Anyone who doubts the saying that a man’s gift will always make a way for him needs only to take a look at Wole Oguntokun’s grass to grace story to understand its truth. Oguntokun’s Renegade Theatre has taken him to places he could never have dreamt, writes Lanre Odukoya
Oguntokun has a way of making his plays compelling must-see for the public. And the feeling afterwards is seldom disappointing from an audience perspective. It has to be so because his choice of plays is usually those with deep social message like the recent one he directed in Lagos, Ajai the Boy Slave.
The play revolves round the true life story of late Bishop Ajayi Crowther, the first African bishop ordained on the West Coast of Africa. He was offered the director’s job by a descendant of the foremost missionary, Gbemi Sasore, managing director of Main Events and Campaign and the producer of the play.
He was contacted early in 2010 to write the play on the life and times of the late bishop. After extensive research, he wrote the play which was first staged in December, 2010 at the MUSON Centre, Onikan, Lagos. The play featured 11 Britons, among them two female. But the recent show which was staged between April 24 and 29 at the MUSON Centre had seven Europeans, two of whom were females in a cast of 45.
It was a massive cast (the casting was done in England), but not such a huge challenge for him. “It wasn’t as hard as what we thought because they are professionals. Most of them studied theatre arts in the university. The trick was merging the cast as they had to be fused into actions with our local cast. We had them in Nigeria for close to three weeks and in the end, it worked out well.” He has done over 350 productions at Terra Kulture and he has done the most shows at the centre and also at MUSON Center. “I cannot count the number of plays I’ve done anymore. Honestly, I have lost count.”
But his life had not entirely been devoted to theatre. He studied law at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, and was called to the bar. He got a master’s degree in law from the University of Lagos and another master’s degree in humanitarian and refugee studies from the same school. Yet, despite the ample time and huge cost spent to acquire a law degree, his mind has never raced too far from the theatre.
“I was a member of a fellowship in the university and I loved what we were doing. So, by the time I came out of school, I looked for a way to start putting things on stage. I just started like that and gradually from being semi-professional, I became professional,” he said. He has done several seminars abroad with leading exponents of theatre, directors and back home, learning on the job shaped his career more than anything else. He was the founding producer of Theatre Terra and for three and a half years, they had back to back plays every Sunday. “You can learn better by doing a show every week; sooner than you think, you’ll become an authority in what you do.
“I am doing something I have a passion for right now. This is what I love doing and that’s what happened to law. It was theatre that took me to Aso Rock to perform a show there. It is theater that is taking me to Shakespeare’s Globe in less than two weeks to perform. It’s just me following my heart. Law broadens my horizon as well. Every lawyer should have knowledge of literature and history. Then he may call himself a good lawyer. When you know these things, you become more enlightened.”
Despite the obviously remarkable strides he has made through theatre, he still lives with the burden of having to reply to questions about how that pays his bills especially in a society where the stage has all but been overshadowed by the screen. “But it pays my bills and salaries of my staff. Who said there’s no money in theatre arts? In everything, you must look at the business side of it; you cannot say that you are a dentist and so it has to be work, work and work on patients without understanding the business angle to it. If it won’t be able to pay your bills, what is the essence of doing it?”
Like every other success story, he too has crossed a few hurdles. The length he had covered is not without hitch. “The toughest thing I’d seen on this job is making it work economically. There were very hard times. You know what they say about the art not being creative. The challenge was how to make it pay. How do you make the art buy a car for you, pay your rent, children’s school fees and all other domestic responsibilities? I have found a way around it anyway.”
He finds a lot of inspiration in Professor Wole Soyinka’s works. In fact, he was at some point directing one of Soyinka’s plays every month at the Terra Kulture. “Everybody knows that one man inspires me to high heavens and he is Prof. Wole Soyinka. Apart from the fact that we both share first name, he is the leading dramatist in the continent and he has one of the keenest minds I’ve had opportunity to interact with. The world produces great men like Nelson Mandela and there’s only one of his kind in his lifetime. There’s only one Wole Soyinka.”
He wrote a play titled, Who is Afraid of Wole Soyinka? It was a satire on the military’s tragic entry in politics and Soyinka actually came to see it. That was the first time he encountered the Nobel laureate, but he has been in touch with him since then. About how Wole Soyinka feels about him, he said: “I hope, and I emphasize the word ‘hope’, he’s proud of me and what I do.”