to know that there was a Nigerian poet in Britain got me involved in readings. Before I knew what was happening I was being invited to write a story that would go with an exhibition of linocuts by a Namibian artist. He provided the mural that backed the Mandela’s concert when he came out of prison. So, I simply decided that I was going to do a poem to go with each of the linocuts. When the exhibition opened I had enough poems to go with the paintings; my poems were placed side by side with the paintings.
It was a very new experience for me because it was like being commissioned to write a poem; you had to write a poem. And somehow the interest I had in Oxford at that time centred on ‘Matching Myth and Mythology to History’. So, it wasn’t very difficult for me to do. When you look at the poems in Under African Skies, you will see some of these, how the poems and the linocuts matched.
Now, once I did that for the Museum of Modern Arts in Oxford, somebody remembered it in London when they were planning an African intervention in the celebration of 500 years of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World.
We were the discovered and they needed us to respond to their celebration and how they discovered us. So, I needed to do something. There was a dance drama already sponsored by the Arts Council of Great Britain, and it was led by a Ghanaian choreographer named George. But it was the artistic director who approached me, a Briton; he asked me to help them do something. I did not want to write a story or an essay; I decided to write a series of poems fashioned in such a way that, over a period of1 hour 20 minutes, you would have images that tell you about Africa up to the point of anti-Apartheid struggle. It was like telling them the story of Africa from the beginning of time to the present. But there was no way you could do that in one hour twenty minutes.
So, I decided to pick images that are significant for understanding the way Africans live. That was how Under African Skies was produced. First, they visited Africa, video-taped a lot of dances and songs and took the best dancers in Africa to Britain to dance. One good thing about it was that when you choreograph dances, the rough edges are smoothened out. What I had to do was to watch these video tapes from across Africa; it was only after watching the dances that I picked out the images that I would use, and arranged the images in such a way that the images rearranged the dances. I arranged the images in such a way that the anti-Apartheid struggle would be the last.
So, you see the totality of African history of slavery and the role of mothers and fathers and things like that until you got to the independent struggles and the anti-Apartheid struggles.
Well, I always told people that it was just a touristic literary performance; you needed to entertain the average European, who needed to know something about Africa. It was just a touristic advertisement. But then, my director, Felix Okolo does not agree with me. As a director, Okolo actually thinks that is the source from which we can understand how the other dance dramas are going. For him, all the issues that all the other dance dramas are engaging are actually in Under African Skies in different ways.
The South Africa story in the Nigerian story
WE were supposed to do a dance drama every year. I then decided to do the story of Southern Africa because Mandela was out of jail, from Shaka Zulu to Mandela’s release. This means that I had to dig into my understanding of South African history from as early as possible. Many South Africans were surprised. Some wondered what a bloody Nigerian was doing writing a South African story. The thing is that during the anti-Apartheid struggle, South Africans were part of the Nigerian story, and Nigerians took South African writers and events in South Africa seriously. So, as a reader of South African history and literature, I had a fairly good grasp of the stories of South Africa; and I had that story in a way that was coloured by my understanding of Nigerian life.
So that when I had to produce A Feast of Return based on the South African experience, I was responding to events in South Africa with an eye on the way the Nigerian story had been going. If you go through A Feast of Return, one of the surprises is that when you use Nigerian dances, the stories are almost Nigerian. But the pattern was not intended. I genuinely followed South Africa’s history, taking all the issues step by step until we arrived at Mandela’s release.
On a close look, you find that almost every African country followed the same pattern. It’s like taking Achebe from the pre-colonial to the colonial, the post-colonial, the military, and hopefully, the supposed freedom that followed it.
It was a very excited business for me, and I use the word ‘business’ advisedly, because when you are living in a country where you don’t have a work permit, and you’re given opportunity to earn a living, oh, it’s fun; and it was fun for me.
I had to leave Oxford for London to watch the dances, and as I watched the dances, I reworked the poems. So that when you’re watching the dances, you’re actually following the motion of the poems. I figured it out in the form of folklores where the dead ancestors returned to the public square to tell you stories of how they once lived. So that A Feast of Return is a return of ancestors and those who had gone; this time, those who had gone also happened to be the gorilla fighters who were returning home after Mandela had been released. It was about South African exiles returning; so that the ancestors and the exiles and the gorillas were all now returning to tell their stories.
BUT when I returned to Nigeria, I needed to do them the way I thought they should be done. In London, it was a 40-man troupe and there was no chance here that I would be able to raise that kind of money to do that in Nigeria. And there was no theatre that would sponsor it or allow it to run for a long time enough to make the money back. So, I simply let it go. I knew that someday in the future some occasion would arise.
From 1993 when I returned to 1999, I simply didn’t bother about it.
But I lost my manuscripts to Gen. Sani Abacha’s raid of TheNews magazine. I had to rework most of it from memory.
How I got back to the dance dramas is because democracy came.
On one occasion, Ahmed Tinubu’s friends brought South Africa’s Umoja. I watched Umoja and I could see that I have a better story of South Africa’s struggle than any South African dance drama I had seen. And I could not see how I could let it happen under my very eyes without protesting. So, I went to Tinubu and said, ‘It was good; I watched it. But with one fifth of that money, I can do you a better dance drama’. And I convinced him I had done it in Britain and I could do it in Nigeria.
Why Okoloas director of all the dance drama?
ON the evening that Nadine Gordimer was passing through Lagos to South Africa, we took her to Jazzhole to do a reading. Okolo met me there and insisted I give him any of my dance drama pieces. I agreed without thinking about it because I already knew Okolo’s work. Of the directors in Nigeria, Okolo is the most adventurous and he participated and related to all the other directors in the country more than any other director. Generally, Okolo was so much in the centre of the way drama was going in Nigeria, that he was the only one I could consider good enough to beat the people in London.
Apart from the fact that Okolo is not just a director, there is nothing that happens on stage that Okolo is not a master of – whether it’s the lighting business, costuming, set design, name it – he’s the only director I know who has a thoroughly comprehensive and encyclopaedic view of stage in this country, and almost all others recognise that in him. And since Okolo is not good at talking; I mean, he does not discuss his art the way other people do; he would rather you come to the theatre and see what he has done.
Okolo has a very adventurous mind in relation to the theatre and he knows no other life. The life Okolo knows is the theatre. He will not participate in any other thing. What concerns Okolo is how to make things appear on stage. He’s a professional who is not afraid to identify with his profession. Okolo would use his own money to make a play go right.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the kind of money that can allow Okolo’s flight of fancies to work the way he wants. If we had a proper National Theatre, Okolo is the man to invite to put up for you a drama on a national occasion because he would do it in a manner that is beyond the average director. He has the luck of doing theatre workshops all over the world and how they work. And he related with all the big directors in Nigeria – whether it’s Soyinka, Adelugba, Osofisan – whether as an actor, a dancer or a director at all the levels.
In my view, he has done very well. We’ve managed to work very well without rough tackles. He’s interested in how the stage works.
Why I wrote for the theatre
We set out believing we could just do a one-week of Festival of Dance Drama. Now, I always wanted to write for the theatre, but there were things I wanted to do as a poet if I were to write for the stage. I hadn’t done them by the time I started writing dance drama in Britain. My ambition was to write for the stage after doing certain poems, some of which I have still not done; they are long poems. But once I chose to write dance drama, it still slightly changed the picture because I realised that there are many approaches to the stage and that you could make the poems come alive. How to make that happen I learnt by writing along those linocuts in London.
The spirit of a commission can actually be applied to poetry in a way that broadens the audience.
Instead of just reading to an audience in Britain, I allowed others read with me by allocating lines to them, preferably to female readers. And I noticed it worked very well as drama.
I remember writing a play at age 17 on Oba Ovonramwen but lost it to termites in a wooden box; it weaned me from the idea of writing a play ever since.
Unique historical features of the dance drama
I went to Britain to research Nigerian history and I had to read about Nigeria and Africa as much as possible in order not to miss the historical import of the job I had gone there to do. And so when I started what to write for the stage, I also ran into people, who were worried that Africans did not know their histories enough. And by the nature of fictional performances, the history is deemed to be displaced in favour of the pleasure principle so that you can devalue the historical content in order to make it more pleasure reading. I did not want to do that; I wanted to take on history rudely as history comes in order to show that there are lessons we can learn which are not just of fictional nature, and which are still directly relevant to the way we were living our lives.
Many people do not know the history of their countries and usually can’t engage the most significant issues. At surface level, we all appear to know what happened. But when you start engaging people in terms of their grasp of the questions that require answers, you find that they are lost.
What I set out to do was partly to guide the way we look at our history.
In the case of Under African Skies, it was a very nationalistic project; I needed for Africans living in Europe at that time to have a sense of where we were actually coming and to see how, because of certain decisions we took or did not take, we were between the kinds of schisms and the historical defaults that were becoming staples in our way of life.
Under African Skies was bouncing off Europe as a way of granting integrity for the way Africans lived before they intervened and thereafter. As a way of showing that a form of creativity is possible in our lives, which can ward off the devilries of the Trans-Saharan and Trans-Atlantic Slave Trades and prepare us for genuine self-governance.
Those were the critical issues for me and to show that there is a way you can re-interpret the myths and folklores of traditional societies so they become relevant in the modern scheme of things.
On the historical side, you will find that history is not being taught in Nigeria today because our leaders are afraid that we will discover how they ruined our societies; they fear we will begin to demand answers… My play fills this historical void foistered on us by a visionless leadership; you need to see the three dance drama - A Feast of return, Nigeria the Beautiful and Itoya, a Dance for Africa – to believe.