Original members of the Ori Olokun Acting Company, Ile-Ife which had one of Nigeria’s leading playwrights the Late Professor Ola Rotimi, as its founding artistic director, held a webinar in honour of legacy of this theatre movement thus coinciding with the golden anniversary of drama classics ‘The Gods Are Not to Blame’ and ‘Kurunmi.’ Yinka Olatunbosun reports.
Bose Ayeni Tsevende, a founding member of the Ori Olokun Acting Company was once a young, restless and highly spirited 17-year-old in Ibadan. She had just completed her secondary school education and was staying with her sister. One evening, her brother-in-law returned home with a copy of a newspaper that had an advertisement placed by the Ori Olokun Acting Company, Ile-Ife in search of aspiring actors. After registering her interest in the advert, her brother-in-law gave her one pound as transport fare from Ibadan to Ile Ife.
“In the morning of the day of audition, I discovered that there were over 200 people at the venue,’’ she recalled. “My name must have been 200 and something on the list. I had the opportunity to watch a lot of people at the audition. Each person had one minute. When they finally called Bose Ayeni, I sang my native song and danced. Everyone clapped for me.”
Fast-forward to 2021, she is now the Director, Total New Image Theatre whose specialties include dance and choreography. Her story was a typical one among the legions of stories told during the webinar to re-evoke the legacies of Ori Olokun Acting Company that had a rare breed of artists. Like others, Tsevende was amazed at the non-discriminatory casting style of the director.
“When I was employed by Ori Olokun, we were the first two ladies who worked in the theatre company as professionals, that is myself and Mosun Falode. In those days, Ola Rotimi didn’t let us experience any visible biases as females in Ori Olokun. We were able to mix freely with the men in the theatre and we worked together. Sometimes, women had to play male roles. We built the set together. Ola Rotimi had one research methodology; it was to take all the cast and crew to a village to learn first-hand the history of the real-life characters we were to imitate. The feeling of being part of the production was there. There was no closing time for rehearsals. All the vigilantes in Ife knew us. The bus would take us home after rehearsals and wait until you enter into your apartment before moving on. Akin Euba taught us music; we ladies learnt to play omele (African drum usually played by men) and went on tours. Our first tour was in Germany. And Peggy Harper taught us dance drama.”
Peggy Harper was a South African born choreographer and dancer who worked between 1963 and 1978 at University of Ibadan and University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). She was a co-founder of the Ori Olokun Cultural Centre. Perhaps, she was the only one who consciously documented her work in collaboration with an anthropological film maker, Frank Speed. Also, her work was filmed by Tony Isaacs for the BBC TV series ‘The World About Us.’ She predicted that the recordings would “be of immense value historically and sociologically, and as raw material for the theatre of the future’’ and they are tucked away safely in British Library. Harper dedicated much of her life to the study of traditional Nigerian dance even though she trained as a ballet dancer at the University of Cape Town. She also had a stint with BBC as a freelance choreographer and scriptwriter.
That sort of pedigree was what the students of Drama at OAU, Ile-Ife relished. There were a lot of young scholars who had returned to Nigeria from their overseas studies. They include scholars like Prof. Ola Rotimi (theatre), Prof. Akin Euba (music), Samuel Akpabot (music) and Prof Wangboje (Visual Art). Their American and European influences had to be matched some indigenous aesthetics.
Hence, they called it ‘a meeting of town and gown’ or better still, that was its overarching policy. Ori Olokun Theatre, one of the pioneering experimental theatre traditions in Nigeria, was a breeding ground for performing artists sourced from the academic environment (gown) and the community (town). Formed in 1967, it boasted of an assortment of artists who were multi-skilled. Named after the Olokun deity, Ori Olokun was a product of many experimental workshops of the 60s including Oshogbo Art Workshop and Mbari Club. Breaking free from the boredom of formalism, these workshops were unconventional, skills-driven, thus making significant contribution to heightened cultural consciousness of the period.
Convened by the Director of the School of Theatre, Television and Film, San Diego State University, California, Prof. Niyi Coker, the Ori Olokun webinar became a rendez-vous for the original cast. Some reeled out their lines from the classic plays while reminiscing on the past theatre productions by the Acting Company under the directorial leadership of Ola Rotimi. As a kick-starter, the moderator and culture activist, Jahman Anikulapo set the tone for the webinar, highlighting how the knowledge shared would advance theatre studies and inspire the younger generation of artists.
Opening with a brief audio excerpt from an interview with Ola Rotimi, Professor Coker remarked that the webinar was designed to honour those who made history with Ori Olokun.
“In theatre, one person doesn’t make history,” he said. “There is a collective that makes the work of a person shine. If you don’t have the cast that share the same vision, the same dream, the same ideal and are on the same ship with you, you are not going to get to that destination.”
He also pointed out that Ori Olokun was instrumental to the development of the movie industry today. Indeed, the Department of Dramatic Arts, Obafemi Awolowo University was established on the foundation of Ori Olokun Acting Company.
Other Ori Olokun members include Dr. Emeka Akaezuwa, Banke Akosile Ola, Ademola Williams, Professor Diedre Badejo, Peter Badejo, Dr Gabriel Kola Oyewo, Dr. Tunji Ojeyemi, Prof Akin Sofoluwe, Jimi Solanke, Prof. Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka, Bob Sherry Oyeleke, Kola Sorunke, Dr. Bode Sowande, Toyin Bifarin Ogundeji and Teju Kareem.
Banke Akosile Ola, whose step-father was also a guest artist at Ori Olokun, recalled the rigour and discipline embedded in the rehearsal regimen. “We had to be at Ori Olokun as early as 6.30 or 7am,” she said. “And we could be there till 1am. Ola Rotimi had huge plans for Ori Olokun before his death. It was shocking that he left us at that time.”
Peter Badejo, dance and choreographer, artistic director who had participated in global festivals such as FESTAC and KOJA is a holder of the Order of the British Empire. He described Ori Olokun as his first introduction to professional training in theatre practice. Having examined Ori Olokun from its physical and spiritual context, Badejo summed up the experience at the theatre company thus: “What you bring in to the company determines what you get out of it.”
Dr. Ojeyemi was not the only one who made a career detour upon having an encounter with Ori Olokun. Prof Akin Sofoluwe who initially held a BSc in Agriculture returned for a second undergraduate degree in dramatic arts, majoring in broadcasting and cinematography. As his profile was read in his absence, some of the participants at the webinar chuckled at what seemed to be an in-and-out relationship with the theatre.
Jimi Solanke, the master story-teller, folk singer and actor also shared his career trajectory in performing arts at the webinar. “They lured me from the University of Ibadan Theatre Arts Department by Gboyega Ajayi. But I enjoyed it. I was assistant to Director of music, Akin Euba, assistant to Director of dance, Peggy Harper. If Ola Rotimi wanted to use 200 persons on stage, they would perform and not run into one another even during blackout,” he narrated.
His career-defining role as Ovoramwen Nogbaisi job fetched him a senior cultural officer job at the Mid-West Art Council. After his outstanding performance in Benin, the state insisted that he must stay, hence his job at the Council.
Prof Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka, Professor Emeritus with specialisation in dance, was one of the respondents at the session.
“I participated in Ori Olokun as a student. It is important to write our own history. Peggy Harper made me specialize in dance. Ola Rotimi made theatre accessible to everybody no matter your level of education. Now, we have lost the town and gown relationship,” she said.
Prof Diedre Badejo compared the Ori Olokun Theatre movement with Harlem renaissance, an intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, theatre, literature, fashion and politics.
“My grandmother was a dancer in the early part of the Harlem Renaissance. It was integrated performing arts. We have lost so much since the demise of Ori Olokun and it is the same for black arts in the United states because we have lost our spaces. For those who are practising art in Nigeria, your work laid a foundation that is very important to the entire black world,” she said.
While the MD and CEO, ZMirage Multimedia Limited, Teju Kareem credited Ori Olokun for the birth of musical in Nigeria, Professor Chinyere Okafor also paid tribute to the memory of Ola Rotimi.
“He was around when there was a talk about whether Africa had drama or not but he did not join that discussion. He went to work instead.”
Ola Rotimi also founded the Department of Theatre Art, University of Port Harcourt where he was appointed as the Head of Department.