‘…Talent is Nigeria’s greatest asset’
‘…We manage to make connections among ourselves as human beings in Nigeria, not here’
‘…American society has been promoting its education, supporting educational facilities for a very long time’
By Patrick-Jude Oteh
I had informed our boss who we fondly call Oga (Prof. Chuck Mike) that I would be in the US in July. We were still in the early days of planning for the 20th anniversary Reunion of DeVos Institute for Arts Management at the University of Maryland, Washington DC. Oga had asked me to inform him ahead, as it was a busy and travelling period for him. Due to visa and later ticketing issues, I could not inform him until early July. We had a performance tour of Prague, Poland in May, so my passport was also busy and the U.S. Embassy, Abuja was generous and kind enough to accommodate me on our return.
Oga was scheduled to travel in July. In fact, he had two trips lined up, but these were cancelled to accommodate me. If you are familiar with our Oga and his large heart, you will understand this gesture. His heart is as large as his height! He kept in touch and I also kept in touch and shortly before I left Nigeria, he asked me to forward my passport data page, so he and Mrs. Mike (Mummy Lebus) could buy my ticket to Richmond and for my onward journey to New York! I could not believe this. But then again that is Oga and his lovely, amiable wife of over 30 years!
I got to Richmond on the evening of Tuesday, July 19 and Oga was at the Amtrak Station. Our train was late by 45 minutes but Oga was there! The first thing I noticed was that Oga was looking more dignified with age! And then Oga was driving a car with the number plate GTITB! I immediately related to it as it was a saying from the Collective Artiste & Performance Studio Workshop (CA/PSW) days and he laughingly said I should have seen the last one! His last number plate was EGTASEB (E Get as E Be).
From the train station we began a whirlwind semi-tour of Richmond ending up at the Addis Ethiopian Restaurant where they were hosting spoken word, poetry, songs to a full house comprising all demographics. On getting home, Mummy Lebus was still awake and after pleasantries we retired to Oga’s Den! The house – set in a thickly wooded area – you will get the feeling that you are in the middle of a forest with a little brook running at the back of the house. Cricket’s chirping, frogs croaking, with all manner of birds and owls’ sounds, and unluckily we did not see the occasional deer. Oga said if we waited long enough in the morning, we would see lots of squirrels. And I thought in my Nigerian mind about a very good peppersoup!
The next day, we were off to run some errands, then visited the beckoning grounds and vast expanse called the University of Richmond. Oga’s space and office, set in the departmental building, has a rich history of memorable and monumental productions. We worked until early afternoon and after a tour of the faculty and rehearsal rooms, we ended up at the vast theatre auditorium of the faculty. Simply indescribable! Even rehearsal rooms were looking like miniature theatres!
Our itinerary around arts events started at the Valentine Museum where they were hosting the Discover Richmond Stories – it was not much……a man and a woman singing, tables filled with lunch goers and some medical personnel from the adjoining University of Richmond Children’s Hospital. It was a very relaxing afternoon and we ended up at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It was a beauty to behold with its different settings on different levels and halls interspersing the lobbies. There was a Jazz performance going on, lots of food and drinks and good people! And then someone spread the news – Plunky is performing! Where? And with that there was a mass exodus to look for Plunky! When we got to Plunky’s street, his performance had already started. It was in the middle of the street, with two ends blocked by a drinks van at one end and an ice cream van on the other. Serious party was going on. Plunky reminded me very much of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He was celebrating his 75th birthday. Slim build, Fela-like dressing, clear voice, clear music and good neighbourliness. Oga proceeds to tell me that if the Yoruba’s know how to party they should see this. The only thing is that there are no seats, you bring yours, there are no drinks, food, you buy from the packed trucks but everyone is dancing, yelling and generally feeling good! We leave after almost two hours and we head home.
This interview took place on the night of Wednesday, July 20, 2022 outside Oga’s Den surrounded by all these night sounds. I had thought that this interview would not take place but at that time of the night, Oga’s energy was still very robust and his wits still very clear. It brought back all those memories of the early days of CA/PSW at the upstairs office of the American Theatre Revue at the United States Information Service (USIS), Lagos. My Oga is Chuck Mike.
Chuck Mike: I want you to check properly on this tape to avoid the circumstances during my interview with Wole Soyinka once. I went to his office for a very lengthy interview – two hours – and at the end of it we discovered it was not recording. So make you check properly make we no get that problem!
I am not too familiar with these electronics and I think I have limited space left.
Oga, good evening!
Good evening o.
It is good to be in your space.
It is better to see you sef.
It is better to see you in your space in Richmond. Oga, how now?
How has it been?
We thank God. Covid is almost behind us. We are healthy and well, and most of all right now what gives me joy is that you are here. I was telling you earlier. Let me tell you this story about me and Soyinka and the interview I did with him. So, I did this two hours’ interview with him in his office, only at the end of the interview to discover that the tape was not recording. And when I said, “Oga, this thing was not recording!” he said ‘Get out of my office!’ Again I came back and said ‘Oga, please now,’ and he said “Okay, Okay and this is what we will do. You will meet me in the house tomorrow morning at 7 o’clock AM and bring a bottle of ogogoro with you!” That is the penance. I was the departmental supplier for ogogoro at the time. My wife is from Warri, so I used to get the original thing (Sapele water), and I brought that bottle and I think we must have finished about half of it. That was one of the best interviews I have ever done (laughter).
Anyway, Oga, I sure say nothing like that will happen here.
Well, make we see. Make we see o.
Oga, Haba! That sounds ominous (laughter).
Maybe to you, but we all have all kinds of things happen. But I am sure it will work. We just plead say, with better light, everything will be okay.
Okay. Fair enough. Oga, how have you been?
I have been good. I have been well. It was a culture shock coming back to the US, and I think I still have episodes of it as I am here now. You know, having lived in Nigeria for that length of time, almost thirty years, and when you come back here to America, you see the difference. Like I usually say, I am a born again Nigerian. I picked up most of the culture and the lifestyle, but here, this is a rat race, everyman for himself. A lot of individuality goes on here. A lot of individualism goes on. It is not the same in Nigeria despite all the problems we have there, despite all the corruption, despite all the wuruwuru that goes on. There is still a notion of community. There is still the notion that people come together. When we were talking earlier and this thing happened on the road and everybody….that is there (referring to the street party we had attended earlier to celebrate the 75th birthday of the Ghanaian-American singer, Plunky).
Nobody in Nigeria can die in their house and nobody will know for the next two years. That is what happened in the U.K. recently. A woman died and even people that have lived in the house for five years… didn’t know. It happens here as well. The human connection, the one cord binding us together is damp. That is part of the culture shock. But having grown up here as well, there is a certain beauty especially when I am mixing with my people, like the Black people you experienced tonight. A Block party on a Wednesday night. Wednesday night o. Can you imagine it? People seal off a street and have a party in the middle of the street with a musician, a Ghanaian musician and the drummer is a Ghanaian as well. That is an infusion of culture, I experience back and forth (between Naija and here amongst Black people), that one constantly ponders and it is great being a part of it. I was here one evening and someone called me the ‘quintessential African American’, having lived here and lived there (Nigeria). But, to answer your question, I dey o. I dey like Dele.
I must say that it has been a long way from Collective Artistes and PSW. What has happened inbetween the years, between leaving and now?
Hmmm….Hmmmm….. I left around 2005 and came here to resume my current position at the University of Richmond. Around that time, I was still travelling around, back and forth, because Collective Artistes had migrated to the UK, and we were still doing a lot of shows there, and it was interesting being situated there. We were at the centre of where Africa is and where America is and the work focused dominantly on plays from the African diaspora. We were doing Nigerian plays, African-American plays, Black British plays, you know, serving that space. Coming here presented more of a challenge in terms of producing theatre because the atmosphere is not always one of, ‘let us go into the space and play.’ The atmosphere is one where we have to get this done, this is business, and you have to find some other time to play
So the level of enjoyment here is not as much. Very unlike what we have in Nigeria and even in my work in the UK and Canada, with the Caribbean community and other African countries as well. The reason why I came back was because I wanted to spend time with my parents before they passed away and I also wanted to educate my children at the university level here. Those are my reasons for returning to the U.S. I didn’t realize that I would be away (in Nigeria) for that long in the first place. The grant that brought me there was for one year, and I stayed close to 30! But then family is what brings us to wherever we need to go.
But I have been going back and forth between here, the UK and Naija, and then the pandemic stopped my trips for two years, and most recently was the first time I have been out of the country – to France for the Cultural Diaspora project, a playwriting residency for Africans and African-Americans that I co-curate with Carlyle Brown bi-annually. The first time was in 2018. Covid-19 wiped out our 2020 edition. So it’s been challenging being back on one hand and rewarding on another, but no place beats the atmosphere and conviviality and warmth in a general sense, especially in terms of people, like Nigeria. The only semblance to it here is when I am amongst a lot of Black people like we had this evening. And then you have the politics here, racism, challenges that people experience economically, politically, socially. It’s not that we don’t have problems in Nigeria as well, we do, but somehow or another, we manage to make connections among ourselves as human beings. That has formed a kind of resonance to the experience on a whole than I find here amongst Black people.
I saw the space at the university earlier today, and I was amazed that a university has facilities that even, no exaggeration here – 10 Arts Councils in Nigeria pulled together cannot hold or cannot have. How did that come about?
It came about dominantly because this society has been promoting its education and supporting its educational facilities for a very long time. And also the belief that whatever taxes are paid, whatever monies are accrued can be invested in things like education. This university in particular is a very wealthy, very elite, very white university. So their donor base is quite high and students pay over $60,000 a year to the university; so, there is no excuse for not having excellent facilities. We just started, maybe within the last two decades, of having private universities in Nigeria and the philanthropic base is not as high. We haven’t yet placed a premium on education and the arts. So, we do not have the infrastructure we have yet in America because this (American) government, in spite of all its problems, has set up a system where funding can be allocated to the arts. There is more of a regard for the arts in terms of the larger society, so they are ready to support it and that is why you can see the facilities that you saw there today.
You know, way back home ASUU has been on strike now for four months going into the fifth or rather the middle of the fourth month. Petrol is a recurring problem. Right now there is scarcity of petrol. Right now prices are hovering between N200 and N220 per litre. Do you miss Obafemi Awolowo University? You were there for 26 years…
Oh… I miss it dearly… I was there from 1978 to the late 1980s. It was one of the few places where I had the most beautiful experience working with colleagues. After work, we’d find ourselves in somebody’s house. Dominantly Wole Soyinka’s house. It was not planned but one person would land, another would land from the Theatre Department, and we would sit there and eat, drink and talk. It was like family working in that environment and we all worked towards something collectively. I liked working on creating socially relevant sketches, and directing major plays. I worked with Ola Rotimi and the Ori Olokun Theatre shortly before I joined the department. Subsequently I worked with Soyinka, Folabo Ajayi, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Femi Euba with whom I am doing a play now here in the U.S. I would leave campus and be eager to come back to work in the morning to work again. I cannot remember instances where that happened apart from when we worked in PSW where I would leave a job and say ‘ah oga o’, and wake up in the morning with the mindset that I must go, I want to go back. I must go. I want to be with these people and students. People want it. Students are hungry for knowledge.
In Nigeria, we don’t have the books, the facilities that exist here but Nigerians are very well read, far more than the average American student. The average Nigerian student has far more diverse knowledge. So I loved that place. The camaraderie, the spirit of the work, the challenges we put the government through in our work, addressing the anomalies of the day, it was a wonderful time. Had this high caliber of intellectuals. Biodun Jeyifo, Kole Omotoso, Oyin Ogunba and Soyinka… all these brilliant minds that you could feed off and learn from… You could be educated in God knows how many ways. It was a wonderful experience and yes, I do miss that ambience of Ife.
You said something earlier which led to missing Ife… I cannot remember what it was. Yes, you said something about ASUU going on strike and oil prices going up. That is not new. I got to Nigeria in 1976, and shortly thereafter we experienced ASUU strike and oil prices going up and like we spoke the other day, I think I got 61/62 kobo for a dollar and now we are talking of about 600+ naira to a dollar. How did that come to be? That is part of what some would call the Nigerian factor. (Something we exposed in our play at PSW called The Nigerian Factory, if you recall.) Greed. Corruption, an abiding penchant for hoarding wealth unto oneself and even celebrating thievery. Today we have candidates running for office who are thieves. There is no alternative? Right? People watch these criminals and support them and until we get rid of those types and get people into office who are really concerned about the welfare of the people, I don’t see a change. And that change may require bloodshed in the country as I see it, because nobody gives up power. It is always taken. And that is not to say that things like that does not happen in this country.
Look at people in the senate, in the congress, and you see that these are individuals who make very very lucrative salaries and the baseline will be about $150,000 annually for a Senator and then they negotiate contracts for themselves like we do in Nigeria. And, they bribe people as well… only here, it’s called “campaign donations”, then the politicians do your bidding. And these are largely corporations and if you look at the health sector here, it is moribund. The health system here is commercial. Nobody should make commerce out of people’s health. People are dying because they do not have access to healthcare…. If you do not have money, you will die here if you get sick, or you go bankrupt because you cannot afford to go to the doctor and the same corporations who run the health sector are the same people who pay our senators, our congressmen to do their bidding. They make sure that this system stays the way it is and I am of the view that if you didn’t pay these politicians as much, and they got no benefits when they leave (because they get huge benefits including continued health care). Remove all of that crap, you work there, you serve for four years, you leave, you go on. So if you had people who did not have all of these entitlements, you will have people who will be in touch with the common man in this (America) country. They would be there to actually SERVE. The systems are not too different – here and Nigeria. The only difference is that this one is camouflaged and when things get exposed, what’s the word that they use here? Hmm ……Hmm they “spin” in. Fabricate stories to cover it up. They know how to spin things here so it doesn’t seem as bad as it is elsewhere.
Admittedly, what is going on in Nigeria is crude. Twenty, Thirty years from now, maybe we will have sophisticated corruption like we have here in the US But corruption is corruption anywhere. As long as there is no interest in the majority of the people, in what they can gain, you are going to have a depraved society. You can imagine that in Texas recently some school children got shot. A man came in and shot them. It is not the first time. It is not the second time. It is not the third time. It is becoming the norm. So what do you say about a society that cares not for its children? Gun laws again. It is the same people that lobby senators and congressmen to make sure that the laws around guns stay there with no checks and balances on who can buy one. Some of the people who do these shootings actually post information about what they are going to do before they do it and then they go out and buy a gun easily. Anybody can buy a gun. You can buy a gun! You don’t need a passport. You don’t need a driver’s license. You can walk in and buy a gun and do whatever you want with it. That is lawlessness. It takes you back to the Wild, Wild West. When they first came here and destroyed native peoples and took their lands and whatever they wanted. It is a repetition of a mentality that is depraved, greedy and without moral values regardless of how often they read the Bible, and so like I said, there is not much of a difference. So, when people here talk to me about the corruption in Nigeria, I am frank about letting them know that they have no moral authority in this country to criticize any other country about its corruption.
Well, let’s take you back to the beginnings of CA/PSW. Compared to what happened almost fifteen years later when CA/PSW had to relocate to the UK, and then you also took a teaching job at the University of Richmond. If we did not have the kind of political system that we had then that was almost stifling, affecting everything like funding, creativity and the manner of curtailing freedom and not being able to do the things you want to do. If we did not have those conditions, would you have left Nigeria?
I would have had to. Like I said to you earlier, my primary mission was twofold. One was to be with my parents. Although I used to come back and forth to visit them occasionally, they were getting older and I realized that I wanted to be near them before they passed away. So that was the primary mission. Then again my children’s education needed furthering and not just because the higher educational system in Nigeria had become sub-standard, I realized that I also wanted my children to experience this society because it exists also in their heritage. And those were my primary reasons for coming here. CA and PSW started because I taught so many students in Nigeria and I would hear the same thing after they graduate – ‘Oga, no job in theatre o, the only thing wey remain na cultural centre. Maybe television house or radio house. Maybe we go do marketing. In fact, I am even looking at banking self!’ That, for me was tantamount to leaving theatre altogether. I wanted to answer that call and set up structures where products that come out of the university could come and work professionally in the theatre. So that was the dominant reason for starting CA and PSW. The former was a professional entity that focused on classic plays and the latter was a training ground that focused on original work targeting social issues. (Parallels can be drawn between these two entities and Soyinka’s Orisun and 1960 Masks Theatres).
I always wanted, in addition to producing excellent professional theatre, to enhance mutual understanding of cultures through theatre, especially between Africans and Americans and most especially between Africans and African-Americans. And we did that through the various festivals that we had and a lot of people did not really get what I was trying to do with CA in that respect. I can give you a history that points to it. Very first play that we did was Home, an African-American play. That was how we started. Secondly, we did Biyi Bandele’s first play Rain along with another piece by Rasheed Gbadamosi, which I think was The Grass is Greener. The very first festival that we did was FESBAD – the Festival of Black American Drama. What I was doing was exchanging culture, a mission I had envisioned when I was leaving the US I was disturbed by the stereotypical images of Black people (Africans and African-Americans) in the media and films, and I felt that I could help change that by providing, through theatre, images of Black people that would be more realistic, credible and authentic, therefore bridging the gap between us. Films like Superfly and Tarzan terribly misrepresented us. The United States Information Service expressed interest in supporting this venture, though latter we garnered support from foundations, corporations and local businesses.
So FESBAD was the first festival. We were located in USIS. The next festival was the American Theatre Revue which now had a couple of white American writers such as Arthur Miller. We did Crucible and writers from the diaspora and African-American writers as well such as Lonnie Elder’s Ceremonies in Dark Old Men and The Meeting by Jeff Stetson. The next festival was SAND – Season of American and Nigerian Drama. You see where all this was going. We had Nigerian plays eventually dominating all other plays. The final season was NITE – Nigerian International Theatre Extravaganza, which is where we had all Nigerian plays and right after that we moved out of USIS and into our own space which had hitherto been called PEC Rep. But that was the ultimate goal, to do more of the work that the community itself would want to have with Nigerian practitioners. Plays about itself.
And every so often after that we were interspersing our activities with plays from the US and other cultures as well. So that was the raison d’etre, the reason why CA existed which was very different from PSW. PSW came into play because we needed a training forum, also for people outside the universities that could elevate to the professional work of CA, and we also needed a forum for addressing social anomalies in the society. That was how PSW worked. We looked at politics and inequities and created plays around those themes. Footprints (aka) Muse Before The Millennium, Lanterns… Plays of that nature were all created. We would spend eight weeks creating and offering courses for people that got in. One thing that I am very proud about PSW and CA was that everybody who came in there came in on merit. There was no “paddy paddy”. I can remember advertising in the newspapers, and we had people coming in from as far as Jos, Kano, Calabar, Zaria, Benin City. They would see it in the newspapers, and they would come all the way to Lagos to audition for entry. We had three tiers –artistes-in-training, interns and artistes-in-residence. Around audition time, we’d get these business cards from people that say, “Ah, Chuck this is my nephew o… I beg, help am small.” We would take all those cards and put them in a box, leave them and do our auditions and if we took somebody on his own merit that matched the card, then all the better. Then we would send a message, “Ah, we have helped you” (laughter). But in accordance with our standards for merit, he got in on his own.
So, I was completely proud of the merit-based factor in the work that we were doing and I was also very proud of the work that we did in the communities. We did Guerrilla Theatre and Theatre for Development, and we addressed social anomalies, we did stuff on road safety, reproductive health and so on and so forth. We also lived in communities and evolved work based on what members in the communities felt they wanted, to better their lot. We were getting funding from Ford Foundation and quite a few international organisations and they always had their own agenda: they wanted you to do this or that in accordance. We would say, “Okay”, but when we got to the communities we would also do what the communities wanted. All na negotiation. I saw roads being repaired by community members themselves, filled with traditional substances like palm kernel nuts.
One experiment that usually touches me is the experiment that we did in Oluwole village in Ibadan. You were there…. I think, when we went into the village, lived there and went to the farms with them. Our men went to the farms with the villagers and our women went to the market with the women and when we come back we share notes and stories from our different locations, about what we had learned about the villagers’ concerns. And with this we created a play with community members as the players, proffering solutions to their own problems. The first thing that we saw when we got into the community was that we couldn’t plow the road because of potholes and had to walk some distance to the mouth of the village to make contact. Months later when we returned with an international body of Theatre for Development practitioners from a conference that we organized in Ibadan, the villagers, the Baale and his wife came out upon recognizing our bus. First thing that they did was to show us a baby that had not been circumcised. As an entre and ground-breaking event on our previous visit we’d done a play on female circumcision and the first thing that the Baale’s wife said while holding a new born baby girl was, “look, we did not circumcise this one!” They had stopped the practice. That was the second thing that hit us.
The first being that we had been able to drive our bus all the way to the mouth of the village). Then they showed us a ledger where they had started saving money for themselves as a co-operative in the village. They also showed us a parcel of land where they were now working with other villages to farm the land for increased produce. All these ideas came about as a result of our working with them to do a play. Through our guidance, they created plays about the circumstances, performed solutions and they enacted those solutions in real life. What more value could theatre have than to add value to people’s lives, to empower people? So PSW’s mission included a lot of development work such as Mamatunde, a play on reproductive health issues spurred by research on infant and maternal mortality and Babatunde, a play that intervened on the hazards of road accidents on our roads. That was the work of PSW, to train people in the arts of theatre to be socially conscious and to see theatre as a catalyst for change. And those people who did that work also were being prepared for the work of CA in its mainstage formal activity.
Funding, however, started drying up shortly before I directed Things Fall Apart, if you remember, for the London International Festival of Theatre. The interesting thing about that production was also the cultural exchange that occurred between Black Britain, Caribbean, other Africans living in Britain and CA members from Nigeria. The novel had been adapted by Biyi Bandele who had been a student of ours at Ife and he was actually responsible for my entrée into the UK He asked for me to direct that play. When we were creating it, it hit me again that here I was, geographically at the centre of cultural exchange, working with people from the African diaspora creating a piece of work that the world would see, an authentic story about Africans. Subsequently CA then produced a U.K./U.S. tour of it and finally brought it back to Nigeria. Shortly thereafter we were invited by one of the members of the company in the UK to actually start CA in the UK and as we did that, like I said to you earlier, we were centred between Africa and the US, strategically positioned to influence cultural awareness of the African Diaspora. There we did plays such as Carlyle’s Brown’s The African Company Presents Richard III, Osofisan’s Women of Owu, Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel, amongst others.
We also had a community theatre programme with youth targeting social issues such as PSW did in Nigeria. I am still doing some work there and you can see on our website, the last work I did was Zhe, Noun Undefined, a play about the challenges of gender and sexuality amongst Africans in the UK. Not too long after, the pandemic hit. So we are still trying to reactivate some of the work there. Although I came here to take a job, I was still going back and forth between the US, UK and Nigeria doing work. My last foray on the continent was a development workshop on a play by Femi Osofisan at the National Theatre in Ghana and conducting Master classes for the Abuja Festival of Theatre. It’s been fulfilling to see that the original mission that I had, in leaving the US had been crystallized. I had a grant from Fulbright and ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph) to come to Nigeria in 1975/76 and in that proposal I wrote, because I actually look at it every now and then and I say, “Waoh, you actually did this?” In the proposal I said I wanted to go to Africa to learn more about my craft from a heritage vantage point and to use that knowledge to revamp, through theatre, the distorted imagery of our people in separate lands. I was disturbed by images of us in America as buffoons and sex depraved, violent beasts. Additionally, I was appalled by the images of Africans shown in Tarzan movies; people running around and saying ‘bugah, bugah’ (as some sort of language), with leaves on their butts and bones in their nose. That was all we (African-American) knew (about our ancestry in African).
I remember when I was leaving for Nigeria, my grand aunty said to me: “Junior, what you want to go to Africa for? They eats people over there!” That was the kind of ignorance that pervaded us here. And when I got to Nigeria, a few people I encountered thought every African-American was a drug infested criminal until they saw differently. Through my personage and the plays I presented, it was like, “Hell no! This bobo… you be like us. You like to enjoy life, party and can be intelligent, articulate, focused and productive!” But actually after looking at the proposal, it became clear that my studies at Ibadan and the work at Ife was a training ground for me. The training ground was to prepare me to set up these companies (CA/PSW) which now had international credibility and carried out the very same mission that I left for. To debunk those misunderstood images, concepts, thoughts, feelings that we had about ourselves as African people has been fulfilling. I have found the entire experience satisfying and rewarding. And I can tell you that the mission continues right here at the University of Richmond. My courses are on Cultural Diversity and Theatre for Social Change through Performance. I continue to carry out the mission of PSW in underserved communities here as well. I train students to be socially conscious with their art and I also direct plays at the university and professionally.
There is this show I’m looking very much to doing early next year in Louisiana called Craters. Its by Femi Euba and I am excited to work with him again and rekindle the Ife aura. The play also clarifies the misunderstandings about us as Black people. It has been a gratifying journey so far. There was this post on Facebook that my wife brought to my attention recently, written by Hafiz Oyetoro, a former student of mine at Ife. In it he offers tributes to me for contributing to his development, financially, creatively and intellectually. You don’t think about some of the things that you do in your lifetime. It never occurred to me the impact I had on Hafiz’s life as described by him. Then I saw a plethora of other people chime in about their experiences with me as well. I said, “Oh, My God!” I never thought of it that way, in those terms, I mean. I was just doing what I was meant to do.
In my family, my brother worked in social services, my sister was a nurse. We all work in areas that are helpful to the development of others and the community that we live in. My mother was a registered nurse also and my father was a funeral director. I remember one time when I was with my dad on a long trip from NY to Florida to bury his mother and I asked him: “Why do you do the work you do?” He said, “Son, because it enables me to help people at a time that they need it the most!” Then another thing clicked. He was a Funeral Director. I am a Theatre Director. We both do similar work. He dresses the body, that is the costume, he provides setting and atmosphere, (the casket and music), and evolves the text which is going to be used for the service. That is directing. That is what I do and I never made the connection until then, that my journey through life would be to serve others through my art. I’d just been doing it unconsciously.
If you had to go back 35 years, what would you do differently?
Hmmmm… Hmmmmm… That is a hard one o. That is a very hard one. That is a very very hard one. As I am sitting here right now cracking my brain, I realize that I really do not know. On one hand, I would say I wish, in addition to establishing my own companies in Nigeria, I’d been more empowered to establish some sort of funding base for other companies in Nigeria, so that their work could thrive. Talent is Nigeria’s greatest asset. I hope there can be a National Endowment for the Arts in Nigeria as it is in the US and UK. I’d started those discussions with colleagues and others in pretty high places but it never took off. I wish I had pushed harder for it. Also, I wish I’d had a greater foundation for sustaining the activity that we were doing. In all honestly, I was learning as I went along. But when I look at all the people who came through us and the work that they are doing today… you with Jos Repertory Theatre, Chidi Ukwu and his theatre in Abuja, directors like Biyi Bandele, Niji Akanni… many people that I was privileged to work with are doing brilliant work today and getting international acknowledgement; actors like Mofe Damijo… Joke Silver Jacobs… Matthew Yusuf in lighting are achieving global success. When I look at all of that and I say… okay… what could I have done differently? I wonder o. The only thing I have ever asked of anybody that I have worked with or helped along the way when they say, “Ah, thank you Oga!” is “pay it forward.” Do for someone else what has been done for you. People did same for me. I stand on the shoulders of Soyinka, Rotimi, JP Clark, (Dapo) Adelugba and so many others that fueled my career, and I think that is the same thing all of us should do through our work and interactions with those coming behind us. To do this makes our industry and the world a better place. I really do not know what I would have done differently. Maybe drink a little less ogogoro! (laughter) I don’t know.
You know, looking through your papers especially during the run up to my PhD field work, I realized that after Things Fall Apart, you raised money in excess of almost N26m…
For Things Fall Apart… but after that… I was fortunate enough to be a member of the crew of Things Fall Apart, and I know we were generously paid, all things considered, and I remember when we came back, I bought a car… From the CA/PSW papers, I realized that there was a struggle that started after that world tour. Maybe, if I did not have an idea like I have now especially in terms of running a theatre company, I would have said maybe Oga chop money. But a struggle started then and CA never really recovered from that struggle after Things Fall Apart, didn’t it?
Not really. I would say it migrated to the UK where greater opportunities were afforded it strategically in terms of its mission and financially. There we got (the British) Arts Council Funding which we could not really get while in Nigeria. And you may also recall that we lost Ford Foundation funding in Nigeria. I think we grew fast and large in scope. Some would say minimizing activity may have led to longer sustainability. I wonder, however, if we would have had the qualitative impact that we did had if we’d done so. Funders also shift interest, especially when the economy is in a downturn or there is political instability and upheaval. Also as an artiste, one is constantly seeking new challenges, new experiences and growth. Movements come and go and it was probably time for CA to move on, as did Ori Olokun, The 1960 Masks and Odu Themes. I am, however, glad you mention that because I don’t think there is a theatre company in the history of Nigeria, and speaking now specifically of PSW, that had the kind of benefits for its employees, or had people on a monthly salary, privately, than we did. We had to be close to… acting company, the administration… close to 25 to 30 people all salaried monthly, with medical benefits. We had a doctor on retainer, such that if you were sick, you go for treatment and it would be paid for. Those kinds of things were important to me, because I had seen in Nigeria where people were acting and in instances not getting paid at all. I wanted to set a standard. I wanted to prove that it could be done and we did it. Not only were we producing what I think was qualitative work, not only were we having a meaningful impact in communities that we served, but also the participants in all of our activities till today, I think, benefitted greatly.
So it was not so much as I would say a demise but a transition, seizing the opportunity to work in a strategic space and do the same work. CA’s base in London is still doing community work through our theatre for development programing; we are still doing professional plays dealing with stories from the African diaspora. Although CA still does not have the funding that it deserves in the UK, it is still managing. We will be doing something in 2023/24 there and again the playwright development project I am working on now, the Cultural Diaspora project that myself and Carlyle Brown are doing together – bringing African-American playwrights together with African playwrights and people from the African diaspora in a five-week residency just to write plays in a safe space away from a white gaze. Nobody looking over your shoulders. You do not have the pressure of worrying about not writing enough to please this person or that person… I must make sure I please someone… NO! It is a safe space for you to create and again…, looking at the idea of a trajectory with cultural exchange emphasis and developing talent that started when I left the university in Nigeria, it’s the same idea going round again and again. No one has ever done what we are doing now in terms of… a playwrights’ residency with African and African-American people. No one.
So that work continues. It’s like it is in my DNA. I don’t know how to do anything else. In fact, if not for theatre, I don’t know what else I would be doing. Maybe I would have been a DJ (laughter). You know, I was also a DJ before I left New York and I loved it. Maybe I might have also…, by the skin of my teeth, been a lawyer because when I first went to Fordham University in New York, my desire was to go into pre-Law. I worked for a lawyer part time while I was in school. How did my interest in law come about? When I was growing up in Brooklyn, I used to spend time with my aunt, my grandmother’s sister, who lived on the ground floor of a family brownstone. We lived upstairs and I would always go downstairs to watch TV with her on a Thursday, I believe. She always kept the television on Channel 2 (despite the other available channels), because old people, they are afraid that if you move something too much, you are going to break it! I still remember watching this show, Perry Mason, who was a lawyer that always won his case, and I used to watch it, and I would always go “waoh… waoh…, I want to be a lawyer.” My uncle was studying then to be a policeman and used to keep law books, and I was reading them and I felt I wanted to do that and so when I got to Fordham, that was my intention. As mentioned I also worked for a lawyer part-time because there was a practice right in our neighborhood. Well, he got somebody off who had murdered someone and we knew he did it. But then my boss said, “well, everybody is entitled to a fair trial,” and he kinda explained it off in that way but it did not sit well with me. So I said, “well, let me see.” And then that same guy went out and murdered a 13-year-old child after we got him off. I washed my hands off law and faced theatre.
But what I discovered was that by the time I got into theatre, and to tell you how much I loved it, what I discovered was that it wasn’t Perry Mason the lawyer that interested me, but Raymond Burr the actor and the drama of law that interested me, but it took some time for me to figure that out. In those early 1970s, Black theatre was just emerging. Ed Bullins and Amiri Baraka were on the rise. There was no August Wilson then but there were a smattering of other playwrights that were emerging. There still wasn’t enough Black theatre to, in my view, help to cure the negative images that were still going back and forth about our people. And again, that was, like I said earlier, one of the reasons why I left for Nigeria. I wanted to learn my craft from the source. And you can see, from the work that we did in PSW that many of the aesthetics surrounding dance, music, song and ritual were embedded in many of those works. I also learned that we have to be careful when using some of those things. I remember, Amatu Briade of blessed memory came and did some choreography for us and she was using real wuru-wuru (positively) in that play. The skull of an animal was used and I saw one of the female actors in the play going into a trance with the music and drumming, and I was like, “Waoh…,” I felt we had gone overboard here and I was afraid that that girl was going to fall off the stage. Afterwards, when I realized what it was I had to call Amatu…, and we removed some of the ornaments. That song is still in my head even till today. But I am just saying that what I learned in Nigeria has served me well in my thinking as a playmaker and director with social consciousness. Those experiences helped to enhance our ability to communicate effectively and in a recognizable way for the communities and audiences we served.
So my journey as an artiste and educator has been about learning and serving. You were very right Jude, this Oga never chop money. I did not build a house in Naija, nor was there any stockpiling of funds abroad. Every cent or kobo we received was used for the purposes that it was intended. And when it was time to move on to greener pastures of growth, gaining new experiences and supporting my family – I did.
I know that even here in Richmond, you get to hear and read about Nigerian theatre, what is happening, what is not happening, what should be happening or what should have happened. What are your thoughts?
There is an interesting dynamic that goes on here in Richmond where theatre is concerned, and I dare say largely in the world of the African-Americans. Black theatre here is underserved. This is not disconnected from the social, economic and political inequities that hover our lives here. Many look towards Africa as a source of inspiration, spiritually and culturally. Sometimes, its romanticized. Nevertheless, keeping abreast of what goes on, on the continent is important. We have something here called Elegba Folklore Society where they hold on to the tenets of Yoruba deities and practice certain cultural norms, carryovers from Africa through slavery, including music, song, dance, ritual and so on. Some are quite obsessive about this. They also have an African festival that holds in the summer, spearheaded by the African community. I participate in some of these activities and particularly amongst the Africans, always hear some lamenting about what’s going on back home. And much of it revolves around the lack of support that we have there as opposed to what we have here for the arts. I try to encourage cross cultural conversations to delineate the romanticism, zone in on realities and fathom ways in which we can be mutually supportive of one another. We all know that for the average African who tells his parents he wants to do theatre what the response would be. Kini?!?!?!?!?
Then or now?
Then….and to some extend now as well.
They will say it is not possible. For what?
Yeah. And how do you want to eat? What about lawyer, doctor, engineer… that is what I am paying school fees for. They will not want to pay for you to do theatre. But now theatre has grown to a place where there is a little more respect for it, especially if you can prove to your parents that you can make a living out of it even if it is as a professor of theatre. These are some of the issues that we do discuss here because this thing of theatre and lack of regard by the overall society also pervades here, even though you have a National Endowment for the Arts. We have private theatres all over the place, but theatre support is still on the margins of where it should be. I mean, it is a far cry from what we experience in Nigeria but still, by American standards and expectations, it could be better. Most small companies are not well funded. And don’t get me started about Black theatre companies here. They get a pittance of what their white counterparts get. Producing Black theatre in their spaces is also problematic. The gatekeepers are white, the funders are white, the people who run the industry are white, here as well as in the UK. That is our struggle, having control over the facilities that will enable our work to flourish. When we talk about Africa, an all-black continent, the essential problem is lack of appreciation for the arts. It is not valued by business and most especially governments. I was just telling you about the story I heard where the ministry of culture in Rwanda devotes 98% of its funds to sports! And it is the international organizations, foundations and embassies that fund our theatre. I have seen that in Nigeria. I have seen that in other countries in the African world. Survival permeates the discussions we continuously have where Black theatre is concerned, globally.
Okay o. Oga, you don try. Make I allow you go sleep! And also me I dey go sleep.
You sef you try.
Thanks a lot for this. Tomorrow is another day.
Tomorrow is another day.
If there is anything wey I no fit fill up, Oga, you go fill am up through email or by phone.
GTITB which means God’s Time is the Best!
Na the number plate of your motor be dat?
(laughter) Yes o, GTITB!
CM & JUDE: God’s Time is the Best!
Thanks a lot, Oga!
My pleasure, always.
* Dr. Oteh is the Artistic Director of Jos Repertory Theatre, Jos, Nigeria