Hubert Ogunde, Father of Nigerian Theatre
Worth over $5 billion and raking in $250 million per annum, Nollywood, Nigeria’s bustling movie industry is the second largest on earth. From Johannesburg to New York, from London to Dubai, Nigerian actors and actresses grace screens at homes and theatres all across the globe. My Herero friend from Namibia was telling me a couple of weeks ago of how much she enjoyed Nigerian movies. I was flattered, and I blushed. But there was one man who is widely considered as the father and pioneer of the Nigerian entertainment industry and today, we will take a very good look at his life and times. Wole Soyinka called him ‘grand old man of Nigerian theatre’. His works cut across various niches of the Nigerian landscape, from fiery political dramas that got him jailed to delicious social satires to biting morality-based plays. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the story of Hubert Ogunde.
BIRTH AND EARLY DAYS
Born on the 31st of May, 1916 at a town named Ososa, close to Ijebu-Ode, in Ogun State in southwestern Nigeria, he was named Hubert Adedeji Ogunde and belonged to the Yoruba ethnic group.
LOVE, ROMANCE, FAMILY AND MARRIAGE
Hubert Ogunde was married to 12 wives, eight of whom were part of his theatrical productions. His first wife was Mrs. Adesewa Ogunde and they got married in 1942. As the most senior wife, she was in charge of many of the domestic affairs. On how the home was run, Ogunde said:
‘You must understand one thing. This business of everyone doing just as he likes is not the way with us. We are rooted in a tradition that teaches us to respect our seniors. It’s not a sheepish tradition, but to say ‘No’, to one’s elders is quite an insult. So you see, we eliminate all the problems by giving the orders and seeing that the wives simply follow through.’
Initially a teacher, Ogunde was for some time in the Nigerian Police Force. Ogunde’s foray into the entertainment industry without any formal training had the clear imprint of the Nigerian church which patronized him. This same trend was noticed in the careers of his contemporaries like P.A. Dawodu, Layeni, G.T. Onimole and A.B. David. In the early 1940s, Ogunde’s African Music Research Party was hired as an organist and composer for the Aladura Church of the Lord at Ebute Metta in Lagos. On the 12th of June, 1944, Ogunde produced his first performance titled The Garden of Eden and the Throne of God. Ogunde himself acted the serpent. This was commissioned by the Church of the Lord (also known as the Cherubim and Seraphim Movement), founded in Lagos by Josiah Ositelu and the performance was to assist in raising funds for the construction of the church building. The play was premiered at the Glover Memorial Hall and the chairman of the day was a distinguished man named Nnamdi Azikiwe who would later become Nigeria’s first president. It was a huge success. His first performance was a tremendous boost and it gave him an extra dose of encouragement to forge ahead with his career and he continued to write even more folk opera performances as an amateur until 1945 when he decided to go professional. Music and dancing were prominent features of Ogunde’s performances.
An outstanding actor, playwright, businessman, musician and theatre manager/director, he established the Ogunde Concert Party in 1945, that was the first professional theatrical company in the country. This earned him the recognition as the ‘father of Nigerian theatre’, ‘father of traditional Nigerian drama’ or in some other quarters, ‘father of contemporary Yoruba theatre.’
Ogunde did not just set up a theatre group, he was also a pioneer in various ways. On the 4th of March 1946, he premiered his first play under his new group, it was calledTiger’s Empire produced by the African Music Research Party. It featured Ogunde himself, Abike Taiwo and Beatrice Oyede. That was the very first time in Yoruba theatre that women appeared in a play as professional artists on their own terms and were duly paid. Tiger’s Empire was a scathing criticism of the British colonial masters.
The next play was Darkness and Light but it remains unclear whether Ogunde was the author of this particular performance and this is said to be the only performance that he could not recollect whether he wrote it or not.
In 1946, he wrote a play about Herbert Macaulay. He would later write a satirical play, Human Parasites, to address the newest form of craze in Lagos State that time:the aso ebi phenomenon. The aso ebi fad meant that guests at parties and events were to show up with the most expensive fabrics and apparel which was selected by the celebrant. All guests appearing at the event were expected to wear the same as a kind of uniform. The craze spread fast and it was so bad that some had to use a dozen different aso ebis in one year leading to undue competition, petty rivalry and a fatal tension on various marital fronts as wives left their husbands for those who could afford to get them the new fabrics. This was the focus of Ogunde’s satire of tragedy,Human Parasites. Denouncing the practice, he wrote:
‘Aduke who kissed and keyed a thousand lovers for the sake of Aso Ebi…
…what happened when boys refused to be keyed is better seen than described.’
His other works include the following plays:
–Yoruba Ronu (Yorubas Think!), 1964: It was about the challenges facing the Yorubas in the 1960s and Nigeria’s slide towards a civil war. It also blasted the regional government for their corruption and repression. This play proved to be so revolutionary that its production in Western Nigeria was prohibited but it was very successful in other regions of the country. The play viciously attacked the disunity, rigging of elections, allegations/counterallegations of tribalism and bickering among the Yoruba political leaders, and it mirrored the intrigues within Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group and his conflict with Samuel Akintola.
Ogunde fully supported the progressive ideas of Awolowo but the current Akintola government was very unpopular in the region. They banned the play and proscribed Ogunde’s theater company in April 1964 which almost drove him to bankruptcy. The banning, which shocked the Nigerian press, was recorded as the first case in post-independence Nigeria of literary censorship, it was not lifted until 1966 by the new military government and that was the same year he formed the Ogunde Dance Company.
But Ogunde remained defiant, his response to the ban was his release of an equally acidic play, Otito Koro (Truth Is Bitter). In 1976, when the Nigerian military head of state was assassinated, he released Muritala Mohammed which he composed and produced himself. Ogunde was a man of the people and he was populist in his views, always in tune with current affairs and always echoed the sentiments of the Nigerian masses.
-Otitokoro (The Truth is Bitter), 1965: This was based on the politics of Western Nigeria and the declaration of a state of emergency in 1963.
– Mr. Devil’s Money: It reflected a blend of Christian moral values and traditional values and indigenous culture.
– God and Africa (1944)
– Israel in Egypt (1945), The Reign of Nebuchadnezzar and Balthazar’s Feast (1945). Others include Africa and God (1944) it was about how Yorubas lived before the arrival of Christianity, Journey to Heaven (1947), Two Impious Reigns and King Solomon (1945). His plays were very popular and people enjoyed them. It was said of Ogunde:
‘He always played to a full house and the audience was always reluctant to leave at the end of the play. ’
-Two of his first plays, The Garden of Eden and Throne of God were folk operas without any political overtones, and he did these two performances while he was still in the Nigerian Police Force. In 1946, he produced Worse Than Crime, which discuss the rebellion of Adam and Eve against God and the many evils of the Slave Trade. He was successful with these two plays that he resigned from the police force where he worked from 1941 to 1945 to become a professional theater artiste, and with a total savings of just nine pounds, he founded the African Music Research Party, his first theatre company.
A prolific director, he composed more than 40 operas in his native Yoruba and usually blended the use of European instruments and drums in his performances.
He set up the Ogunde Dancers, a troupe that was on a 36-week tour of Britain and it was during that period that Ebony ran a special on him. While in the United Kingdom, he stayed in a large London house with his battalion of wives. Eight of his 12 wives escorted him to London while the remaining four stayed in Nigeria with his 15 children.
Ogunde was a great influence and role model to other artists who would later set up their own groups. These included Kola Ogunmola (1925-1973), Duro Ladipo (1931-1978) and Moses Olaiya (b.1946), AB Layeni and Adunni Oluwole (many of whom were formerly dramatists in the church, they trooped out and followed Ogunde’s footsteps, a few others like AB David, PA Dawodu and GT Onimole remained masters of Christian drama)all of whom formed the over 100 Travelling Yoruba Opera Troupes, better known as the Alarinjos. Ogunde’s works had a really lasting impact on the psyche of the people and his works have been described as ‘essentially consciousness-raising’ in which he attempted to draw the attention of the populace to social ills, expose the inherent evils of the British colonial system, all of which reflected in his works. Some of the most scathing criticisms he launched against the imperialists were Strike and Hunger (1945), The Tiger’s Empire (1946) and Bread and Bullets (1950) which focused on the famous Iva Valley strike by miners in Enugu, Eastern Nigeria, the killing of 18 miners by the colonial police and the issue of exploitation of labourers all over the nation.
Strike and Hunger solidified his reputation as an anticolonial dramatist. In 1940s Nigeria, there were widespread waves of trade unionism and middle-class political activism particularly the General Strike of 1945. While he was on tour in Jos in 1947, the British colonial government interrupted the performance and banned it in the northern province, he was arrested and fined on the charge of inciting workers to rebel against the government. This launched Ogunde into the limelight and transformed him from a Yoruba hero into a national legend. The members of the Yoruba community in Jos who had watched the play mobilized themselves and raised the sum of one hundred pounds to pay the legal fees for Ogunde. When Ogunde was eventually convicted, the same Yoruba community raised the sum of 125 pounds to pay for his fine. The colonial masters did not only ban him, they also denied him a passport to travel to Enland. In Strike and Hunger, there is a fictional setting of feudalism where a foreign king (King Yejide) usurps the throne and suppresses the rights of the citizens and drives them into working for very miserable pay. In the pay, the workers finally revolt and the play was seen as an indictment of the British colonial rule and was hoped that the play would spur a similar revolt against Britain.
Ogunde’s works were considered a serious threat and were banned in many parts of the country. It was so serious that Ogunde himself was flung into jail. The British colonial government feared Ogunde’s plays would arouse popular anti-colonial sentiments among the people. But what was Ogunde’s style? This was described thus in the Contemporary Authors: 1945 to the Present:
‘Ogunde’s technique was to sketch out the basic situation and plot, and then write down and rehearse only the songs of his plays. The dialogue was improvised, thus allowing the actors to adjust to their audience. The plays produced by his company usually reflected the prevailing political climate and interpreted for audiences the major issues and the aspirations of those in power. His company performed with equal ease in remote villages and in metropolitan centres of Nigeria (as well as throughout West Africa). Many of Ogunde’s later folk operas were basically popular musicals featuring jazzy rhythms, fashionable dance routines, and contemporary satire. Through this format, he set an example for a successful commercial theatre and prepared audiences all over Nigeria for his followers. During the 1960s and ‘70s, his plays became an important part of the urban pop culture of West Africa.’
Ogunde was the director/actor in Jaiyesinmi (1981), Aropin N’Tenia (1982 with Freddie Goode) and Ayanmo (1986) which was his last film. It opened with a scene in witches’ hell and a celestial realm of the supernatural. The film depicts witches as destroying all that is good, bringing confusion and disaster until Osetura defeated them.
In 1990, he starred as Brimah (as Chief Hubert Ogunde) in a motion picture titledMister Johnson and it was shot on location in Toro, Bauchi State. The famed Irish-American actor, Pierce Brosnan was also featured in that same flick. As at the 1990s, there were three prominent types of theatres in Nigeria and these were the traditional theatres clustered and based around communities, private organizations and those supported by companies to produce both traditional and modern plays.
One of those supported by the companies was the National Troupe and it was founded by Hubert Ogunde in 1986 when he was selected by the Federal Government and given the task of assembling the finest artists from the various State Arts Councils to establish a national troupe. He did this meticulously and it kicked off at the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos where he launched it with a drama titledDestiny. This play executed by the first ‘national crew’ was so successful that in 1989, it led to the formal establishment of the National Troupe in 1989. Ogunde was made the very first artistic director. When he died the following year, Bayo Oduneye took over. The National Troupe had its focus on Nigerian plays, dances and other performances and they appeared at various international events and festivals across the globe.
However, it was not always rosy for Ogunde. There was a time, he decided to borrow the idea of Ghanaian theatre groups who had been coming to Nigeria. So Ogunde took his play, King Solomon and his newly-formed group on a tour of Ghana and he stayed there for three months. But it was a disaster, by the time he returned to Nigeria, all he had in his pockets was just five pounds. Ogunde narrated:
‘I had to pay my boys. My rent? No money to pay my rent! I managed to pay for the transport – I had no lorry then, no transport – but I managed to pay. But when I was entering my house after three months, I had five pounds in my pocket. After coming back, I realized my mistake.’
As a result of this mistake, he lost over 1,000 pounds but he learnt very good lessons. He observed that his failure was the inability to actually provide what the audience needed. He had not studied his audience well. Therefore, he took some time and did a proper research before returning to Ghana. He said:
‘…one of the boys advised me that next tour, I should come with some trumpets, saxophones, play highlife, jazz, and so on…Then I went back about nine months later and after twenty four days’ tour I came back with a thousand and eight hundred pounds. So to me it appears the audience or rather the society dictates what they like to see. It appears they direct us, not we directing the society.’
But Ogunde did not keep this money-making secret to himself, He shared with another colleague, the well-respected Duro Ladipo whom he told:
‘This line you are taking is very interesting, but I doubt very much how you can live comfortably because these plays may not fetch money; but I advise you that at any time you are putting on some plays, try as much as possible to introduce some social satire to bring in money.’
Ladipo said he made use of this advice and he made more financial gains. Soon, others like Kola Ogunmola, Oyin Adejobi and Moses Olaiya (with his apprentice, King Sunny Ade) all added other performances like acrobatics and even magic to their shows to rake in more cash. They all worked hard.
Ogunde was quite confrontational in his approach to the establishment on some occasions. For instance, in 1965, he tackled the television establishment when halfway through rehearsals, he approached the Director of Programmes and demanded for a raise in the fees for the artistes. When his request was turned down, he calls all his troupe members, ordered them into a waiting lorry and left. He had requested for the sum of 50 naira for a 30-minutes play. He would not record his regular series again and he never returned to Nigerian television until 1975 when things had changed for the better.
Also, I must chip in at this point that during Ogunde’s times, transport was a major logistical challenge for the travelling troupes. Some had to hire wagons while some others would tour villages and other rural areas on foot and many had to carry their props, costumes and other items on their heads or hire porters. It was hectic, especially as they had to rely on mammy wagons plying bad roads. The mammy wagons broke down regularly and were often involved in numerous accidents. In 1970, Adesewa, Ogunde’s first wife and one of his actresses lost her life in one of such accidents. It was a major blow to the father of Nigeria’s modern theater. One of the things that made life really difficult for many of the performers of those days was that the government did not pay enough attention to them or even patronize them. In 1970, a frustrated Duro Ladipp complained bitterly that there was no well-equipped, government-built theater house and that they had to pay through their noses to rent places like the Glover Memorial and Obisesan Halls. The government also slammed hefty taxes on the theatre practitioners instead of giving them subventions and adequate funding.
HIS WORDS AND OPINIONS
‘Foreigners depict Africans as buffoons and social degenerates who have no culture, music, dance and way of life, but are mere loyal imitators of their masters. Africans shall be mostly guilty if they fail to prove to the world by practical demonstrations, that their detractors have been guilty of gross misinterpretations by presenting on our own stage and if possible on theirs too, African culture and way of life and those melodies and graceful dances that are purely of African origin.’
–Hubert Ogunde, 1947.
‘I understood some time later (after 1945) that success depended on the use of the term ‘concert’: the plays were in Yoruba, but to please the audience, titles had to be given in English. Today we mostly give Yoruba titles. Anyway, what we are doing is not a concert, but theatre: we are now the Ogunde Theatre Party. Here we perform in Yoruba, with some parts in Pidgin.’
- Hubert Ogunde, 1975.
ON HIRING ACTORS, POLYGAMY & HIS FEMALE ACTRESSES BEING HIS WIVES:
Now I was able to get some boys, but I was unlucky with the girls. And so…I remembered the tradition back home – polygamy is the answer! So I had to keep the girls as wives in order to keep going on. This move by Ogunde was imitated by other troupe founders and he would become famous for his broad-based family structure.
ON HIS MOST SENIOR WIFE AND HER JUNIOR WIVES:
‘You must understand one thing. This business of everyone doing just as he likes is not the way with us. We are rooted in a tradition that teaches us to respect our seniors. It’s not a sheepish tradition, but to say ‘No’ to one’s elders is quite an insult. So you see, we eliminate all the problems by giving the orders and seeing that the wives simply follow through.’
ON HOW WOMEN JOINED HIS COMPANY IN 1945:
‘My first advert I advertised: Actors and Actresses Wanted, Apply in Person to Hubert Ogunde so, so and so… (Laughter, clapping). Nobody answered my advert. (Prolonged laughter). No one, not even one. Then I decided to do something else, I decided on another trick…I put out another advert: Lady Clerks Wanted, Apply in Person to Hubert Ogunde, and so on…. (Laughter). The next day, my house was full. Then my problem was how to tell them that they would not be ‘lady clerks’ or clerks, but actresses and actors. But I said this and some went away and some stayed behind. But my problem was still money. After the first and second shows, all of them went away. Now I was able to get some boys, but I was unlucky with the girls. And so, as the chairman (of the lecture) mentioned, I decided….I remembered the tradition back home: polygamy is the answer! So I had to keep on the girls as wives in order to keep the group on the stage.’ – Hubert Ogunde, 1981. He was the first person to have managed a mixed company (men and women on stage) in West Africa.
‘Take England for example. Here a man may be married, but he will still go out with his girlfriend and cheat on his wife. Well, the problem is they have one wife officially and many other wives unofficially. We Africans don’t believe in such pretense. We marry enough women so that there’s no need to cheat on one. Other women? Where would I get the desire? When would I find the time? There will be problems only if I played favourites, then there would be jealousy. I make sure that I favour none of the ladies, so we have harmony and discipline. They all know that Adesewa is the ‘senior,’ but they know that I’m devoted to them all. I give each the same amount of attention. I even like all my mothers-in-law. I hear that my American brothers are coming back to Africa in nearly everything. Perhaps they will have more than one wife. But of course, there are those American laws, aren’t there? As long as there are such laws, well…but who knows! ’ But no matter, we’re all settled and very happy and that’s the way life ought to be. –Hubert Ogunde, London, 1969. Ogunde was so satisfied with his polygamous setting that he said he hoped a day would come when all men across the globe would marry more than one wife. What do you think?
WHAT OTHERS SAY ABOUT HIM, CRITICISM AND CONTROVERSIES
‘Ogunde freed himself from this tradition in order to create Nigerian theatre. The implications of what he achieved what probably not been realized. The depth of his originality should not be measured simply by his use of the Yoruba language in his productions, but also by his creation of a form capable of providing an account of the social and political situation in his country. He managed to insert himself in the anti-colonialist struggle without cutting ties with older forms of expression. As early as 1945, he saw one of his plays suppressed by the colonial regime: it was produced in support of a miner’s strike. He had reacted by composing new narratives based on the miners’ situation, demonstrating his freedom from the framework of traditional narrativity, condemned to repeat tired schematic, over-familiar concert shows or Apidan theatre. ’- Alain Ricard, The Languages & Literatures of Africa: The Sands of Babel.
- Ogunde has been accused of debasing womanhood through his performances. He is said to have used ‘lightly clad girls who go wild on saxophones’ or for singing about how women reduce the powers of men by staying out all night, getting drunk, refusing to fetch bathing water, cook or even allow a second wife.
- The coming of videography alarmed Ogunde, who was making his own films on celluloid. Nigeria was changing and because of increasing crime rates, Nigerians preferred to watch video cassettes at home at night rather than go out to cinemas and theatres and be attacked. Ogunde was so frustrated that he threatened to place a curse on Alade Aromire and Adeyemi Afolayan who were at the forefront of the videography revolution. An embittered Ogunde labeled them ‘enemies of progress’. But Ogunde could not stop the tide of change, he regretted towards his last days that he had not tapped into the video revolution. Before Adeyemi Afolayan died in December 1996, he released three of his celluloid films on video cassettes, he was able to see into the future. As for Alade Aromire, there was no going back, he was into videos and he never stopped. Others who would follow Aromire’s path was Kenneth Nnebue who opened the market for Igbo films in 1992 when he released Living in Bondage (part 1) and in 1994, he produced one of the first English video films in Nigeria, it was titled Glamour Girls.
On the 4th of April, 1990, Ogunde breathed his last at the Cromwell Hospital , London, England. He was aged 73.
LEGACY, REMEMBRANCE AND HONOURS
- Ogunde was a chief and was addressed by the aristocrastic Yoruba title of Oloye.
- In 1960, when Nigeria became independent, Ogunde was commissioned to write Song of Unity, a play for the independent celebrations.
- In 1974, in recognition of his pioneering role with the establishment of the first professional troupe in Nigeria (later called the Yoruba Folk Opera), he was made the Grand Patron of the Association of Theatre Practitioners of Nigeria (ANTP). He would host periodic meetings of the association in his house and he was said to have spent a lot of money to entertain his colleagues and make them feel at home.
- In 1980, he was the President of Association of Professional Nigerian Drama Companies where he presided over 100 members.
- He received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Ife (Obafemi Awolowo University)
- Today, his portrait graces the National Gallery of Modern Art in Lagos alongside all of Nigeria’s Heads of State and other prominent figures such as Wole Soyinka, Ben Enwonwu, Aina Onabolu and Chinua Achebe.
- Kunle Ogunde, his son, started the first independent Christian drama group in Nigeria. He said he was inspired by his father’s early incursions into religious drama. He named his group ‘The Word Productions’ and said in 1983:
‘The aims and objectives of this Christian body is to win souls through the medium of drama with the word of God, through various means as films, video recording, photo play magazines and comic magazines.’
The Cambridge Guide to African and Carribean Theatre said of Ogunde: He always sought to increase a national awareness among his largely Yoruba audiences. He was a superb entertainer: able to catch the mood of an audience and then suddenly heighten it. He channeled his skills and talents into addressing the inherent injustice of the Nigerian society even if that meant he had to forego his personal comfort and freedom on many conditions. A nationalist, he spent almost 40 years before independence in 1960 travelling all over the country sharpening his national outlook and broadening his scope. At the end of his career which spanned about 35 years, he had composed over 50 operas, plays and melodramas. He stood for his convictions, a passionate man of the arts, his name remains etched in gold and the stones of time. And that is Ogunde’s story, thanks a lot for your time.