Sam Ukala: A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

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By Sunny Awhefeada

Poetry like religious books is hugely consolatory. Adherents of moralistic criticism find a common ground between religion and literature as both domains continue to illuminate, comfort and navigate humanity in its unending odyssey of disillusionment and pains. The Anglo-American poet and critic, Thomas Stearns Elliot, made quite a reputation in his lifelong career as a writer who fused the moralizing essence of religion with the didactic end of literature. Three centuries before him, the English metaphysical poet, John Donne, had thematized the ennobling and redemptive essence of poetry in his Holy Sonnets. Having been a man about town in his younger days, Donne turned to religion in poetry and practice when he fell out of fortune in later years. He wrote poetry and practiced religion in his later days and even became Dean of St. Paul’s. Thomas Crashaw did refer to him as Apollo’s poet and God’s priest. An abiding feature of religion is the song mode or hymns which are themselves poetry. Thus for good measure humanity has had to seek and find solace in poetry, songs, hymns and religion.

Prof. Ukala

The title of this present intervention did compete for attention with other symbolic offerings that popped up as I struggled to not just come to terms with the passing of Emeritus Professor Sam Ukala, but also to craft or adopt a fitting title. The death of Professor Ukala in September was sudden, shocking and painful to many. Nobody saw it coming. For at 73, he was still agile, mentally fit and could engage in whatever blokes in their 40s could do.  What is more, the Delta State University, Abraka, had approved the conferment of the coveted Emeritus Professorship on him come April 2022. We were actually looking forward to that event when the grim reaper came calling. To get consoled, lines from hymns and poems tickled my fancy. I then remembered a conversation I had with Ukala some years ago during which he confessed his admiration for Donne, the undisputed Dean of the Metaphysical poets. And I remembered how he invoked Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”.

As I write the Delta State University, Abraka, the world of Literature, Ukala’s family, friends and his native Mbiri are astir with activities to mark his grand exit from mother earth. Although, his exit was sudden and painful, he exceeded seventy, lived well and impacted on humanity. He had finished his race, he left when the market was done, he took a bow and exited like the great actor he was. The rites of passage for a personage like Ukala calls for “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”. It is, in the Nigerian parlance, “a celebration of life”. And Ukala’s life is truly worthy of celebration. What follows hence are excerpts of my tribute to him when he turned seventy three years ago:

Samuel Chinedu Ukala, professor of theatre arts, playwright, theatre director, actor, poet, short story writer, theorist, folklorist and university administrator who turns seventy, the coveted threescore and ten, on 18th April, 2018, has been part of the foregoing literary and critical ferment. Best known as a dramatist, Ukala burst on to the Nigerian stage as a university undergraduate with his 1976 play titled Whiteness is Barren which he directed and acted in. Ukala was educated at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he took a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1977 and at the University of Ibadan where he obtained Master’s and doctoral degrees in Theatre Arts. Nsukka and Ibadan were significant in the making of Ukala as a writer. He met the artistic recrudescence at Nsukka after the civil war and ended up becoming one of its exponents. His years at Ibadan were to complement the dramatic insemination at Nsukka. Ibadan brought Ukala in contact with Professors Joel Adedeji, Dapo Adelugba, Isidore Okpewho, Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan and others who made the University of Ibadan artistic and academic milieu to bubble over at that time.

Much of Ukala’s plays appeared in the 1980s, the period when Nigerian literature not only provided an alternative view to official historiography, but took the imprimatur of the Marxist ideology reflecting the writer’s solidarity with the people. Although, Ukala inhabited the same Ibadan space with the arch-chanters of the Marxist credo like Osundare and Osofisan, and later shared a contiguous location with two other Marxist avatars in Festus Iyayi and Tunde Fatunde around Benin and Ekpoma, he delicately, and may be deliberately, avoided patronizing the Marxist lingo used to depict the tango between the oppressor and the oppressed. Yet, Ukala’s works throb with pro-people sentiments, a sense of fairness, quest for justice and a rejection of exploitation and oppression. His plays castigate misrule and lacerate despots calling for the subversion of their ill-appropriated power.

Ukala’s many submissions on the place of folklore in drama which he branded “folkism” as earlier stated has earned him a hallowed slot as a theorist of African poetics. He has also distinguished himself as a highly inventive theatre director and actor with nearly fifty years on stage from his native Mbiri to Abraka.

The internationalization of Ukala’s dramatic virtuosity began in 1993 when he clinched the prestigious Commonwealth Fellowship at the English Workshop Theatre of the University of Leeds where he was for a year. He has after that been involved in teaching and directing theatre in Manchester, Coventry, Lancanshire, Ireland, Holland among other places. Back home he has received prestigious literary awards ranging from the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA)/British Council Prize for drama in 1989, the 2000 ANA prize for prose as well as the first runner up for poetry. His most recent prize was the 2014 Nigeria Prize for Literature which he won with Iredi War.

As a teacher, Ukala bestrode classrooms at the Bendel State University now Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma and at the Delta State University, Abraka for many years. His foreign engagements have also enabled him to teach in Europe and other places. Ukala also ventured into film thus giving his career a multiplicity of callings; teacher, folklorist, playwright, actor, director, poet, short story writer, film maker, etc. The ambidextrous Ukala had his years as Dean of Faculty and Provost of a Campus at the Delta State University, Abraka. As he turns seventy, officialdom demands that he steps down from active teaching, but his mind and hands shall remain busy and the theatre stage in universities across the globe will remain restless with his many plays.    

Ukala lived well and for this reason we are not mourning! His exit is being celebrated with tributes and stage performances this day. The stage was Ukala’s forte. And as Shakespeare rhapsodized five centuries ago, “All the world is a stage/And all the men and women merely players/They have their exits and their entrances…” Ukala has had his entry. He has also exited and his is “a valediction forbidding mourning”.                                             

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