Yoruba Popular Drama: History, Artists, and Themes

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 Yoruba Popular Drama

In the development of Yoruba stage and ritual drama, the first to be mentioned is Hubert Ogunde, who founded the African Music Research Party in 1945, the country's first professional theatrical company. In 1947, the company changed its name to the Ogunde Theatre Party, and in 1950, to the Ogunde Concert Party. He composed over thirty operas, with four published. While most of his themes initially drew from biblical teachings, he later expanded to encompass contemporary issues, integrating songs, dance, music, and dialogue in stage plays. One of his plays, "Yoruba Ronu" (Yoruba, embrace wisdom/Yoruba, be wise) (1964), satirizes the 1960s conflict among the Yoruba. Despite being banned in Western Nigeria, the play found success in other parts of the country. Ogunde utilized both traditional drums and Western instruments, incorporating political and socio-economic themes.

Kolawole Ogunmola (1925 – 1973) was a dramatist, actor, and playwright. In 1948, he founded the Ogunmola Travelling Theatre, which staged plays rich in Yoruba and Christian symbols, including Amos Tutuola’s "The Palmwine Drinkard." Through a combination of drumming and Yoruba songs, he satirized socio-political issues in his society. His play, "Ife Owo" (Love of Money) (1965), satirizes marriage and wealth. Additionally, he produced the play "Agbaraj’ Agbara" (The Reign of the Mighty) in Ibadan in 1962.

Duro Ladipo (1931 – 1978) is another renowned Yoruba dramatist, writer, producer, and playwright. In the 1960s, he co-founded the Mbari Mbayo Club with the German scholar Ulli Beier, serving as a haven for literary artists and their activities. Ladipo's plays celebrate Yoruba culture and beliefs while attempting to fuse Yoruba traditional beliefs with the Christian religion. Notable plays include "AjagunNla," "Oba Moro" (Ghost Catcher King), and "Oba Waja" (The King is Dead). To date, his most acclaimed play is "Oba Koso" (The King did not Hang), receiving positive reviews nationally and internationally. The play explores the story of a war-mongering Yoruba king who, unable to control his generals despite the advice for peace, goes into exile, hangs himself, and is eventually worshipped as a god or deity. These plays were later published as "Three Yoruba Plays" (1967), edited by Ulli Beier.

Ulli Beier (1922 – 2011), the German scholar, writer, artist, translator, and cultural activist, made significant contributions to the development of Nigerian and Yoruba literary arts. He founded the first literary magazine in English, Black Orpheus, providing a platform for many Nigerian and African writers to showcase their works globally. One of his scholarly works is the book "The Imprisonment of Obatala and Other Plays" (1966), written under the pseudonym Obotunde Ijimere. The three plays in the book are ‘The Imprisonment of Obatala,’ ‘Everyman,’ and ‘Woyengi.’ ‘Everyman’ was performed by Duro Ladipo and his theatre group in Nigeria and Europe in the 1960s, while ‘Woyengi,’ based on Ijaw myth, debuted at the University of Ibadan in 1965.

Wale Ogunyemi (1939 – 2001), actor, writer, dramatist, and playwright, created plays such as ‘Ààre,’ ‘Akogun’ (1969), ‘Be Mighty Be Mine’ (1968), ‘The Divorce’ (1977), ‘Eniyan: A Morality Play’ (1987), ‘Eshu Elegbara’ (1970), and ‘Langbodo’ (1979). His first play, ‘Business Headache’ (1966), written in pidgin, was composed while working with the drama group he helped form in 1965, Theatre Express, and was later published in Ulli Beier’s "Three Nigerian Plays." Ogunyemi adapted Shakespeare’s Macbeth, performed in 1969, and also produced plays for radio and television.

Olawale Gladstone Emmanuel Rotimi, affectionately known as Ola Rotimi (1938 – 2000), was a versatile artist, playwright, dramatist, actor, and dancer. While teaching at Obafemi Awolowo University, he established the Ori Olokun Acting Company. His plays, including "To Stir the God of Iron" (1963), "Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again" (1966), "The Gods Are Not To Blame" (1968), "Kurunmi" (1969), "Ovonramwen Nogbaisi" (1971), "Hopes of the Living Dead" (1985), among others, often feature political themes infused with the rich imagery of Yoruba and Ijaw cultures.

Renowned for his adaptation of the Oedipus legend in "The Gods Are Not To Blame" (1971), performed at the Ife Festival of Arts in 1968, the play departs from Yoruba traditional theatre. It revolves around Odewale’s destiny and the will of the gods, with his birth and growth shrouded in mystery. Unbeknownst to him, Odewale commits patricide and marries his mother, bringing a curse upon the land. Upon discovering the truth, Odewale gouges out his own eyes and leaves the kingdom. The hero's journey through life is marked by the gods ordering his death at birth, priests of Ogun advising his removal from the town, and Gbonka, the king’s messenger, sparing his life, leading to unfolding repercussions. Ola Rotimi's play, while a version of the Oedipus legend, becomes uniquely Nigerian through the infusion of Yoruba proverbs, songs, dance, and drumming, in line with the people’s oral tradition.

A relationship exists between staged theatre and unwritten indigenous drama. Some plays incorporate traditional songs, dance, proverbs, and vernacular language, often exploring the protagonist’s stance on social practices and traditional beliefs. For instance, Wole Soyinka’s play, "Madmen and Specialists" (1971), portrays a hero rejecting traditional values. James Ene Henshaw’s "This is Our Chance" (1956), a collection of short plays, reveals traditional beliefs while aspiring toward Western values. Chief Damba symbolizes tradition and the sacred, acknowledging the fallibility of some beliefs but not convincingly so.

Many Nigerian plays address the powerlessness of tradition, highlighting the rigidity of the older generation in the face of change. These generations cling to traditions losing relevance, contrasting with the articulate perspectives of the younger and contemporary generation. However, in Ogali O. Ogali’s "Veronica My Daughter" (1956), the issue of bride price restrains Chief Jombo from approving his daughter's desire to marry Michael, who can only afford the government-approved thirty pounds. Chief Bassey, his preferred choice, is willing to pay two hundred pounds. Ultimately, Chief Jombo allows Veronica to marry her choice, symbolizing the triumph of the new over the old.

Wole Soyinka’s "The Lion and the Jewel" (1962) delves into the tension between the diminishing old way of life and a burgeoning new one. The character Sidi, representing tradition, chooses to marry the local chief Baroka, rejecting the schoolteacher Lakunle, who symbolizes Western influence. This reflects the playwright's strong emphasis on culture and tradition, a theme also evident in another of his plays, "The Strong Breed" (1964), where the hero Emen willingly sacrifices his life for the well-being of his community.

References/Further Reading

Obafemi, Olu and Bodunde, Charles (Eds.) (2003). Criticism, Theory and Ideology in African

Literature. Ilorin: Haytee Press.

Dathorne, Oscar R. (1975). African Literature in the Twentieth Century. London: Heinemann.

Newmark, Peter (1981). Approaches to Translation. London: Heinemann.

Stephen, Abu (1978). African Drama-early Stage Craft and Aesthetics. Accra: Heinemann. Conteh-Morgan, John. (1994). Theatre and Drama in Francophone Africa: A Critical

Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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