A scene from Itoya
Known more for his socially-riveting poems, Odia Ofeimun has more or less reinvented his craft with his foray into stage. But Ofeimun whose play, Nigeria the Beautiful, comes on stage this evening after its precursor’s successful run, sees a seamless border between both genres, writes Lanre Odukoya
The Agip Hall of Muson Centre is expected to be filled to capacity today again and this is thanks to Odia Ofeimun’s stage play. He has painstakingly sourced the storylines from his poetry anthologies and hopes to up the ante with every performance he brings on stage. This evening, Nigeria the Beautiful, an adaptation of his poem which highlights the story of Nigeria from Fredrick Lugard, the first colonial Governor General to President Goodluck Jonathan will be the delight of theatre buffs in Lagos. This will be closely followed by A Feast of Return which engages South Africa’s history from Dingiswayo and Shaka Zulu, through Apartheid and the quest for freedom to the roundtable that brought Nelson Mandela to power after twenty nine years in prison. Then the theatrical template to see Madam Kofo’s Kitchen, The Hawker and the Godfather and Ofeimun’s first shot at drama, Under African Skies which was first performed at Sadlers Well in London in 1990.
This rundown is to prepare the minds of many who had hitherto been cynical about what they misconstrued to be Ofeimun’s conceited pursuit. His standpoint on art reportage is that journalists should seek to know about art events, asking questions even before the event comes on stage and reporting the theatrical compositions on stage other than spotlighting those who grace the event. He believes that is the way to inform and educate the public and possibly remove the veil of doubts from the faces of many.
Ofeimun recently reacted to a report comparing him to Prof. Wole Soyinka. “Some people have actually told it to my face that I’m doing these dramas to compete with Soyinka. If Soyinka is living as a dramatist, does that mean that other young people cannot earn their living as dramatists? Soyinka is the baba, but if somebody is entering into journalism and does not want to reach the level of what is the highest level in the game, the person either has no business being in literature or should become a carpenter. The business of a writer is to attain what is the best in the profession and try to beat it if it is possible. A few days ago, I was involved in what almost resulted in an argument. Somebody was claiming that I am in drama to match Soyinka. Of course, it is a great thing to want to match the best in your trade. And I would love to match him, what’s wrong in that? He’s somebody I have admired from my childhood, so why wouldn’t I try to match him? It’s only fair.”
He also decried poor reportage of arts in Nigeria: “When many art journalists watch a show, I understand that it is possible that their friends may have put up that show, but they owe the rest of us who have not watched the show the responsibility to talk about the actual acts in the production. Most of the times, what you see is what I call socialite reporting; to let me know who were at the show and at the end of the day, we know nothing about the performance. I see a beautiful photograph and that is supposed to tell me about the show. But that doesn’t happen”
Apart from putting his works together from a social or political point of view, does Ofeimun’s works reflect other aspects of human life? His answer was somewhat spontaneous: “It is sometimes what people look for that they get in what they view; I write poems about a lot of things and I write love poems. Frankly, I think it’s a year or so ago that some groups met at the University of Ibadan to vote the best love poet in Nigeria and I was later told that they chose one or two of my poems as the best love poems they have read in Nigerian literature. When people are talking about poetry, the only thing they remember are the political poems, social commentary poems and things like that. I went to Venezuela during a riot and I did a collection on Venezuela. And properly speaking, you cannot blame me if what I remember of my visit were the problems and the political issues.
“In Nigeria, the circles in which I move tend to be consciously oriented towards the political. We do need answers to problems in our society, we have not found them and they keep coming up even when you do not want to relate to them. There are love stories across Nigeria and my poems reflect both, but people see only that which they want to see. For instance, the first dance drama I did was just a collection of poems which dealt with several different things: poems for mothers, fathers, a typical political situation to attempt to use it from another angle is as equally legitimate. But I prefer to let Nigerians know their own story because every day of my life, I encounter people, even famous writers who do not know the story of Nigeria.”