INSIDE STORY OF A DRAMA PROFESSOR
PROF. DURO ONI
His pleasant persona places him on a plane unrivalled. Understated in looks, he possesses the charm that eludes a galaxy of star actors and actresses. In the sometimes surreal, effervescent world of drama and arts, his illustrious credentials shimmer and tower above many others. But his effusion is found in humility and simplicity. Were he a rock star, he’d be one of the world’s finest. Had he ventured into Hollywood, Idris Elba would grow green with envy watch him act. Prof. Duro Oni may not command a cult following, have a celebrity halo or named among the pantheon of legends, he remains an enduring figure in Nigeria’s scholarly firmament. Funke Olaode sums up the stages and scenes of this compelling character at the Department of
Creative Arts, University of Lagos.
Prof. Duro Oni. No glitz. No glamour. Instead, when you meet the professor, you’re filled with awe by his grace, gumption, genuineness, and genius. He’s a true-blue academic, intellectually-driven, scholarly-inspired and understatedly phenomenal. Even these adjectives have only scratched the surface of Prof. Oni. At 68, with enchanting childhood nurtured in the ben of Minna, Oni has a penchant for the arts. The eclectic man of letters is imbued with the capacity to make the complex, simple. He finds great strength in the seeming weakness of simplicity and humility. It was deliberate.
The Osun State native knows much about this and he’s willing, in unassuming fashion, to tell more about his life, ideals, and milestones. As an introduction, he informs whoever cares to listen: “I consider myself a man of simplicity. I relate well to people of different backgrounds and status. I feel at home with the high and mighty, with colleagues and also with my younger and junior staff. I consider people who have airs around them as suffering from some complex proving that they are superior to the other person. No matter what office I hold, I operate an open-door policy,” says Prof. Oni.
Oni’s parents hailed from Osun State but the scholar was born in Minna in the present-day Niger State. He has fond memories of his parents, even his grandparents. Wushishi offered him a canvas of colourful episodes to reflect on and his parents and grandparents were as actors on a stage whose performance later impacted on his life’s ideals and path.
Recalling his childhood, he said, “My father worked for the Nigerian Railways Corporation in Wushishi before he established his own business in Minna and got into produce buying. My mother also ran a small restaurant at the railway station in Minna and was also an active member of the Young Women’s Christian Association of the Anglican Church and served as the secretary for some 20 years.”
He adds, “My parents met in Minna and got married there. My mother’s parents also lived in Minna and ran their own businesses (there too).
“My parents were very enterprising and I believe I may have inherited some of that from them. In terms of discipline, my father’s favourite words were: ‘Remember the son of who you are.’ It carried a lot of weight and meaning and indirectly telling you that you had to stay on the path of righteousness.”
Prof. Oni pauses momentarily after reminiscing about his parents. At this point, it’s not hard to imagine the twinkle, in his focused eyes, that lights up his studied face.
“It was a very pleasant childhood,” he discloses with delight when asked about his growing up.
Then, Prof. Oni shares some bits of his life’s history. As he tells his magnificent story, it’s moderated by heavy understatement. The professor, despite the good life he has enjoyed as a kid and the level he has attained in life as an adult, has remained modest, humble and simple.
“We lived in our own house,” Oni says. But admits: “My father was quite wealthy and he drove us to school.
“I also had a bicycle that I could ride to school. My maternal grandfather was also said to have been the first person to own a car in Minna! My parents and grandparents all owned houses in Minna. Because of the nature of our school and the close-knit community in Minna, we spoke English, Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo in school and at home.”
As he speaks on, you’ll notice how life and his parents had prepared him for a happy future and great achievements.
“In Kaduna, my school was close to the Nigerian Defence Academy,” Prof. Oni recalls. “So many of my classmates and schoolmates went to the academy and became top-ranking military officers. All (of them) are retired now though. Because of my upbringing in the North, most of my very close friends are from the North. You can find them in the judiciary, civil service, military, and academics.”
Born December 15, 1952, Prof. Oni’s academic journey began at St. Peter’s Primary School in Minna from 1959 to 1965. Afterward, he attended St. Peter’s College, Kaduna from 1966 to 1970. In 1971, he was admitted into the University of Ibadan and went to California Institute of the Arts for his master’s, graduating in 1983. He came back to his alma mater to have his PhD.
Today, he is one of the most sought-after professors of creative arts in Nigeria and abroad.
With a countenance characterized by a smile, his lips rise, spread, lower with reminiscences. As he narrates the episode of his life that he believes was life-defining, prof. Oni says: “I did a lot of school dramas, radio and television dramas at the then RTK (Radio/Television Kaduna) with producers that included Dan Awodoye, Ambrose Anejo and Adamu Augie.
“We had weekly appearances on radio and television and we were paid three pounds per episode, which was a lot of money then. I also participated in the British Council Drama workshops in Kaduna. The workshops were for professionals but my involvement was considered sufficiently high to have been invited. I never wanted to be anything else, but a dramatist.”
That he never wanted to be anything else but a dramatist was strange at the time. In fact, his desire and dream to be a dramatist earned him scorn rather than a pat on the back. it was a golden era when most people took pride in medicine, engineering, and law. But be a dramatist?
Only Prof. Oni can explain what happened next.
“I did not have any problems convincing my parents,” he says with nostalgic delight. What else could stand in his way? There appeared to be nothing.
“But,” explains Oni, “a lecturer/uncle, who was of the opinion that drama as a career would mean my working for Baba Sala (Moses Olaiya)’s comedy group.” That was a dampener. But trust the young Oni.
Continuing, the professor says, “I took a little time to explain to my mother (now deceased) the career opportunities open to me and she supported me. She was of the view that I was sufficiently bright to study any course, and if I chose drama, then it was fine with her.”
A little digression: Oni may want to hide. The truth, however, is as a youngster he was very brilliant and studying hard was second nature to
He acknowledges: “My nickname as a child was ‘Ori ni iwe wa’; intelligence is inborn. With modesty, I was not hassled to study as I always excelled in school.”
To cut the long story short, at the age of 24, Prof. Oni joined the then Centre for Cultural Studies of the University of Lagos, which was a research and performing arts outfit. With his intellectual and academic prowess on display, he earned a federal government scholarship to the California Institute of the Arts.
Over the last 46 years, Prof. Oni has continued to display brilliance as a distinguished scholar and an outstanding administrator. He was appointed the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Management Services) from February 4, 2013, to February 3, 2017; the Dean, Faculty of Arts from 2009 to 2013; professor and head of the Department of Creative Arts from 2006 to 2009. That’s not all. Oni is a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts in the UK. He served on the University of Lagos’ governing council for eight years.
He was also the pioneer director of the Confucius Institute, from 2008 to 2009; the director of the Centre for Cultural Studies from 1992 to 1997. In a career spanning more than 40 years at the University of Lagos, Prof. Oni initiated and developed two programmes (Creative Arts, Theatre Arts, Music and Visual Arts) at the Bachelor’s, Master’s, M.Phil. and PhD levels and a Bachelor’s degree in Chinese Studies.
He was also the director general/CEO of the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC) between 2000 and 2006; the special assistant/adviser to the Minister of Culture and Social Welfare/Youth and Sports from 1990 to1992. An academic of repute, Oni has at least books and over 60 articles published in reputable journals and chapters in books in the areas of Theatre Arts Design and Aesthetics, Dramatic Literature and Criticism, Management, Cultural Studies and the Nollywood/Nigerian films.
The professor is also a fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, the Society of Nigerian Theatre Artistes (SONTA), an advisory board member of the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP), and a senior overseas fellow of the Ferguson Centre, Open University in the United Kingdom.
Looking back on all this, Prof. Oni says: “My first appointment at the University of Lagos in 1992 was at the then Centre for Cultural Studies of the university which was established in 1975 when Prof. J. F. Ade Ajayi was the vice-chancellor. I felt that it was time for the centre to move from being a research and performing arts centre to a degree-awarding one.
“I, therefore, initiated and chaired a committee to fashion out a degree programme in Creative Arts with the three arms of Theatre Arts, Visual Arts and Music. The department was approved eventually and took off in 1998. Four years after the establishment, I also chaired the committee for the programme to be extended to postgraduate studies for the Master’s, M.Phil and PhD. Since then, we have graduated thousands of first degree, hundreds of Master’s and some 40 PhDs. I supervised seven of the PhDs and currently have five candidates on the programme.”
Speaking further, Oni notes, “As for the B.A. Chinese Studies Degree Programme, I was appointed the pioneer director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Lagos in 2007. As the director of the institute, which was devoted to Chinese language and culture, I felt that being located in the university that we needed to expand the scope. So, as the dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Lagos, I constituted a committee that comprised scholars in language and literature and we got Soochow University in China to partner us on the 1+2+1 B.A. Chinese degree programme. The students spend the first year at the University of Lagos, the second and third year in China and the fourth and final year back at the University of Lagos. We have recently reviewed the programme to 2+1+1 (two years in Unilag, one year in China and a final year back in Unilag). We graduated six sets of the B.A. Chinese Studies degree programme under the old scheme and would commence the new one once the coronavirus pandemic is halted.”
Since 1976 he’s been working at Unilag.
“I joined the institution just before I turned 24 and by the grace of God, I’ll turn 68 in December this year. It has been great being here all this time. I have made my modest contributions to the university and perhaps more important, the university has been good to me. It has assisted in advancing my career and my development,” he says with a sense of satisfactory sobriety.
Seeking greener pastures is often an irresistible allure. Prof. Oni, however, focuses more on his calling than the pastures lusher and greener on the other side.
In his characteristic simplicity, the prof says, “Life in academics is a calling. Financial rewards are by the way. When you see your students do well, it is the most satisfying reward. Some of my former students are now my colleagues in Unilag and other universities in Nigeria and abroad.”
He discloses that his staying power is being relevant. “One has not been on the same spot in over four decades. There has not been a dull moment in my life and career.”
Professor thinks Nollywood has the potential as the next cash cow to boost Nigeria’s GDP.
“Yes. The arts and entertainment are interwoven. This is the reason we established the Department of Creative Arts with the three arms of theatre arts (which incorporates film studies and entertainment technology), visual arts (which encompasses painting, graphics, textiles, sculpture, ceramics, etc) and music (which ranges from voice, piano, choral, instrumental, classical and contemporary, etc). All our programmes are backed with solid theoretical grounding and exposure to the practice.
“Our students create jobs on graduation. Nigeria’s GDP was revised upward with the incorporation of the creative economy. We have a comparative advantage in the areas which we can continue to build on. I have been involved with some research work with the King’s College, the University of London since 2016 and it is focused on the African Creative Economy. Before then, we worked on Nollywood and the African Diaspora with the Ferguson Centre (2006-2015),” Oni points out.
However, he doesn’t believe Nollywood has reached its peak.
“Are we at the peak? Certainly not,” Oni admits. “Even Hollywood has not reached its peak. Growth is a common human phenomenon. You have to keep growing even beyond the skies.”
An outstanding arts scholar, Prof. Oni’s marriage can be considered a work of the art: he met his wife at a national festival, FESTAC ’77. He met beautiful and lovely Francesca, who is from Ogoja, Cross River State. After a seven-year courtship, they wedded in 1984 and together, they have four children: Yemi, Duro Jr., Dele, and Dolapo. They are all graduates of the University of Lagos. Oni and Francesca have four grandchildren.
“You never really quit academics,” says the professor not in a melancholic resignation to fate but in triumphal admission that he’ll continue to conquer as many frontiers ahead of him as he repeats: “It’s a calling and a lifelong career. By the grace of God and God sparing my life to witness it, I will retire from the service of the University of Lagos at 70 years on the 15 December 2022.”
When the curtains come down, Prof. Oni wants to be remembered as “a man who spent his time trying to be of assistance to his fellow human being”.