Emmanuel S. Dandaura [1]

Emmanuel S. Dandaura

Introduction

The contemporary Nigerian playwright is a fiercely individualistic writer guided more by personal ideologies than class creeds; a complex persona eager to champion communal goals as long as, somewhat contradictorily, freedom of cause-of-choice is maintained. This new generation of playwrights possess potential for another Golden Age of Nigerian drama; however this potential is in its infancy.

This paper examines the influences and challenges which affect the new generation of Nigerian playwrights (2001 – present). The influences cover social, cultural and political environment of the past which left imprints on the (sub)conscious minds of playwrights. Challenges in the African identity, publishing of drama texts and play production are probed to reveal their impact on contemporary playwriting.

While one country cannot encapsulate the entire continent’s dramatic journey, exploring similarities where they occur is paramount. Hence the paper looks at the work of two Nigerian playwrights and one Botswanian: Sefi Atta (Nigeria), Africa Ukoh (Nigeria) and Donald Molosi (Botswana). As such, under certain contexts “Nigeria” may be substitutable for “Africa.”

The generational division used is that proposed by Ameh Dennis Akoh (2009) which separates Nigerian playwrights into four generations:

  1. Post-independence playwrights, 1960 – 1967.
  2. Post civil war playwrights from the 1970s.
  3. Middle generation playwrights, from the 1980s to the late 1990s.
  4. Playwrights from the end of military rule, approximately 1998 to early 2000s.

Therefore it is the fifth generation of Nigerian playwrights that is of primary concern here, examining how influences and challenges that formed the generation’s societal climate emanate as literary styles, themes, aesthetics and such. The paper ends by considering directions in which this rising generation could be headed to in the coming years.

Influences: Tracing the New Generation

An appraisal of the formative experiences leading to the present generation of new Nigerian playwrights provides insight into the (sub)conscious influences behind their writings. Of course the indigenous Nigerian experience is a constant backdrop for these influences.

Socio-cultural influences external to Nigeria made indelible marks on the new generation’s formative years, with Western, Middle Eastern and, to a lesser extent, East Asian culture notable as key influencers. Mass media played an important role in heightening exposure to these cultures. Even before the internet café boom of the early 2000s, the 21st century Nigerian was already a cultural cocktail of 1980s and 1990s Hollywood television shows and films, Bollywood romances, hip hop, rock music, animes, manga comics, global news and much more. By the 2010s exposure was accelerated by the boom of smartphones and social media. This environment is what Sola Afolayan and Ade Adeseke (2012) describe as the “hybridized society that characterizes the contemporary African setting.”

A political climate shift followed the move from over three decades of military rule to democracy. This heralded a schism in dramatic preoccupations between the new generation and its predecessors, especially the highly (perhaps excessively) politically focused second and third generations—a literary reaction to dictatorial regimes of the times. Under democracy, new generation playwrights were faced with a different kind of political authority, one who, at the onset, seemed to require a less charged confrontation.

Democracy saw the rapid emergence of Western corporate philosophy spearheaded by the telecommunications industry. This diversified the nature of politics Nigerians engaged in. No longer was it only the state whose policies affected daily Nigerian life; no longer was it only the state which was capable of empowerment or oppression.

Across the continent, in its southern regions, the political climate differed but the socio-cultural influences were replicated with strong similarities. This owed largely to the presence of the same global corporate interests in both countries or different corporate interests whose operations followed similar principles.

For the new generation Nigerian playwrights these social, cultural and political influences led to a re-thinking on how to express the Nigerian identity, and with the dissolution of a binding factor (military regime), which had previously aligned playwrights on one course, thematic interests faced more diversification. As playwrights probed these perspectives, certain challenges affected the constancy and nature of new playwriting.

Challenges: Defining Points of a New Generation

The three challenges examined are not new manifestations; rather, it is the forms they have taken in relation to the 21st century Nigerian playwright which are pertinent.

The identity challenge

Against the backdrop of influences examined above, we can distinguish the new generation playwrights from two metaphorical standpoints. Firstly, that they are kaleidoscopic, in that the multitude of influences, indigenous and external, bounce off their personalities, often unconsciously. Secondly, that they are chameleonaic, in that they posses conscious control over the many influences acting upon them.

The kaleidoscopic playwrights are in a battle over the definition of identity as Nigerians. Unlike their chameleonaic counterparts who can adapt to extra-cultural influences, they are yet to find a balance. This battle can express itself in ways that are as multitudinous as the influences bombarding the psyche—calm, ideological, raging, rational etc. The chameleonaic’s blend may be a harmony of various influences or it may be singular embodiments characterised by jumps from one identity paradigm to another, with identity markers (speech, dressing, mannerisms, etc.) changing apropos the environment.

The publishing challenge

Playwriting has been a conspicuous absentee in Nigerian literary publications (print and web) since the African literary renaissance of the early 2000s. While new plays continue to be published, they have been limited to lesser known pre-renaissance era publishing companies. Therefore, renowned contemporary novelists such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole, and Nnedi Okarafor, are yet to have contemporaries in playwriting.

Poor literary quality is often cited as one reason for playwriting being ignored, a decline which first reared its head as far back as the 1980s (Nwoko 463). Another possible reason for the absence of playwriting is a lack of know-how on the part of the publishers regarding the marketing and selling of plays. In 2013, Parrésia, a notable millennium renaissance era publisher, attempted an informal inquiry via social media asking of readers: “from a Publisher’s perspective . . . what can be done to stoke an interest in drama such that people would go and buy the text of a drama they have not seen?”

The roots of this troubling situation can be traced to the third challenge examined below.

The paucity of performances challenge

A dearth in professional theatre performances has loomed over Nigeria for decades. A city as major as the nation’s capital, Abuja, only sees a handful of shows annually. While the biggest commercial city, Lagos, is currently pushing for improvements, the condition remains dire.

In relation to the preceding challenge, this paucity distorts the understanding of drama as literature, thereby creating an unhealthy environment for playwriting; and, in its worst state, a chasm of ignorance on the part of publishers, readers and playwrights themselves.

Without frequent engagement with professional theatre performances innovation in styles and techniques expressive of African playwriting will be limited. In the second to fourth generations this situation combined with thematic uniformity (i.e. political focus) to create playwrights with a similarity, perhaps monotony, of style, structure, and aesthetics.

The fifth generation playwrights display aspirations for content diversity, alongside common threads which persist as “convention.” Given that socio-political conditions bred highly individualistic personalities, it is natural that idiosyncrasies would be pursued in dramatic works. However, the difficulty of producing plays, not to mention new plays, in some cases by amateur writers, deters progress.

Before examining the impacts of these influences and challenges, an overview of three new generation Nigerian playwrights is paramount.

Sefi Atta

Sefi Atta (Photo: Tope Kogbe)
Sefi Atta (Photo: Tope Kogbe)

Sefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria. She was educated there, in England and the United States. She qualified as a chartered accountant in England and as a CPA in the United States. She began to write full-time in 1997 when she moved to Mississippi, and graduated with an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles, in 2001.

Alongside three novels and one short story collection, Atta’s plays have brought her acclaim. Her radio plays won second prize in the BBC’s African Performance competition in 2002 and 2004 and were broadcast on the BBC World Service. Her recent theatre credits include: An Ordinary Legacy, premiered at the MUSON Festival, Lagos, (2012); The Naming Ceremony, premiered at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London (2012); The Cost of Living, commissioned for Lagos Black Heritage Festival (2011); and Hagel auf Zamfara, which concluded a two-year run at Theatre Krefeld, Germany, in 2013. Atta’s latest one-act play Last Stand premiered in Lagos in 2014. Her full-length plays Lengths to Which We Go and Absent Times are forthcoming.

Style and thematic preoccupation

Mostly set around the lives of middle class Nigerians, Atta’s plays deal with spiralling conflicts arising from unresolved issues in familial and other close-knit relationships. Her style is evocative of Chekhovian realism with a pervading mood of crisis looming over the dramatic action.

Her plays are often set in contemporary Lagos and reflect her urban, nuclear family experience there. She describes them as “memorialising that experience by encapsulating ordinary and extraordinary moments.” This aptly describes the emotional transition that mark her plays as long-simmering conflict suddenly erupts through an extraordinary action: in The Last Stand Rotimi kills Mashood and disguises the heinous act, freeing himself from the bonds of heir-ship; in Absent Times the marijuana addicted son of a landlady’s tenant meets sudden death in a car crash, leading the landlady back into her own drug addiction.

Atta’s characters are neither heroes nor villains, they are humans. Nigerians stripped of the exaggerated or the sensational and clothed instead with the universality of flawed humanity laid bare on the page. The minimalism of her dialogue creates an intriguing contradictory effect against the complex character relationships of her plays, especially where related by fictional blood.

Africa Ukoh

Africa Ukoh (Photo: Ayodele)
Africa Ukoh (Photo: Ayodele)

Africa Ukoh is a playwright, screenwriter, creative director, and arts administrator. Born in Jos, Plateau state, he studied theatre arts at the University of Abuja, Nigeria. He co-founded a theatre company, African Renaissance Theatre and Entertainment.

His plays have been published, performed or recognised by organisations such as the BBC World Service, Sentinel Nigeria Magazine, Voice of Nigeria, Sentinel Annual Literary Anthology and Theatre Royal Stratford East. In 2009 his play Sleep Sef Na Wahala was shortlisted for the Abuja Writers Forum competition. In 2011 his radio play, Silhouettes, won the first runner up position in the BBC African Performance competition. In 2012, he was awarded the 30 Nigeria House prize for his play 54 Silhouettes. Ukoh presently has two short plays, Prodigal and Happy Ending, and a full length play, Refuge, in the works.

Style and thematic pre-occupation

Ukoh exhibits emphasis on dramatic structure kept fluid by conflict-driven actions. A balance between technique and aesthetics, in order to communicate the theme, is always evident in his literary composition. In Remembrance, for example, a graduate confronts a sexual abuser from her childhood, causing the past and the present to exist simultaneously before coalescing.

Thematically, Ukoh writes across a wide range of topics thus covering Nigerians from varying social strata: in 54 Silhouettes, the African stereotype is challenged by a Nigerian actor in Hollywood; in God for Sale, greed and religious hypocrisy pit working-class con-artists against working-class con-victim; in The Stain, a middle-class married couple grapples with deadly consequences of HIV stigmatisation; in Prodigal, a senator turns to dark and self-deprecating actions in his quest to sever filial bonds

This range brings with it a variety of tones and styles apropos to each play, sometimes with stark results. For example, Sleep Sef Na Wahala is written to the rhythms of Nigerian colloquialisms and pidgin English while 54 Silhouettes uses a more universal expression, adopting Hollywoodisations (such as heavy use of one-liner dialogue) in its dramatisation.

Africa Ukoh, 54 Silhouettes (Photo: Ayodele)
Africa Ukoh, 54 Silhouettes (Photo: Ayodele)

Donald Molosi

Donald Molosi (Photo: Williams College)
Donald Molosi (Photo: Williams College)

Donald Molosi is a multi-award-winning classically-trained actor and writer, from Mahalapye, Botswana. He performs around the world with some of his Broadway and Hollywood credits including: Damn Yankees (2004), MOTSWANA: Africa, Dream Again (2012), Green Zone (2007), and Breakfast in Hollywood (2006).

Molosi’s return to New York’s off-Broadway scene in 2010 saw him stage four solo shows all of which he penned: Blue, Black and White, about the life of Seretse Khama; Today It’s Me, about the life of Ugandan music superstar Philly Lutaaya (a Robert Potter Playwriting Award winner in 2012); MOTSWANA: Africa, Dream Again, published by Indie Theater Now and Blue, Black and White 2 (recipient of the Dilling Yang Prize for Excellence in Playwriting).

Style and thematic pre-occupation

Molosi takes a keen interest in historically influenced drama, particularly in consolidating ideals of the past with the changing present times, seeking inspiration from them. A re-education of Africans about African history is an evident goal of Molosi’s writings. Consequently, his plays embody cultural and historical consciousness while examining familial and societal reactions to the causes championed by African greats resurrected as dramatic characters.

In Blue, Black and White, the first president of Botswana, Seretse Khama, comes into conflict with his Uncle and clan elders when he marries a Caucasian woman. In Today It’s Me, Ugandan superstar musician Lutaaya struggles with interpersonal, intrapersonal and group conflicts as Uganda’s first high profile HIV/AIDS victim.

Molosi’s works are often first written as one-man plays, some later expanded to accommodate multiple performers. The multi-ethnic dialogue of various characters embodied by one principal player creates a compelling layering of meaning and aesthetic. Molosi’s dialogue resonates with a distinct poetic timbre, a quality of spoken chants. This is most emphasised when the mystical consumes the plays, either in mood or as characters—like Boemo’s speeches in Mostwana where he avers his beliefs or the exchanges between the ancestral spirits Chaminuka and Nehanda.

Molosi’s Blue, Black and White (Photo: Williams College)
Molosi’s Blue, Black and White (Photo: Williams College)

Page to Stage: Present and Future Shapings

Performance is a major endpoint of playwriting, thus the problem of limited professional theatre shows is central to the interplay of influences and challenges that shape Africa’s new generation playwrights. In moving from page to stage so as to return to the page with a keener grasp on style, dramatic structure, aesthetics and so on, socio-political influences, mix dynamically with challenges of identity and publishing.

The present diversity of content can be expected to widen with Nigeria’s fifth-generation playwrights writing more works and increasing in numbers. As indigenous senses of aesthetics mix with the staggering variety of external socio-political data saturated into the playwrights’ psyche, the emerging matrix of personal ideology will create more distinct plays.

We find proof of this in works of the three African writers covered in this study. Ukoh’s 54 Silhouettes draws heavily from Hollywood cinema in the nature of its dialogue and style in which its satiric circumstances are structured. Characters such as Rotimi and Stella from Atta’s Last Stand mirror the affectations of Western culture on Nigerians, picked up from migrations and academic sojourns. Molosi’s dramatic incarnation of Seretse Khama uses a historic moment to raise contemporary issues in inter-racial relations much beyond that of inter-racial marriage as treated in Blue, Black and White. All of these dramatised in fresh and inspired ways.

The dramatic treatment of African identity in the 21st century has also been embraced with varied perspectives. The anti-colonial playwright exists, though as a disappearing figure. Voices are still raised in opposition to neo-colonial oppression but, where amicable, Western influence is welcomed with vibrancy. Interestingly, the playwrights examined here take different approaches to identity issues: Molosi’s Mostwana recognises the damage of the colonial era, but demands that today’s Africans equally hold themselves responsible for the perpetuation of dilemmas. Ukoh’s 54 Silhouettes revolts against racism through the stereotypes, demands affirmation of worth from the oppressor yet, in a similar vein to Motswana, its climax indicts the African for his participation in the system of prejudice. Atta on the other hand, does not make any deliberate strides into the identity dilemma. Focused on social breakdowns, she neither decries nor affirms. Perhaps the closest position that can be imposed on her in this regard is that of incidental affirmation—by paying no special regard to the question of African identity, she incidentally affirms it as a thing of natural value.

Advances in philosophical standpoints about African identity will see kaleidoscopic playwrights replaced by the chameleonaics. The former having little or no authorial control over influences on their dramatic form will give way to the latter whose dramaturgy will be more distinct and captivating. A dangerous alternative to this is a collapse of indigenous styles and techniques, replaced by external ones through bland and narrow imitation.

Excluding challenges to staging production that are outside the control of the playwrights, the creation of drama with contemporary content—this being within control of the playwrights—will gain further relevance as a determining factor on the publishing of plays. The resultant impact, if positive, stands to reverberate with like effect on the production of theatre shows; for, indeed, a symbiotic relationship exists between the publishing, production and writing of plays. While the paucity of theatre shows persists, the new generation playwrights will continue to consciously and unconsciously feed their innate sense of theatricality from other, non-theatrical, sources. In the years to come, observing how this will manifest as Nigerian literary dramaturgy will make for intriguing studies.

Note

*Africa Ukoh made valuable contributions as key research assistant in the preparation of this paper.

References

Adeseke, A. and Afolayan, S. “The Aesthetics of Alienation in Modern Nigerian Drama: a Marxist Reading of Obafemi’s Suicide Syndrome.” Accessed March 3, 2015. http://eujournal.org/index.php/esj/article/view/9/9.

Akoh, D. A. “The Constraints and Prospects of Post-Military Literary Engagement in Nigeria.” Accessed March 3, 2015. http://www.nobleworld.biz/images/Akoh.pdf .

Asigbo, Alex and Okeke, T. J “Recent Nigerian Playwriting and Collapse of Ideology.” Accessed March 3, 2015. http://www.ajol.info/index.php/cajtms/article/view/91758/81229.

Atta, S. Absent Times. Unpublished manuscript.

—. The Last Stand. Unpublished manuscript.

Freeman, G. L. “Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Home: The Role of the African Playwright as a Griot.” Accessed March 3, 2015. http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1993/3/93.03.09.x.html.

Margraff, R. and Rakef, S. “Identity Capers.” Accessed March 3, 2015. http://www.tcg.org/publications/at/mayjune07/slovenia.cfm.

Molosi, D. Blue, Black and White. Unpublished manuscript.

—. Motswana: Africa Dream Again. Manuscript.

—. Today It’s Me. Manuscript.

Nwoko, D. “Search for a New African Theatre.” In Drama and Theatre in Nigeria: a Critical Source Book, edited by Y. Ogunbiyi, 462-78. Lagos: Nigeria Magazine, 1981.

Ukoh, A. 54 Silhouettes. Unpublished manuscript.

—. “God for Sale.” Sentinel Annual Literature Anthology, edited by Unoma Azuah, Amanda Sington-Williams, and Nnorom Azuonye. U. 2012.

—. Prodigal. Unpublished manuscript.

—. Remembrance. Unpublished manuscript.

—. Sleep Sef Na Wahala. Unpublished manuscript.


Emmanuel S. Dandaura

[1] Emmanuel Samu Dandaura, PhD, is a widely published scholar, theatre/film critic, director, and playwright. He is President, Nigerian section, of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC), theatre Professor and foundation chair, Department of Theatre and Cultural Studies, Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Nigeria. He is editor, Nigerian Film Review and editor-in-chief, Nigeria Performing Arts Review, and Scene Dock Journal published by the Nigerian Centre of IATC and the International Theatre Institute respectively. He has in the past served as director/creative consultant to many festivals in Africa. In the last three decades, Dandaura remains the only director and managing consultant, whose contingent has won the coveted Presidential Gong for five consecutive years at the annual National Festival of Arts & Culture (NAFEST) in Nigeria. He is the current festival director, Nzeh Mada Festival in central Nigeria and chairman board of trustees of the Nigerian Universities Theatre Arts Student Festival (NUTAF). Dandaura is the first ever African member of the international executive committee of the IATC.

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Nigeria – From Page to Stage: Influences and Challenges Shaping the New Generation of Nigerian Playwrights*