Cultural Implications and the Works of the Nigerian Playwrights: A Challenge to the Directorial Power of Western Theatre Directors on Euro-American Stage

Omololu Taiwo Abe
Theatre Arts Department,
College of Education,
Ikere-Ekiti, Ekiti State, Nigeria.

Every dramatic production is a breaking down of a big job into smaller parts, and the process placed under the enigmatic personality of an artistic director who aesthetically designed and reflectively supervised the collective creation of other artistes. At the top of this group of artists is the playwright whose work serves as the determinant for the other artistes’ creativity. However, the questions of effective mode of interpretations of dramatic writings have continued to be very contentious in dramatic criticism. Most of these critiques are determined by the level and nature of dramatic representation projected by the playwright and sometimes imposed by the director. This paper submits that most works of the Nigerian playwrights are characterised by traditions, and, a unified system of beliefs and culture which could be stumbling block to the interpretation of a Western director. It observes that the Nigerian playwright unconsciously creates limitations for foreign theatre directors in the interpretation of his work. The paper, however, concludes that although there is no absolute interpretation to a dramatic text, the diverse nature of the Nigerian culture inhibits the directorial power of Western theatre directors on the Nigerian indigenous drama. The paper however suggests that any interested Western/Asian director in the interpretation of Nigerian indigenous drama needs to study the ambience conducive to the indigenous dramatic interpretations.

Key words:  Nigerian playwright, Culture, Challenges

            The playwright, unlike other creative artistes in the theatre, takes a solitary approach when composing or confabulating his creativity. Although working in solitude, he remains at the apex of the process that finally results in a dramatic performance before an audience. Despite facing limitations such as his experience, observation and sensitivity, he takes unilateral decisions in his creativity. However, like the theatre director, he has the actor and audience in mind as the essentials of theatre. The playwright’s intent, as woven into the plot of the drama, is the determinant for other artistes’ creativity towards realising an organic whole called production. Since a playwright writes from his societal milieu, his creativity is often a reflection of his culture and tradition. The Nigerian playwrights from the primordial time to date have not ceased to use his art to reflect the culture, beliefs and tradition of his society. Most importantly, he raises his voice against sociopolitical issues that are inimical to the well-being of his people and the growth of the country. This is where his relevance as an artiste comes to play. Akorede (1993) succinctly explains that “the relevance of the dramatist is determined by the usefulness of the role he plays in the portrayal of the social reality of his time. The committed writer is the conscience of his society and it falls on him to make his people aware of the social, economic and political problems and the causes and possible cure of such problem.” Also Umukoro (2010) comprehensively clarifies the sensitivity and prophetic tasks of the Nigerian playwright to his society when he observes that:

“he shoulders a heavy responsibility towards his immediate society and humanity at large. His is the role of a seer or a prophet in a predominantly ignorant community, a visionary artist, whose work points the way forward through the labyrinth of time. He is characteristically an artist in a hurry to gain in time lost and catch up with the pace of human progress. He cannot afford to be aloof, or alienate himself from the collective goal of his people. His service to humanity is vicariously predicated upon his immediate community”

Despite his existence within the tyrannical and autocratic regimes of the past, the Nigerian playwright has refused to shut his eyes against abysmal conditions and inhuman decisions of individuals or groups that may be barriers to socio-political and economic breakthrough. His growth as a creative artist has seen him wriggle through the autocratic rule of the colonial masters, the post-independence maladministration of civil rule which eventually paved way for military dictatorship.
The Nigerian playwrights may be categorised into two groups. These groups emerged at the foundation of the University College, Ibadan and the establishment of Departments of Languages and the Theatre Arts in other institutions that emerged after the Ibadan experience. The Ibadan experience however, remains the factor behind his precocious quality and the predominant state of the Nigerian playwright over his counterparts in the Black continent. Prior to this time, dramatic productions were based mainly on the extemporaneous skills and abilities of the earlier dramatists of the pre-colonial period. Umukoro (1994) explains the differences in these groups of Nigerian playwrights through the thematic nature and focus of their writings. He observes that:
 “while their predecessors deal with the universal verities and metaphysical such as the part psychic search for the meaning of life and death in Soyinka’s The Road, the young deal with urgent contemporary social problems in Nigeria like the armed robbery phenomenon in Osofisan’s Once Upon Four Robbers, students’ unrest in Sowande’s The Night Before and the obscenity of undistributed property in Omotosho ‘s The Curse”
However, the work of any playwright, whether composed in an abstract form such that the metaphor of the play seems esoteric for the understanding of the common audience, or confabulated in a simplified context, it remains a “harbinger of the artistic reflection of the playwright’s society’s mores, and values, its hopes and aspiration, its failure and frustration” (Umukoro, 2010). These cultural values, mores, beliefs and tradition are embedded into the phantasmagoria of the play with the hope of transmitting them into the present as well as serve as a sort balance diet that can place the society on a healthy and peaceful communal terrain. Wole Soyinka painstakingly reflects this culture in his play Death and the King’s Horseman and cautions the would-be director to avoid as much as possible the conceptual projection of culture conflict which is against the author’s intent.

“The bane of this genre is that they are not sooner employed creatively than they acquire the facile tag of clash of cultures …. It is thank to the kind of perverse mentality that I find it necessary to caution the-would be director of the play against a sadly reductionist tendency and to direct his vision to the far more difficulty and risky task of eliciting the play’s threnodic essence” (Soyinka, 1982).
This cautionary note is a “reflection of the creative self-consciousness and mediation of the Nigerian playwright using various designs of literary and extra-literary elements in constructions” (Nwozu, 2007). Kofoworola (2004) in his interpretation of this same play submits that:

“Wole Soyinka reflects the encroachment of the Western colonial authority and civilisation. However, the long shadow of the British intervention could not breach the cosmology where the living, the dead and the unborn are perceived as a consortium, hence Olunde, the eldest son of Elesin, could not be prevented from his required obligation in spite of his Western education.”

            This tradition which sanctifies and appreciates the death of Elesin (the king’s horseman) as honour to the departed soul of the monarch is in contrary to the usual belief of the West as committing suicide. It perceives the obligatory death of Elesin with the king as committing death. This tradition, as sacrosanct as it is in the eyes of the people, may not be conceivable to a foreigner like Pilkins. No playwright writes out of his societal domain and there is no universal drama.
            The Nigerian playwright, especially the first generation of Soyinka and J.P, Clark, are endowed with the creative instincts of perceiving situations beyond the natural range of the senses. They appear to possess the ability to foresee future events. These clairvoyance and precognition attributes are displayed by Wole Soyinka in his Dance of a Forest, a play that was performed at the celebration of independence in 1960. The playwright, like a seer, foresees the state of maladministration, corruption, and mismanagement that have gradually encroached into our political culture today. Kofoworola (2004) claims that, “Wole’s plays are condensed, pitchy and enmeshed in language. Thick in idioms, aggregated in symbolism, its metaphoric concoction is not easily digested. Forceful in its metaphysical engagement of the mind, his language of communication is highly captivating, profuse and picturesque.” The personality of the playwright here is a representation of his inner man, the essence of his being. Some of these qualities attributed to Soyinka are features present in the works of these first generation of Nigerian playwrights.
Femi Osofisan, the most prolific of the second generation of Nigerian playwrights. While attesting to the essence and main objective of his generation, he enunciates that “for my generation, one of the most vital goals was to beat back the growing tides and despair,and to restore our people to optimism and to struggle.”  Hence in the play Yungba Yungba and the Dance Contest, he raises his voice for the need for unity among the ethnic groups in Nigeria in order to terminate the absurdity of the military rule. In Women of Owu, an adaptation of Eurepedes’ Trojan Women, Osofisan questions the relevance of the gods in the affairs of men as he did in Morountodun. These crops of Nigerian playwrights, like their predecessors, have not neglected nor jettisoned the employment of myths, ritual, and other aspects of culture in their compositions nor relent in their radical approach when addressing national issues. While the “older generations have not halted their creative output, many new playwrights have emerged to confront the devastating absurdities of the post-military Nigeria’s political climate” (Agboola, 2014). Still Obafemi (2009) advises that “for both the old and new playwrights, one hurdle however to cross is the simple assumption that the battle has already been won over dictatorial regimes after the exit of the military. This is a costly assumption that can make the theatre of any nation to slumber or compromise its call.”
            Moreover, every dramatic presentation is a display of a particular culture which is relayed through the use of language, dialectics, semiotic and embellished with costumes, props, set design and other paraphernalia of theatre productions. The focus of this paper is the semiotic and dialectics of the Nigerian drama, an aspects of the Nigerian culture which cannot be detached from the people‘s daily activities and interactions, but, which may pose problems to the interpretation of a foreign theatre director.  
Culture and the Challenges of Directing Nigerian Traditional Plays by Western/Asian Directors.

Rasheed Musa (2004, p. 171) critically submits that:

culture is theatre and theatre is culture because all cultural activities are essentially theatrical and that most theatrical events are moments of cultural re-enactments. While culture serves as the materials for the theatre, the theatre itself celebrates known and unknown cultures of the world through various performance forms as aesthetically designed and reflectively created by theatre workers one of whom is the artistic director.”

Suffice to say that theatre relies on culture for its materials. Although it is theatre that promotes culture, theatrical forms emerged from the womb of culture. The Nigerian theatre is a presentation of beliefs, morals, art, custom, language, drumming, dance, mime and music. Some of these features of her culture, especially drumming, dances, music and mime are used to create the changing mood in her dramatic productions. Hence, the Nigerian theatre in Adedeji’s (1998) submission is “an adroit arrangement of words, acting, dance, music, setting, costume, lighting and properties for total theatre - a total goal – directed performance.”  A play director in the Nigerian theatre usually borrows from various traditions of the people, but in his creation, is influenced by certain forces in his environment. A closer look at David Kerr’s observation (1995) reveals that “while the pre – independence theatrical activities were influenced by Western acculturation and religion, the post-independence era have witnessed a new cultural revivalism that brought in traditional music and musical instruments.” Kerr’s observation becomes the prim of this research as it contains the major periods through which one may take a retrospective look at the major events in the history of theatre in Nigeria.
          The Nigerian theatre and culture possess characteristics that make both inseparable for external forces. As the theatre promotes the culture, cultural elements such as dialectics, semiotics and techniques give the theatre its appeal and substance. These cultural factors are barriers to the artistic creativity of Western/Asian directors when directing a Nigerian traditional play. These cultural factors predominate the theatrical performances to a level that made Osofisan (2001) to succinctly describe the Nigerian theatre as “a drum that will not travel West.” These obstacles, as observed by Osofisan are as a result of the diversity of the Nigerian culture as presented through the theatre. Nigeria is made up of heterogeneous tribes whose heterogeneity is mainly displayed in the many languages out of which three are predominant – Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo languages. The level of understanding of the language in which a script is composed or with which a story is narrated (improvisation) plays a vital role in the creativity of the director. A lack of, or little understanding of the script’s language hinders the director’s interpretation, his artistic contribution and creativity. Aside language, are the non – verbal languages which are the semiotics of the Nigerian theatre and in particular the Yoruba drama. These non – verbal languages are synonymous with the day to day activities of the Yoruba communities. Some examples of this semiotics as analysed by Osofisan (2001 in Abe, 2011) are:

                  “the causal habit of slapping the palms together three times in alternative up and down movements to express emphasis and surprise; the peculiar hissing sound to show disgust and mockery; the quick snapping of the fingers backward over the head to divert evil away from oneself (which most times attract the participation of the audience); the standing back with arms akimbo before bursting into laughter; and the offering of osu (osuba), which is a form of homage paid with the fingers of the two palms interlocked, then the whole bunch reversed and stretched forward towards the revered person.”

            Another noticeable significance of the Nigeria theatre is the use of dialectics and magical powers.  These are features of the traditional plays and are notable features of the pre-independence Nigerian drama. The significance of these aspects of Nigerian culture may pose an onerous task to the interpretation of a foreign director. How do you explain to a foreign audience whose imagination is ruled by technology that the recitation of some magical words in the right order could force a man to sleep or dance, or that the mere stretching of the Sango’s wand could provoke lightning as displayed in Duro Ladipo’s Obakoso (The King did not Hanged) and Wale Ogunyemi’s Kiriji (a play written on one of the internecine wars in Yoruba land). This may be far above the creative expertise of the Western theatre director. Therefore, it was not an exaggeration when the editorial review of the dramatic performance of Duro Ladipo’s Obakoso (The King did not Hanged) in Berlin in 1965 exposed the inability of the Western Theatre to achieve such aesthetic height in performance. The Spectator, a British Weekly Magazine carries in its review page that “here is something Europe cannot do” (Kerr, 1995). Osofisan (2001) submits that, “these cultural elements which are used in order to create an African identity in our works turned into obstacles for performers in the West, and therefore stand in the way of a regular production of our plays there.” Moreover, it is important to state here that these cultural elements, which have become a heritage to the theatre practitioners in Nigeria, are transmitted from one generation to another, therefore, may not easily go into extinction no matter the level of civilization via technology. Gowon (2004) claims that

  “It is this transmission that has a direct bearing and latitude with theatre. Theatre on the other hand is widely known to be a structured performance before an audience. The nexus between culture and theatre is largely transportational. While culture generates codes on which the peoples behavioural pattern is anchored, theatre provides the vehicle with which these codes are passed from one generation to another.”

          The art of playwriting and the theatre directors will certainly endure no doubt. The Nigerian
             Femi Osofisan, another Nigerian playwright/director states,

“I have been invited to be guest director at several theatres outside Nigeria, and particularly in Europe and America. It began in 1983 in Philadelphia, where I directed my play, Cannibal Rage for the summer workshop of the University of Penn. I was in Stanford, USA, to assist in Sandra Richards’ refreshing production of the same play. I toured six states of the USA with the Kakaun Sela Kompany in a production of two plays, The Oriki of a Grasshopper and The Engagement, in 1990…returned to the United States in 1991to perform the same plays in Atlanta, directed Farewell to a Cannibal Rage in Winchester at the King Alfred’s College. In 1994, wrote and directed Tegonni, an African Antigone for the Theatre Emory in Atlanta…in 1996, directed Esu and the Vagabond Minstrels at the Workshop Theatre at the University of Leeds, in England” (Osofisan, 2001, pp. 174-175).

 These are a few of the exploits of Osofisan as a director on the Euro-American stage. Also, Ahmed Yerima directed Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel at the Royal Holloway College, London in the 90’s. All these are parts of the efforts of the Nigerian theatre directors to place the art of directing in particular and the practice of theatre in Nigeria alongside other theatre traditions and practitioners in other parts of the world.    

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