Midweek Arts: 80 bright stars for Fred Agbeyegbe today



Today, lawyer and playwright, Fred Agbeyegbe, who has been dubbed the ‘Theatre Game Changer’ by his acolytes and associates in the theatre circle, clocks 80. In his honour, a ‘Theatre Carnival’ will be staged today at the National Theatre, Iganmu Lagos – where his theatrical journey started in 1983, when he collaborated with the actor-director-broadcaster Jide Ogungbade and some other artistes, to stage the first in the Ajo Productions series of plays, The King Must Dance Naked.

Thus, this morning, in the Cinema Hall of the Theatre, there will be a Colloquium that will treat the theme ‘The Theatre Game Changer.’ Folklore scholar and former Chairman of The Guardian Editorial Board, Prof. G.G Darah will deliver the keynote on Drama & the Niger Delta Struggle, while Professors Tony Afejuku (of English Department, University of Benin, Benin City) and Mabel Evwierhoma (Dean of Arts, University of Abuja) will be paper presenters on ‘The Socio-Cultural Relevance of Fred Agbeyegbe’s Plays in Itsekiri Worldview’ and ‘Gender Representation in Fred Agbeyegbe’s Plays’ respectively.

To be moderated by the Dramatist, Culture Communicator and former Deputy Editor of The Guardian, Ben Tomoloju, the Colloquium will also feature ex-Director General of the National Troupe of Nigeria, and now of Redeemer University, Ede, Professor Ahmed Yerima who will give a Literary biography of Agbeyegbe, while the Deputy Vice Chancellor of University of Lagos, Prof. Duro Oni, will be chair.

The celebration continues in the evening with the premiere of yet another of Fred Agbeyegbe’s plays, My Grandfather’s Ghost directed by Muyiwa Osinaike in same Cinema Hall 1. The Guardian presents a rare and revealing interview that the man popularly called Uncle Fred, granted ANOTE AJELUOROU` on the occasion of his 76th birthday a few years ago 

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 a 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 is adjudged impressive. How did it come to? It wasn’t happenstance, was it? It can’t be called happenstance, because of the length of my life; 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 means a lot and we imbibed it. So, I wrote a play at 14; it wasn’t happenstance. It was an annual activity for youth club.

Could that be the play, The King Must dance naked? The one I wrote at 14 was not published. But it attracted its own level of interest, which it generated all over the place.

We were British subjects at the time and subject matter was to do, funnily enough, with what effectively was the burial ground of the English royal family – Westminister 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 Reincarnation 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, in 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 Production play 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. Coincidentally, 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. 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? Again, this was before 1986, when the legal profession was 100 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, ‘budiso’ means ‘grab your arse’.

That’s why in the play, when you hear ‘Budiso’ people grab their arse. 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 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 construction 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; 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 or 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 doing in my plays.

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