By Patrick-Jude Oteh
IT was Chioma Silver who summarized ‘Bayo Oduneye, fondly called ‘Uncle B’ by his adoring legion of students scattered across the world, as an enigma who comes to training classes dressed in his immaculate white three piece designer’s agbada brocade with beautiful sleek black shoes and announces that we are going to do some exercises. The way you are dressed? I will say in my mind. But before you know it, Uncle B pulls the flowing agbada, puts it neatly on a chair and proceeds to sit on the floor and who are you not to do same?
The above is vintage Uncle B! as narrated by one of his students. He was an unforgettable man! A vintage teacher of the old mould and an unforgettable friend! According to Lanre Oladele, Uncle B was a very jovial man, full of jokes and simulated sternness! He it was who made us understand that the training we were getting in the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan, was second to none. They all had returned from world class theatre institutions to teach and mentor a whole generation of us. We were young minds, uneasily impressed and impatient. But Uncle B made us to stand still.
When he echoes, ‘Who trained you?” Just know that you have messed up and big time! On the spot he can proceed to tell you the story of how you got to the department and what you will likely walk away with at the end of your course. But it was all Lagos Boy braggadocio. Uncle B had been known to stake his career for someone he felt was being unjustly treated. You only failed his courses if you were never present in the class. But if you were consistent, patient, attentive, you surely passed.
Uncle B brought a lot of finesse to the profession. Those days when you saw the blue old little Volkswagen Beetle in front of the house, it meant he was around. But sometimes it was a decoy. Dr Jonathan Amuno will drive him to the department, and go away with the car but Uncle B will be ensconced in the comfort of his office, putting together a new idea for a new production. He was the first person to tell us that you can be a professor on the strength of your production books and he was meticulous about them. And I think that was why, his ever reliable Stage Manager, Temitope Stephen, and him bonded so easily. Stephen would even block your breathing on the script!
In the area of Technical Theatre, Uncle B was equally solid. I remember when we were to perform his adaptation of ‘Exit Muttering’ which he titled ‘The Visit of Bishop Alaba,’ Hadji Teju Wasee Kareem, the Technical Theatre guru, had come up with a design taking into consideration the limited playing space at PEC. Uncle B took a look at it and said he was not in agreement with the design. Hadji Wasee looked very calm and this irked Uncle B the more. And in that baritone of his, he asked him, ‘I am telling you that this is not it. If I ask you now who trained you, you will tell me that I am the one!” We all burst out laughing and Hadji simply said, “Uncle, let me adjust it”. Uncle B retorted, ‘I am not asking you to adjust it; you have to re-design it!’ Hadji bit his lips and left. Next day, it was very obvious that he had not slept! He came with a multi-door design than enabled Tunde Euba to criss-cross the stage using the different doors as the ever-forgetful Bishop Alaba. It was a single look that Uncle B took at the design and said, “Yes, this will work”. As Assistant Director, I was baffled. How was this going to work? They had their chemistry and true to the projections of both of them, that design worked perfectly. How Tunde Euba ever connected these, I would never know. How Teju Wasee built it, I was as confused as ever and how Uncle B put the movements into that contraption, only he would be able to tell. Those were the days of bare-knuckle productions and Uncle B was solid in that area.
Our relationship dated back to 1982 at the University of Ibadan. I was with Peter Iyaforkhai who had told me tales of our famed lecturers. One of them was ‘Bayo Oduneye (Uncle B) of RADA and Carnegie Mellon, who knew his worth and where he was coming from, a man who would not suffer fools gladly.
Fortunately or unfortunately, by the time we resumed, Uncle B was nowhere to be found. He was away on an official trip and we were not to see him until a couple of weeks later. The encounter was memorable. We had just finished a lecture at the Practical Theatre, strolling past Department of Philosophy, past the ATAS office and walked onto the stage. Dead silence. There was an on-going class. We strolled into the stage. He allowed us to get half way and the next thing we heard was, “Stop! Who trained you?!” The baritone voice froze us in our tracks. I forget who managed to blurt out that we were Diploma students. The baritone voice responded –“you are lucky I am in a good mood but by the time I finish with you all, you will know the difference between Tha and Phi” But something strange happened – his whole class burst into laughter at our discomfort and that was when I knew that there was a lot of goodness in the Man. We found out later.
It was after the iconic production of ‘Barrie Stavis’ The Man Who Never Died’, directed by Professor Joel Adedeji, where I played Attorney General Stone that we became friends. He asked me one day if I had a place to stay and I told him that I was in Sultan Bello Hall. He said okay, that if I ever needed anything, I should let him know. He was our quintessential teacher, an enigma who made sure you never forget his RADA and Carnegie Mellon solid backgrounds. Uncle B, even in those early days and throughout his life, was a very kind man. He was a gentleman to the core. He had some faults which I noticed later in life – Uncle B can give you the last N20 in his pocket without thinking where the next N10 was going to come from! He hated seeing anyone unhappy or hungry or lacking. This was his other part that baffled a lot of people who were used or who disliked his bragging. Uncle B had an accompanying object that he always brought to class – it was an aluminum silver flask filled with Lipton Tea with no sugar and no milk, telling us that if we want to live long, we should drink tea. By the time I got to Year Three, we had bonded like Father and Son. I will not go into the genesis of this relationship but he had given me an assignment which I performed to the best of my ability. He had asked me to take care of a vulnerable student and I had done it superbly. And that marked the beginning of a lifelong relationship. He then gave me the keys to his office and so as a student, I had an “office” that was air-conditioned and where I could read all night and day when Uncle B was not around and he took to calling me “Son”! He knew all my friends on campus and outside and when I was to get married, he was to have been the chairman in Jos but last minute travel plans scuttled the trip to Jos!
The day we all knew that inside this most beautiful of men was a little boy was the day Uncle B cried and broke down in front of the whole class with reckless abandon. He wept. We were in the Practical Theatre and he suddenly screamed “Oh Lord!” and ran out to the steps and started weeping profusely. We were all dazed and speechless. It was the day General Mamman Vatsa was executed. They were very close and a lot of trips were made to the then virgin Abuja at the behest of the General. It was a terrible week.
UNCLE B was of the opinion that it was directing that is the future of Theatre. In the degree class I veered into Directing and being the only student Director working with Uncle B, he supervised my first directing project of Ngugi Wa’Thiong’o’s ‘The Black Hermit’ and the final directing project, Peter Rolfe’s ‘Hadrian The Seventh.’ He taught me to have a keen eye for details on stage and the “trick” was to look at real life events as they unfold and parcel them out in my brain. A day would come when I would need each parcel in trying to create real life events!
He had high hopes when he was appointed the Artistic Director of PEC Repertory Theatre, with Prof. JP Clark as Executive Director. We went to work with him as part of our NYSC. It was unfortunately a relationship that did not really work out the way Prof. Clark and himself had planned it on the drawing board. It was after two memorable productions – ‘Hadrian the Seventh’ and ‘The Visit of Bishop Alaba’ that the relationship unravelled. We felt that Prof. Clark wanted to direct plays which was Uncle B’s forte and in fairness to Uncle B, the new plays and the new lease of life at PEC was beginning to bring back the audiences to the J.K. Randle Hall premises. We met a group of resident actors when we got to PEC. They were known faces – Prof. Barclays Ayakoroma, Evans Hunter, Phillip Isi Igetei, Ayo Lijadu, Richard Mofe-Damijo – and some of the actors came and went with productions but at the inception of the Ford Foundation grant, they were disbanded and only Phillip Isi Igetei was left as Business Manager. The Theatre was separate from the Administrative offices. Uncle B was in the theatre while Prof. Clark was at the Administrative offices. We were with Uncle B at the Theatre and thus we got to know early enough a lot of faces – Brigadier-General Adekunle (Black Scorpion), Uncle Olu and Joke Jacobs and a lot of the faces that were the advance of what is today known as Nollywood. Most of them were one way or the other connected with Uncle B.
The ‘renaissance’ at PEC never happened and Prof. Clark and Uncle B went their separate ways. PEC wound up and Uncle B started Diamond Productions. We were torn between Prof. Clark and Uncle B. To solve it, we worked both ways. We went to PEC to report and ran back to Little Road to either meet with Uncle B or rehearse at the National Theatre. We had equally memorable productions there – ‘The Visit of Bishop Alaba’ and the American classic, ‘The Colored Museum.’ He later left Ibadan for the National Troupe as Artistic Director before leaving for Ago-Iwoye. I think and I believe that Uncle B’s main forte was in mentoring and nurturing new talents and ideas inside the university. He never fully thrived in the world of private theatre productions and funding. In later years he was to admit this. There are so many stories about our iconic teacher and friend. Only time will reveal the stories and fully demystify the enigma. A great and beautiful soul has gone to sleep. Sleep well, Uncle B!
* Dr. Oteh is the Artistic Director of Jos Repertory Theatre, Jos, Plateau State