Revue: Agbeyegbe at 80: Garlands For Theatre Game Changer



It was on the occasion of his 76th birthday commemoration. His acolytes, mentees and if you like, his younger colleagues-member of the Lagos State Chapter of the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) rolled out drums to celebrate his accomplishment as a playwright, poet and culture producer and promoter at a programme they had dubbed ‘The Living Legend Series’.

Chairman of the Lagos Chapter of NANTAP Mufu Onifade, had explained that the series which, started with the grand commemorative event staged at the National Theatre in honour of Professor Wole Soyinka, who clocked 77 on July 13, 2011, was conceived as ‘NANTAP’s way of commending the effort of individuals, who have contributed to the development of the theatre profession”.

Onifade stated that it was best to celebrate such people when they are still alive than when they are dead. ‘’That is the spirit behind the celebrative series, which we just introduced. We started with Kongi (Prof. Wole Soyinka) and now it is the turn of Uncle Fred Agbeyegbe who is eminently qualified and worthy to be saluted for his immense achievement in the arts.

After Agbeyegbe we will be celebrating Honourable Prophet Moses Adejumo aka Baba Sala and it will continue like that’ the former Lagos NANTAP boss said. And indeed, loud was the drum on that day as thespians gathered in their number to celebrate Agbeyegbe.

It is, perhaps, on the strength of his unwavering commitment to excellence in the promotion of theatre arts in Nigeria, his activism and his contributions to the legal profession, society, literature and drama in Nigeria that his peers and younger colleagues converged to celebrate him. There will be a greater turn out at a special carnival that has been planned to celebrate the grand living legend on July 22, 2015. On that day, ‘Uncle Fred’ as his younger colleagues prefer to call him, will be 80 years old.

Though he has received several awards from the professional body including three special recognition awards—from the Society of Nigerian Theatre Artists (SONTA), from NANTAP and from the Olu of Warri, for what is without a doubt, Agbeyegbe’s contribution to literature and drama, the carnival will certainly count as the biggest of all recognition that Agbeyegbe will receive from members of a ‘tribe’ that he can proudly say he belongs to in spite of his calling as a lawyer.

Born on July 22,1935, in Ekurede, Warri, to John Ojobo Agbeyegbe of Ogheye and Enetsemi Mikie of Koko; both of Warri North Local Government Area of Delta State, Fred was educated in Nigeria and the United Kingdom and was called to the Nigerian bar in 1973 after a successful law programme at the University College London, the Institute of Advance Legal Studies, London, Institute of Commonwealth Studies London and at the Hague Academy of International Law, Peace Palace, The Hague.

Raised early in life by his elder brother, a police officer, a reason he attended many schools including African School, Forcados; CMS School Utagba Ogbe, Kwale and Government School, Auchi, Agbeyegbe exhibited so much zest on his return to Nigeria from the United Kingdom. He wanted to practice law, paint, write plays, be a columnist and just be involved in everything happening around him.

It didn’t take long for the zest he exhibited to culminate into various theatre escapades for which he is known today. Agbeyegbe never trained formally in the arts. He merely, as he also alludes, drank early from the calabash of notable playwrights and dramatists and rose quickly to the top.

At 14, he had already begun to display his extraordinarily imaginative mind by giving animation to a pictorial Almanac of the English Royal Household in a play he titled The Tombs of Westminster Abbey. He followed it up, four years later with The Will, the story of a Prince eager to succeed his sit-tight-father, who outwitted his son eventually.

He later scribbled so many other works that were associated with the theatre notably Reincarnating Lovers which, got a generous airplay on the British Broadcasting Corporation broadcast in 1963. It took that broadcast for Agbeyegbe to at least confirm that he was cut out for the arts.

Though he wrote more plays subsequently, he devoted more time to law practice, especially, when he became one of the first legal assistants at the Commonwealth Secretariat, London, and the Nigerian Attorney for General Motors, Detroit, United State of America.

Agbeyegbe’s legal detour did not any way hamper his pursuit of excellence in the arts. He wrote more plays including his most performed work The King Must Dance Naked, and still found time to organise the famous London Africa Centre’s Playgroup in the mid-60 Agbeyegbe returned to Nigeria from England and straight on he made a foray into the Nigerian stage.

With the help of the inimitable poet and theatre director Jide Ogungbade and guidance with guidance from Professor Femi Osofisan, the lawyer-playwright was exposed to a galaxy of ideas and methodology, which helped considerably the plays he wrote that were later produced under the Ajo Production platform, which he founded as an avenue to air his plays.

Agbeyegbe listened and imbibed Ogungbade and Osofisan’s erudite criticism and till date he alludes that his partnership with Ogungbade ‘has been most rewarding’. With Ogungbade providing much support, Agbeyegbe wrote and produced The King Must Dance Naked, which the former Artistic Director of the National Troupe, Professor Bayo Oduneye, once described as “one of the most significant plays to emerge in the past two decades- 80s to the 90s.”

He, thereafter, embarked on a ceaseless journey targeted at reviving English Language drama, as a popular mass audience art form as exemplified by his debut stage production The King must Naked in1983.

And not only did Agbeyegbe, with his plays including “Woe Unto Death”, “The Last Omen” and “Budiso” set and broke records in drama audience attraction at that time; his name, that of his theatre ensemble-Ajo Productions, Jide Ogungbade, and some notable actors like Richard Mofe Damijo, Clarion Chukwurah, Lara Akinsola, Joke Muyiwa, Sola Awojobi-Onayiga, Antar Laniyan, Tunji Sotimirin and Emman Emeasealu reportedly was on the lips of most theatre loving audience members, as the ensemble staged one successful play to another, whilst, cultivating youngsters and changing parental attitudes towards Theatre and drama as a calling.

As Agbeyegbe wrote plays, he also found time to pen articles and run commentaries on matters of national importance. Described by close friends as a ‘Writerholic’, Agbeyegbe has written for most Nigerian newspaper and was for many years a Sunday Columnist with the Vanguard.

Like his plays, his hallmark as a writer has remained his versatility and solid intellectual bent, as well as his flair for English language.

Agbeyegbe with friend

Agbeyegbe shows Shaibu Husseini some of his trophies and medals

Agbeyegbe, who is married has 11 children- four boys and seven girls – his commitment to the growth and development of the theatre led him to establish a trust fund- The Fred Agbeyegbe Educational Arts Trust Fund for children, to encourage children’s interest in the arts.

The launch of the trust fund held at the Carol Schools in Ikeja, in 2003, same year that Agbeyegbe funded the camping and participation of 36 Nigerian artistes to the Pan African Festival of Arts, PANAFEST. Earlier, precisely in 2000, Agbeyegbe embarked upon a project to convert Abuja from a contractor’s haven to a theatre conscious society to avoid it being a ghost town at weekends by staging plays, again at his own expense.

Since then, Agbeyegbe has been solidly committed to the arts. He has continued to pen plays including Human Cargo and My Grandfathers Ghost, which always find contemporary relevance to socio-political developments. Devotion to theatre I suppose you know that the great Lord is the only one who can answer some questions.

For my part, the devotion is not something I really have sat down to think about or to come to any conclusion as to how it came about. It is what I think people call flair or something that is natural.

But I suppose basically it has to do with personal happiness and fulfillment. I can tell you that the only time that I feel good is when I am either reading or writing. It is something that makes me feel alive; that makes me feel worthy to call myself God’s creation.

I also think that the things that come out are not necessarily of my own thinking, doing or sayings. I think it is the medium through which someone is communicating with the rest of the world. So, for that purpose I am just a conduit pipe.

Because often and again, I reread some of the things I have written and it is not easy to pinpoint where one thing or the other has come from. So I think it is something that is natural. When first play was aired on BBC in the 60s Oh, well then, I felt really good. I mean I was participating in an exercise that was not my own making.

I was in dreamland. I couldn’t even call it an accomplishment because I didn’t quite know the world as I do now to say that ‘ah thank God’ I am able to make this contribution. It was something that gave me a lot of pleasure. Activist playwright I didn’t set out to be this type or that type of writer. I don’t think that is a decision that you make.

It is something that naturally happened. But if you are someone who observes society…and I think like I came to learn much later through the years, an artiste is someone who mirrors society.

So you see what is going on, you react depending of course on your background and all that. And you cannot help, but to write around the issues that influenced you either in your youth or as you grew.

But something that I think is responsible for all of it is that I was born into a home where there was care. I come from a very large family. My father had 19 wives and 52 children and I am second to the last as it were.

And in our household very few of us know who our mothers were, because of the closeness and friendship that was in the family and the same pervaded the society that we were born into. People were friends first and foremost even before you remember that you have some blood relationship. And fairness and equity and justice that one came to learn about much later where things that naturally inborn in my household and in the society in which I grew up.

So seeing anything that is contrary to that necessarily puts up some form of internal defence. So I think those are the things that are reflected in my writing. Attachment to his plays especially Budiso Well, I don’t know if you can call it an attachment. I don’t know whether it is me who is attached to Budiso or the society at large.

If you know the story of how Budiso came about then you will understand why it has somewhat emerged as my most performed plays in recent times. The legal profession was hundred years old in Nigeria, in 1986, and in the same year, we had a trio of authoritarianism, I will call it. One of them was Buhari and the other one was Idiagbon.

And then there was the Chief Justice of Nigeria Justice Sowemimo. And because of the type of support that Sowemimo gave to then dictatorial duo of Buhari and Idiagbon where he connived with those two to attack the rights, constitutional and otherwise of the Nigerian people and forced things and position on them and even deprived them of their constitutional and democratic rights, I moved a motion at the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) conference that he should not be honoured since he was on his way out as Chief Justice of Nigeria.

And the motion was carried. And I think he is the only one that was never given a farewell party or whatever you want to call it as the out going Chief Justice of the federation.

Now, a few months down the road, this hundred years of legal practice then came along and the NBA commissioned me to write a play and well again like you said earlier, may be just trying to be topical, I wrote this play and it was called Budiso. And the ‘bu’ was interpreted not by me ooo but by the people as ‘Buhari’, the ‘di’ as ‘Idiagbon’ and the ‘So’ as Sowemimo so the trio or those people who were involved in what I had earlier described became the name of the play and then of course there is the funny bit about it.

That it actually meant something in Yoruba. It meant grab your ass. So Budiso was a caricature of the goings on at the time. When we put it on it was hilarious they said and everybody identified with it. They liked it a lot.

Each time they wanted a play put on, those who were doing it themselves will ask for Budiso, and those who were commissioning a production will ask for Budiso. Because it put out some serious messages to the society—something like this that you will think is a fable is really happening in this society that we are in.

And a lot of the scene there will make you laugh, but I remember that a young man who was an accountant, Patrick Osabasi saw the play and the first day he sat down at the National Theatre and watched the play he was in tears and he said what do all of you think is so funny with what you are watching.

That this is subjugation to what is bad in the society and you are all laughing. We all pitied him. He saw the terrible side of it. He couldn’t identify with those who thought they were such a mockery to laugh at.

But that is what Budiso is about. And the Nigerian Law School now picked it up and made it a compulsory subject and Budiso had to be shown each time at the law school for people to learn what democracy was about and how you can trample upon it and it became part of the curriculum of the law school. And when the law school was 25 years old, the management of the law school then headed by Mr. Ibironke invited Ajo production to come and present Budiso.

And ever since then the practitioners identified with it as something that is comical enough to put out each time and so they started using it and so it is not because I liked it. Solo effort to revive the theatre Well, I wouldn’t say it has stopped. We have been involved in quite a lot. In 2003 for instance, I took Nigeria’s slot at PANAFEST in Ghana. I took 30 Nigerians there and after that we have done so many other things about the theatre.

As you can see, last year I think it was, SONTA gave me an award. I think that award showed that I didn’t stop from 1983. Well when I started, of course it was a play a year. 1983 was The King Must Dance Naked; 1984 was Woe Unto Death, 1985 was The Last Omen, 1986 was Budiso and then the festival. Those four years was a play a year consistently.

After that there were gaps in between. You will see that it is from 1987 to some five years back when I wrote my Grandfathers Ghost. So another ten plays were written at that time. Therefore, I really did not stop. I agree that the festival side of it didn’t happen again but you see I always say that it is not that I am the only one that is super clever.

There are many Nigerians like me who have what it takes to write but you know that if you are a writer in Nigeria and your livelihood is coming from there, it is not a curse but let me not say you will never make it. Let me just say that it will be an up hill task because this society is not appreciative enough of writing or anything intellectual and so it is a very hard put to make a living from it.

So effectively I have been so called a successful writer because my livelihood was coming from somewhere else and of course either prudently or imprudently depending on how you want to look at it, I was channeling my earnings from where I was getting my livelihood into keeping writing and the theatre going.

Another thing is that all the books I have in print today I published myself except for the first two- The King Must Dance Naked and the book of poetry This confused World that a publisher undertook for me. I have had to republish King Must Dance Naked. I then published the other ones. So I am my writer, my publisher, my printer and everything that you can think about. This is just to ensure that I am in print.

Now, not many Nigerians will be able to do that if all they are doing is writing to be able to keep their families going and look after themselves. Now, why did I have to do that because the publisher I gave those first two books to as far back as 1986 has not given me one kobo until tomorrow.

If I did not undertake the publishing myself, apart from not earning anything, you will only have two of my books in print. So those are the things that mitigate the willingness and ability of Nigerians to come out to show what the good Lord has put into their heads and it is indeed very sad. Reservation about Nollywood Well, I have a partnership with UNESCO, which has not come off the ground because when I tried to do it in Abuja, the government wanted to take it over and so I packed my things and ran.

Because I knew they will mess it up. But in the plan for setting up the International Theatre Arts and Culture Collaboration (ITAC) we wanted to put up an international city so that it will be a place devoted to entertainment particularly theatre.

The idea was to mirror the traditions and culture of the ethnic nationalities of the world. I have a big space there for something that will sound like Nollywood. It will be a film village and it will have all the things like Hollywood has—where you make films and things like that. So it is not that I am not attracted to Nollywood as such. It is that I have this reservation about Nollywood.

I do not see that there is any devotion to expertise. The theatre is academic. It has rules and people have to learn their lines and people have to understand the language of the director to be able to participate and be successful at it. While you have the opportunity to make mistakes and have several shots retaken, it is you and the audience live on stage. You cannot be a successful thespian if you don’t know the rudiments.

I believe with all due respects to those there now, Nollywood is just going through the motions. It is detached from the intellectual part of what makes me take an interest in the theatre In touch with acolytes and theatre family Oh, yes.

I am very much in touch with them and they are many—Richard Mofe Damijo, Clarion Chukwurah, Sola Awojobi, Antar Laniyan, Tunji Sotimirin, Jahman Anikulapo and so on. In fact Nollywood is filled with our prodigies. Jahman Anikulapo is actually involved in this carnival that they have turned my birthday into. He is in touch with a lot of them and we have a long list of people I can’t even remember. They are all coming for the 22nd event so I will be seeing all of them again. But it has been a wonderful relationship.

They have all grown to become names you can put out there and say this is an Ajo acolyte and so on. So those are the rewards for me. Secret of Longevity Well, I hardly drink. I drink water a lot. As for eating, I don’t eat anything that is extraordinary. The only thing I know might have contributed is that I eat fish. I eat a lot of fish. I can eat fish all year round. I mean I am an Itshekiri man so it goes without saying. I also read and I write. And I think I take life as it comes. Very little bugs me down.

Very little make me lose sleep. And I believe that my brain is continuously at work. I know that those activities keep me going. One minute I am writing a play or reading a book. Next minutes I am thinking about law. Next minute, is my other interest. You may have known that at a time my furniture is the best in the country.  I design and produce furniture.

I sculpt and at a point I also was producing alcoholic beverages. I am supposed to be an expert in making wine, gin and brandy. I think that that type of mental switch that happens so often in the course of one day must have something to do with it.

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