By Anote Ajeluorou
That theatre is under funded in Nigeria is no longer news. That several propositions have been made on how to inject funding to booster it is not new either. What is perhaps novel is how theatre funding ties in with a productive economy, something that has eluded Nigeria since the late 1980s when industries started closing down one after the other due to poor management of the economy. The result that has resulted ever since is that Nigeria has become the marketplace for productive economies of the world.
In other words, Nigeria does not produce anything of real value to take to world markets, but she consumes whatever is thrown at her, even second, third hand products. As a result, there are too few viable corporate bodies operating profitably on the local scene that ought to invest in Nigeria’s arts and culture business of which theatre is an integral part!
Before reading started, the core of the play was performed by students of Creative Arts Department, University of Lagos in Agit Prop-style, minimalist production that compresses the entire play into some seamless scenes, as obtains in theatre for development for economy of funding purposes. However, this style was criticised, as being inappropriate for the grand historical thrust of the play in view, as it tended to diminish the historical grandeur it evokes.
According to notable poet and essayist, Odia Ofeimun, who chaired a recent play reading event, “There can be no performance without a thriving economy that derives from established industries functioning optimally. Any governor that canvasses self-sufficiency in terms of productive industries in his state or collaborates with a neighbouring state government will be the one that creates real wealth revolution in the country. If we have a proper Minister of Culture, who presents a proper budget to the National Assembly, we ought to have the National Troupe doing at least three plays a year, with one being a historical play.
“I wish we had proper minister of culture who can properly present our case for proper budgeting. There’s a lot of cultural activism in One Kingdom One Monarch. We need another play from the playwright, Uwaifo”.
2004 winner of The Nigeria Prize for Literature Prize in the prose fiction category, Solomon Omo Uwaifo, a trained electrical engineer, had on Thursday last week submitted his second play One Kingdom One Monarch to the critical gaze of theatre buffs made up of National Troupe of Nigeria (NTN), the media and other players at Cinema II, National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos. The idea is to test how realisable the play can be as a performance piece when staged. Exposing it thus to theatre experts through short performance and reading would help tighten its loose ends so the playwright can go back to rework it ready for the stage in time.
According to NTN Artistic Director, Mr. Martin Adaji, comments on the play “are not intended to dampen the enthusiasm of the author; whatever opinion they give on the play, take it in good faith. But the comments should be fair”.
While speaking further on the economics of theatre production, which has been in dire straits for a while now in the country, a senior member of NTN, Mr. Anold Udoka praised One Kingdom One Monarch, as a culturally rich play that deserves full-scale performance so its grandeur could be realised. According to Udoka, “One Kingdom One Monarch deserves to be given all the dialectics of verisimilitude on stage. We should be faithful to the author otherwise the message may go the other way. The excerpt performed is not good. We can compress it so the is tactile to drive the imagery.
“I like to watch my plays with eyes shut and listen to their voices create visual imagery for me. The excerpt failed to give me what the play is about. So, you don’t have to change the format because of money or the economics of theatre production. We have to do it full-scale. From what I see, the play can be changed to a musical, a dance drama if need be, but to realise the historicity of the play we need to give the play its full-scale performance, not abridge it”.
An audience member, Mr. Lawrence Amu, bemoaned the dumping site for world products that Nigeria has become, arguing that it was why local companies cannot sponsor cultural productions like One Kingdom One Monarch that have the capacity to lift the spirit through value-orientation. He stated, “Nigeria is everybody’s market instead of being a producing nation that she started with at independence. Now Nigeria is sinking; oil is killing us; we cannot produce anything to sell to others. Sometimes, we wish we can turn off the pipes. We need to produce. Benefits of production can sponsor these plays”.
Notable actress and NTN member also attested to the culturally rooted aesthetics of Uwaifo’s play and said it should stand alone as an immense work of art, adding, “The play is rooted in culture and we must ensure that the cultural elements in it are preserved and highlighted. We ought to stick to that which we are as a people and not try to imitate others”.
For Adaji, “The play has a lot to offer us. Behold, a classic is borne, I say! There’s a little more to be done. The sky is big enough. To realize this play, a director must of necessity dig into the aesthetics of Benin people to come up with a good play. The aim of play reading is not to produce; the playwright can only be guided by the comments. Whether he accepts them or not is his business”.
Ofeimun, also playwright majoring in dance drama, acknowledged the huge cost implications staging One Kingdom One Monarch would take, saying, “Only a government putting money down can make this play happen. Unfortunately, we don’t have the kind of sponsorship needed to produce this play”.
But a cultural activist, Mr. Femi Robinson, argued that failure of government or corporate bodies in supporting cultural productions was largely the failure of cultural workers to do what is right for the sector, adding, “We are not doing certain things right; we don’t know our culture any more. There’s a lot of history to be excavated. Government must put money in drama because if there’s no drama, there is no culture; no culture means there is no tourism and development”.
For Josephine Igberiase of NTN, the difficulty with core traditional plays like Uwaifo’s One Kingdom One Monarch is sourcing the money to put it on stage. She estimated that no less than 80 persons would work on the play as cast and crew, which could cost as much as N20 million to put it in stage. But she stressed that the play has great value, and that it would add to cultural awareness beside other entertainment values to be derived. She recalled the staging of Fela! On Broadway, saying she didn’t see any of the Fela we all knew in it. Igberiase also said Saro the Musical that made the stage last year was all showmanship designed to make cash!
Chairman Ofeimun introduced a novelty to the play reading when he asked the readers – Steve Ogundele, Williams Ekpo, Efe Orhorha, Muyiwa Odukale and Sobifa Dokubo – to comment on the excerpt and what they’d read. Although it caused a temporary unease, the actors quickly rallied. Ogundele said he was glad to be part of the reading experience, adding, “I know Edo (Benin) plays, how they can be poetic. One Kingdom One Monarch will elicit the usual passion and emotions that plays from that part of Nigeria – the music, the mellifluousness of the poetics and language. It’s an effort that is highly commendable”.
Ekpo said he loved Benin plays even if the play made him jittery. Adding, “It promises to come out fine”.
Orhorha noted, “I’m blessed to have read the play. It’s historical and one must not joke with it. It made me jittery reading it. It’s beautiful from the little we read”.
Odukale noted, “I started out playing Rotimi’s Ovonramwen Nogbaisi. One thing with Benin plays is that there’s always war, fighting. Benin plays and songs are always amazing. Most Benin plays have elevated language and it didn’t come out in the excerpt”.
Although Dokubo commended the playwright for “couching nice sounding lines that are deep”, he frowned at the performed excerpt, saying it was symptomatic of the current rootless fad plaguing Nigerian hiphop music, as Agit Prop theatre tends to suggest.
Finally, the playwright Uwaifo expressed how thrilled he was at seeing the ‘Agit Prop’ interpretation given to his play and the comments made generally. “Not much criticism made of the play”, he said. “I’m very much pleased to have been assisted by everybody, including Odia. Every writer must subject himself to critics; I don’t know everything. I’ll try if I can reduce the play, but my problem is that it’s very culture-centred play”.