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James Ene Henshaw… A legend remembered 10 years on

By James Ene Henshaw Jr.   |   13 August 2017   |   3:47 am

Late Dr. James Ene Henshaw and his wife, Caroline

James Ene Henshaw (1924 -2007) was one of the pioneer dramatists in Africa. A medical doctor by profession, who, in his own words, ‘strayed’ into writing. Henshaw died in 2007. The 10th anniversary of Henshaw’s passing comes up on August 16, 2017.

Born on August 29, 1924 in Calabar, Nigeria, he attended the National University of Ireland (1943-49) and University of Wales Postgraduate School, Cardiff, United Kingdom, where he qualified a chest physician. He went on to have an illustrious career in medicine, serving as Senior Consultant-in-Charge, Tuberculosis Control, Eastern Nigeria (1955-68), and finally as Director of Medical Services in the former South Eastern State of Nigeria. He also served in various professional and public service positions and earned several honours, including Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) and Knight of the Order of St. Gregory (KSG) by his Holiness Pope Paul V1.

Henshaw was a prolific writer, who carved a niche for himself, especially in playwriting. Some of his notable works include This is Our Chance, Medicine for Love, Children of the Goddess, Dinner for Promotion, Enough is Enough, and A Song to Mary Charles. One thing for which Henshaw will be remembered is the fact that his was the first attempt to be regarded as authentic African drama, written by and performed by African people. As Henshaw himself recounted of This is Our Chance, he had set out, consciously, to write plays whose scenes take place in surroundings that are not far removed from Africa, and hence familiar with the ordinary African. In an excerpt from one of his compilations, he said, “These plays, I hope, will be of interest to the general public and may help in a small way to give the true impression that various West African communities have many problems, feelings and interests in common.”

Henshaw’s plays capture the pulse and moments of his West African society; they speak of the conflict between tradition and modernity, the declining morality of a newly independent society, and the failure of becoming, in political and ethical terms, among the evolving elite in society and so on. Henshaw was also one of the first to be published outside West Africa. His first, seminal play, This is Our Chance, is arguably the first full-length play by an African author in the English language. Since its publication in 1956, it has become one of the classics of African literature, read widely and performed in schools and colleges across the English-speaking Commonwealth.

Most of the analyses and debate on Henshaw’s plays have often revolved around the themes of socio-cultural realities of pre-colonial times, the tug between tradition and modernity, and the evolving post-colonial societies. Therein his plays have often been described as simple, in terms of plot and content, but on closer inspection, like an onion, they do reveal several sub-strata of themes and ideas. Henshaw’s plays therefore deserve to be looked at again in the light of prevailing circumstances of our times. In This is Our Chance often seen as a play dealing with inter-tribal enmity, Henshaw tackles the challenges of leadership – how far can a leader step ahead of his people to effect change without falling foul of the existing power structures of the state.

King Damba, against traditional mores, sends his daughter, Princess Kudaro, to school far away in a modern city, and then has to deal with the ensuring fallout. This question is also revisited in Children of the Goddess. Enough Is Enough, one of a hand full of plays written about the Nigerian Civil War, examines the issues of conscience against the horrors of the war and how the players choose to, or not to, adapt and survive in the prevailing circumstances. This play will prove informative to the current generation of students and young people about a very significant event in the history of the nation.

His last play, Eteyin Caesar, written in his native Efik language,is a study of the conflicting demands of honour, patriotism, and friendship. The tragedy, written by William Shakespeare in 1599, portrays the conspiracy and assassination against the Roman dictator, Julius Caesar. The play reflects the general anxiety of England due to worries over succession of leadership. At the time of its writing and first performance, Queen Elizabeth, a strong ruler, was elderly and had refused to name a successor, leading to worries that a civil war similar to that which erupted after Caesar’s assignation might break out after her death. Across the whole sway of Africa, from The Gambia, the Central African Republic to Uganda, down to Malawi and Zimbabwe, we see the same pattern repeating itself where leaders become autocrats and cling on remorselessly to power. Nelson Mandela described Julius Caesar as the most African of Shakespeare’s plays, and that it was one of the plays the African nationalist prisoners read and performed while incarcerated at Robben Island.

Henshaw has often been compared, unfavourably, with the likes of Wole Soyinka and J.P Clark. This is mostly based on the ignorance that he was not a career writer or even in ways an ‘active’ arts practitioner. Through his most productive years as a writer, he was also a practicing medical doctor, rising to the very top as a Consultant and Administrator. Also he wrote intentionally for young people intending his plays to be read and performed in schools and colleges. This may have given his plays a semblance of simplicity and naivety. Nevertheless, the plays have grown to be among the most popular plays read and performed by children in primary schools, as well as studied in universities and reviewed by literary critics. As he said several times during conversations: “I never set out to write any great work of art…” His genius then was that he was able to present ‘adult’ themes for young people to read and enjoy, and at the same time find his work attracting highbrow critical and intellectual scrutiny.

Henshaw was a quiet and unassuming man, who guarded his privacy very much. He was also a deeply religious man and an absolutely devoted husband and father. His son, James Jnr says, “In reflection, as an adult now, being aware of the demands being a writer can put on a person – the intense single-mindedness and dedication required – I can’t help feeling that he may have sacrificed an even greater literary career for the wellbeing of his family. This says a lot about the man.” He never isolated his writing from his family life. It was usual to find pieces of his writing strewn around the house. His family continues to enthuse and revel in his tenderness, his generosity and his wisdom.

In the mid-1970s, when he retired from medical practice, he led a quiet life in his hometown, Calabar, playing the role of an esteemed senior citizen. His typical daily routine involved spending the early part of the day in his library writing. In the afternoon, a continuous stream of relatives, friends, representatives of various organisations, and students from both local and foreign universities would beat a path to the door for intellectual and humorous discourse.

Even though he ceased to be published after the play, Enough Is Enough, in 1976, he still wrote prodigiously, “writing for pleasure” as he called it. He has left a significant body of unpublished work mostly for young people and children, which hopefully, will see the light of day in due course.

In December 2013, the James Ene Henshaw Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation, was set up primarily to maintain and promote the literary legacy of James Ene Henshaw. The idea for the Foundation stemmed from the playwright’s own concern and desire for the literary works that reflect the experiences of African audiences, as well as encourage the appreciation and participation of young people in the dramatic arts. The mission of the Foundation is ‘To enhance young lives through creativity and skills development.’

Henshaw is survived by his wife Caroline, eight children and 17 grandchildren. He was described in a national newspaper as “one of the most influential cultural thinkers the country ever produced”.

In furtherance of this vision, the foundation works to inspire people who do not normally engage with the arts to become active participants, promote emerging African writers, and initiate, and support projects where young people can engage in creative activities. Since its inception, the foundation has organised a number of significant projects such as Plays-To-Schools Programme: aimed at opening up and enthusing young people to the wondrous world of literature through play productions in schools and colleges, Play Productions and Theatrical Events that regularly produces high quality production of James Ene Henshaw’s plays as well as other notable African playwrights, development of New Writing Talent through Our Open Space Creative Mentoring Scheme, supported by the British Council, that seeks to identify and nurture a new cadre of writers who can take the place of the premier generation playwrights. The first round of the scheme concluded in March 2017, with the production of three socially important plays by writers with the potential to become major writers in the near future, and Creative and Entrepreneurial Skills Training aimed at the development of skills and the professionalism of local arts practitioners. It runs regular workshops in acting, directing, technical i.e. sound and lighting, project planning and management.

Henshaw is survived by his wife Caroline, eight children and 17 grandchildren. He was described in a national newspaper as “one of the most influential cultural thinkers the country ever produced”.

* James Ene Henshaw Jr., son of the late playwright, lives in Calabar




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