By – MONTAGE AFRICA MAGAZINE
The earliest record of indigenous theatre in Nigeria was a stage play production titled “King Elejigbo” written by D. O. Oyedele in 1904 which was first performed in Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos. This was done after a clamour from some quarters for works on Nigerian subject matter. The next notable development was about forty years later when Hubert Ogunde came into the scene in 1944 with his travelling theatre. He is attributed to having done the most in creating the awareness of modern theatre tradition in Nigeria by carrying his plays to various part of the country and other neighbouring West African countries. Some of his plays include, Garden of Eden, Herbert Macaulay, Tiger’s Empire, Strike and Hunger and Yoruba Ponu (Yoruba rethink).
The 1960’s to 80’s saw the theatre arts flourish in the country with notable personalities such as Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, J. P. Clark, Ola Rotimi, Zulu Sofola (the first Nigerian woman playwright), Tess Onwueme and Tunde Fatunde taking center stage. Notable plays like The Lion and the Jewel, The Jero Plays, Songs of a Goat, The Masquerade, The Gods Are not to Blame, Kurunmi, Our Husband has Gone Mad Again, Wedlock of the Gods and The Reign of Wasobia are a few of the plays that graced various stages not only around the country but outside. I still have memories of watching Ola Rotimi’s “The Gods Are not to Blame” and Wole Soyinka’s “Trial of Brother Jero” when a theatre group came to my school to stage it. I guess that was where my love for theatre started. Another significant stride in the industry was the construction of the National Arts theatre at Iganmu, Lagos State in 1977, this edifice helped create a world class platform for various performers to stage their works.
Back then, it was not uncommon to hear of plays being staged by one theatre group or the other, these groups moved around the country staging their plays and were often met with an encouraging number of audience. Whether it was comedic or melodramatic, these groups not only entertained but also dealt on salient societal issues. It was during this era that veterans like Olu Jacobs, Joke Silva, the late Justus Esiri and Lari Williams came in limelight, the theatre scene was vibrant and it could only get better (or so we thought).
Sadly however, the disappearance of Nigerian theatre started slowly through the 1990’s. This decline could be attributed to a number of factors, but primarily the long military rule which not only saw the neglect of this form of art but created a hostile environment for free expression via this art form. The dwindling economy also created a problem as cost of stage play productions became uneconomically viable and unable to sustain all those involved. Some theatre art practitioners and production companies complained that there were fewer venues to showcase their works and the available ones cost a lot, when this was added to the cost of building a set, provide costumes, pay artist fees, lights and sound, it became difficult to breakeven.
By the 2000’s the theatre scene was virtually nonexistent. Occasionally, you heard of a few performances showcased to a select group of audience but nothing like it use too. We as a people had lost the theatre tradition, you no longer had plays being taken to schools or saw people going out to watch stage plays, it seemed not to be a viable form of entertainment. Surprisingly, this was around the period where there was a rejuvenation of other art forms such as music, movies and stand-up comedy as they had suffered similar fate yet this “breathe of life” seemed to have missed theatre. Some quarters attributed part of its demise to the movies and cable TV as actors, writers and other industry practitioners saw these other art forms as a more viable venture.
It is heartwarming to note however that in recent years, a few groups and individuals have started the rebirth of this form of art, notable amongst them is the Terra Kulture centre which was established in 2004 and has become synonymous with Nigerian theatre, having played host to a number of stage productions by both established and developing names. Its frequent hosting performances every Sunday throughout the year is highly commendable and its hosting of the critically acclaimed Saro: The musical held in November 2013 (which saw one of the largest crew in history of Nigerian theatre with 103 performers) is one of the numerous productions associated with it. The new faced MUSON centre Onikan has also been another avenue for performers to showcase their works in recent years since it’s “revamp”. Theatre companies such as The Renegade theatre is also another silver lining in the theatre story performing all over the world.
Asides Lagos, which is the home of stage plays, Abuja and Port Harcourt have had their spotlight in this slow “rebirth”. Recently, Abuja hosted a stage play titled An Inspector Calls written by Ahmed Yerima and directed by Koyode Aiyegbusi at the Sheraton Hotel on the 11th of October and the turnout was impressive.
It is obvious that there is a market to be satisfied as people look for various forms of entertainment, especially a form of entertainment that has indigenous content, preserving our culture and history. Now it falls on the shoulders of the theatre community to get creative and work on ways to revive Theatre in Nigeria and investors will buy into it just like they have in both the movie and music industry.