Interview by Dr. Ngozi Udengwu
Professor Ahmed Yerima is a popular Nigerian playwright, director and actor, a university lecturer and an administrator. He is a former director of the National Troupe of Nigeria and a former Director-General of the National Theatre. He is currently Dean of the College of Humanities at Redeemers University in Nigeria. He attended Baptist Academy, University of Ife and the Royal Holloway College University of London, where he got his PhD. He has published at least 30 plays some of which have won awards; his body of work includes Yemoja and Hard Ground (winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2006, as well as the ANA/NDDC JP. Clark Drama Prize 2006 from the Association of Nigeria Authors.
Yerima is a true committed playwright whose plays are channeled towards addressing particular sociopolitical matters in the country, and he makes a conscious effort to avoid what has been known in literary circles as “art for art’s sake.” Some of his other titles include The Sisters, The Wives, Otaelo, Aetu, The State Visit, The Lottery Ticket, Dry Leaves on Ukan Trees, Idemili, Erelu Kuti, Kaffir’s Last Game, and a host of others.
This interview took place in his office in the Redeemers University.
NGOZI UDENGWU: Please take us down the memory, when your career in theatre began.
AHMED YERIMA: I grew up in a convent school. We had reverend sisters, and what they used to do was to make us do those Christian plays, Christmas Cantata to mark the Christmas festivals, and Easter plays. So drama became part of me. I loved the role play, and I was lively. I loved the television—a television boy I would like to say, because I was growing up about the time it came into this country. That was how I knew what drama was all about. We started with “Once I saw a little bird coming Hop! Hop! Hop! and then we graduated into “Who killed Cock Robin?” I said how with my bow and arrow I killed Cock Robin and then we went into Medicine for Love, which was the only Nigerian play at that time. It is written by Ene Henshaw. And the Wizard of Law and such plays. By the time I got to the secondary school, it was fun because one was able to watch plays and TV drama like “The Village Headmaster,” and it was very inspiring. I now know it is not only white people who can take part in movies and take part in plays.
When Wole Soyinka was in prison, there was this group led by Dapo Adelugba that used to do Arm Chair Theatre. Then we used to watch people like Wale Ogunyemi, Bode Sowande, Biodun Jeyifo—all of them used to take part in the plays. It used to take place on Thursdays, and they used to call it Arm Chair Theatre. I was part of that—watching, not taking part because I was too small. That put in me the whole idea that I could also do it. I come from a very lively family where my two uncles—Uncle Haruna and Uncle Umoru—are very good storytellers. They would come to Ikoyi where we lived then and give us stories about World War II.
By the time I was in form three, I was already in the literary debating society. Then I wrote my first play, Batuma’s Daughter. Luckily my English teacher, Mrs. Agboola (she was black American, Geraldine is her American name), read it and liked it. Because we were in the Lagos Baptist Boy’s Academy, and the girls’ school was Reagan Girls’ Memorial School, I was able to form a group called the Georgian and Victorian Group.
Also in form three?
In form three. And we did Batuma’s Daughter. I think we did two productions—Elechi Amadi’s Isiburu, ekperi the crab, that play was fun. We did that and I put that aside, and everybody thought those qualities were for a lawyer and not for a dramatist, you know. It was when I was in my HSC (Higher School Certificate). I wanted to go to Ife to read law. I got my A Level and went to Ife to read law. I got to Ife and discovered that they had over admitted that year, so I think I was crying somewhere when Yemi Ogunbiyi saw me. They were starting the Department of Dramatic Arts. Ogunbiyi said, “Look, Professor Soyinka has been asked to start a Department of Drama that if I didn’t mind reading for drama. I said I didn’t mind even sweeping as long as I didn’t go back home.” Here I am with BBC from A Levels—how could I go back just to sit down or go back to school where I was a senior prefect, what would I be now? So I waited. Soyinka just came back with this play, Opera Wonyosi. It was 1977, and that was the convocation play for that year, and I took part in it. That became my audition and also my first play in the university.
That was how I came into drama. I kept telling myself, “Next year I will change to Law. Next year, and next year….”
Now you are one of Nigeria’s most renowned playwright. Can you tell us how many plays you have published?
I think, by my last count, 37 plays.
What happened to that first play?
Batuma’s Daughter, I can’t find it. I think it is only a picture of it I have left.
It didn’t get published?
No, It never got published.
So which is your first published play?
Asylum—heavily influenced by Soyinka. It was published in 1978, my first play in school. In fact in the university I wrote four plays. I call them The Ife Quartet. I published them recently. I wrote three while I was a student and then wrote one when I came back from England in 1984. It was for Soyinka’s send off, my adaptation of J. P. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. I put them together and published them in a volume I call The Ife Quartet. It has The Asylum, The Flood, The Movement and An Inspector Calls. I was then still experimenting.
I got introduced to Soyinka’s works. In school I liked Madmen and Specialists. I liked Chekhov, I liked Ibsen, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco (especially Ionesco’s The Chairs, I loved that play). I wrote my plays around those plays at that time. In the early plays, I took a little bit of Soyinka’s anger and a little bit of my influence from those other playwrights, until I met Brecht. In my postgrad, I settled down to write other plays because I felt there was no need to be that angry.
Which of your literary drama has won award?
Yemoja was my first play to win an award. It won an award in Mexico’s Cerventino Festival, a drama festival in Cerventino. I don’t remember the year now. What it did for me was gradually I became like a resident playwright. Because I was working for the government, it was easy to become like the resident playwright of the government. I was lucky; I was at the right place at the right time. For Yemoja I was commissioned to write a play for Nigeria to enter for Cerventino Festival, and I needed a play that would have a thematic reference to Mexico, to the Diaspora, to the Americas. That was why I wrote that play, for a kind of intercultural link, something that can link us to the history of that society.
What is Yemoja all about?
Yemoja is about a river goddess. In the Diaspora they call her Emanja. It’s a water mermaid, half-fish, half-human. There is a mermaid culture all over the world, and they are beautiful. We have her in Yoruba. But what I did was to take all the gods, because all the gods are worshipped in the Diaspora. The Yoruba gods are kind of transported all over the Diaspora, and it was an attempt for me to be able to translate the Yoruba culture and take it to the Diaspora and get them to recognize, because I found that Obatala, which is a Yoruba god of creation, is there as Oxala Ogun is there as Ogun, Yemoja is there as Emanja, Sango is there as Sango. So they have all the gods, and Esu is Esu. So it was easy for me to now bring them together, even though they didn’t exist within the same time frame. For my play I brought them and gave them human attributes, and then I looked for a theme that would cut across tribes and people, which is the theme of love, and I was able to do that. I think that was why it won. Love is a universal theme.
Hard Ground is perhaps my famous play. The need to write Hard Ground is based on my background, my relationship with Soyinka. The playwright must be relevant to his society and must be proactive, must think for the society and at times also to pre-empt the society. I wrote Hard Ground as part of my fear, because at that time people were paying lip service to the whole issue of the Niger Delta, and I felt this thing will destroy us; it will eat us up. If we do not take time, children will begin to kill their parents, and we are going to find ourselves victims. People were spectators, because people were drawing this line of dichotomy: it is not us, I am Hausa, am Ahmed. It is a Niger Delta thing—it is not us. I am Igbo but I am not Niger Delta. I am Yoruba, and it can never get to us. And as long as we didn’t treat it as a national problem, we are going to have a problem, and that’s why I had to follow it. It became an obsession for me. What I eventually did was to write three plays on the Niger Delta which include Hard Ground, which won the Nigerian prize for literature and Little Drops which became a runner-up five years later in 2010.
Little Drop is about the plight of women and children of the Niger Delta; I found that these are the people who are really suffering the effect of the Niger Delta. They are the ones dying. You look at the newspapers, you see schools bombed, a woman loses her husband, and I was looking at the whole idea.
Then came the charade of the amnesty, and I was wondering how genuine was the amnesty, and so I wrote Ipomu, the third play. “Ipomu” means the water hyacinth. I published all three in one collection. No other awards, but the rest have to speak for themselves; I find that people like them for different reasons.
Have you also won awards for your performances?
No. What has really happened is the occasions of these performances that have mattered to me, like the Trials of Oba Ovonramwen which was 100 years after the Benin Massacre; it was performed in 1997. That was wonderful for me, because the Oba of Benin was there and I think the British ambassador was there, and that night was almost like a replay of history—a repeat of what happened when the British government who had come to conquer Benin and take away Oba Ovonramwen and the great grandchild of Ovonramwen, Solomon, uku apolopolo, Oba Ereduwa was seated. And they were all seated watching what their great grandfathers had done. The play gave them back the story of what they did. I was particularly touched, and that for me is a great award even though nobody handed me a plaque.
Another play that did that to me was Tafida, a play that has just gone to the publishers, which I wrote in honor of Yar’ Adua, Shehu Yar’Adua. It was published in a program pamphlet which I didn’t, like but I had to respect that, because they wanted everybody to take something away. What I did was to wait four or five years and then decided to reproduce it in book form which is now in the press. I love the essence of the play. What I did was to look into Islam. Islamists believe that the day a person dies and is buried is when the first test comes. The play allowed me to take Yar’Adua and judge him and ask him questions about his friends and indirectly examine the sociopolitical problems of the country at that particular time and what led to his death and the belief in Islam that a known spirit comes to take a person who dies, because it helps him for the transition from the world of the living to the world of the dead. It was wonderful, because everybody was so scared that I have that power. The president was seated—everybody was seated—and you could hear a pin drop. It was nice to know that they could be scared of death. The play reminded them that the day of judgment would come, and there was need for them to begin to examine what they were doing.
And then there is Kaffir’s Last Game. It was another play of mine that marked for me a significant development. “Kaffirs” is a South African word for black people. It comes from the Arabic word “Kaffir” which is for pagans, and the Afrikaans call blacks “kaffirs,” and my friend Tom (he is late now) came to my office at the National Theatre (I was then a deputy director); Tom said Mandela will soon be free, and South Africans will take over. If you Nigerians will not sit up, the South Africans will take over. I wanted to know why. Because it will be a better world, he said; it is better organized because the white people were there—you people will need to sit up. That statement got me thinking, and so I wrote the play with just two characters, but it looks at the socio-political differences between South Africa and Nigeria. It looks at people’s idea of brain drain, the fight for dominance and who becomes the giant of Africa. I think of my new play which I call The House of Stones; I have just written the first scene. It is almost like my comment on the Boko Harem issue. I am just trying to write it right now; I am still doing my research.
Are there major issues that artists neglect or fail to address on stage? If so, why? is it because of censorship? Take for example the Boko Harem issue you just mentioned; I don’t know how many artists would want to go there.
I think most Nigerian writers are lazy. That was the joke about me and the Niger Delta. I wrote about the Niger Delta in a very serious play, Hard Ground, when nobody was thinking about it as a serious issue, because Wole Soyinka told me I must be relevant. I cannot sit down and create art for art sake. I cannot be writing about irrelevances—marital issues and such (not that they are irrelevant)—but when there are issues of life and death involved. When immediate issues, generational issues of the society, or when issues of the future of the existence of my country are involved, I can not remain passive. An individual within the society but also as a playwright, I need to say something; I need to state how I feel.
Another example: “June 12” is an expression used to refer to the day the winner of 1996 presidential election in Nigeria, MKO Abiola, was killed in prison during General Ibrahim Gbadamosi Babangida’s regime. In my play Silent Gods, I wrote my own comments on June 12, even though I was in government and I almost got arrested by the government for writing that kind of play when I was working for them. Eventually when we went to show the play in Abuja, it became the Talking Gods, because the advisers of the government misread the play and were looking for insignificant things—thus, making the issues of the play more significant. When the publishers of the play told me they had ran out of copies to sell, I didn’t bother to republish it for some time. However, the first 1,000 copies of the play were sold out within two weeks, because of the controversy it generated. My publisher said, “You know, this is a good opportunity to run to the press and publish this.” I replied, “Take it easy; we just got out of Abuja just by luck.” The SSS came up with a report that the play was a deliberate attempt by Yerima to incite the country against the government.
Government officials saw in the play a man who wanted to be king but they could not find the crown. They wanted to know who this man is and why there is a king and no crown. Is there a coup coming? The asked all kinds of funny things. But I have always loved that. One of the lesson Soyinka taught me about the process of iconoclasm is how to tell a story and make the story so interesting that the person does not recognize himself—or it does not look obvious in the story—so that he becomes stupidly amused. He loves the story, and eventually it is he, not the story, who becomes distorted.
Have you ever experienced any form of censorship as a theatre artist?
Yea! As a theatre artist I think the only time was The Silent Gods.
As for Kaffir’s Last Game, by that time the Nigerian government had gotten used to me. [Yerima laughs.] What I did not like when I worked for government was that I was not trusted by both parties. People questioned my sincerity; some members of the public and journalists from the media felt, “Oh, he is still a mouthpiece of government. He is writing plays appearing to be critical of government, but if you look at Yerima’s plays, they are really institutional plays.” I hated being called “an institutional playwright.” I felt I should be given a chance to be able to say, this is how I feel, I think this is what should happen. I did not like people saying, “Oh, he is saying this, because there is no other thing for him to say, and he is being paid to say this. He who pays the piper dictates the tune.” I wanted a form of individuality. I wanted them to know that I was also an independent person when it came to my point of creativity—that I can think on my own, I could reason and the ideas were mine. When it comes to looking at issues that touch the country I will go first.
It was very interesting when Hard Gound won an award. Everybody in the Niger Delta felt cheated. They felt, “How would a non indigene win an award on us. Yerima has exploited us.” You know, everything for them is about exploitation. They recently held a conference in Asaba which spent much time just examining the whole process of why Hard Ground won. Thank God, they did not invite me, but someone, Professor Kalu Ukah told them, “Look Yerima has written his own play and won an award. You go and write your own play and win your own award.”
The irony of it all was that I was punished for it. Five years later, when I wrote Little Drops, even when they knew that Little Drops was supposed to win the award, they did not make it win. Their thought was, “Why should Yerima win back to back and again on the Niger Delta? Oh! Can’t he write about any other thing but the Niger Delta? Can’t he leave the Niger Delta issue alone?” The problem was I had to write about the Niger Delta, because the issues surrounding the Niger Delta had not gone away, and until those issues were treated properly, I felt the society had looked at them.
In the play Ipomu I introduced Boko Harem, because there in Ipomu the prince comes home, and the other characters say, “Now you are the king. You should stay at home,” and someone else says, “He can’t. Our son is president alright, but there are new problems, there are new people, and these people are prepared to kill themselves. So you cannot come here and be tying wrapper and looking good and playing prince and king when your son has a problem in Abuja.” He decides to leave his throne to go back to Abuja to go and support the son. So that was when it was interesting; after I finished the play that the Niger Delta people came up with proclamation saying, “If anything happens to Jonathan (referring to Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, who hails from Niger Delta), Nigeria will fry. Boko Harem should not touch our Jonathan.” And these were the people who were giving Jonathan a lot of problems at the beginning. Then they suddenly realized that what they should do was to cover their son—you get the point. That was what I was trying to tell them in the play, and I don’t know how many people read that play, but it worked. They agreed with what I wanted to say.
Have you ever been in an audience to watch a performance of your play?
Yes. But sometimes I never sit through. I always like to see people’s interpretation of my play. It is nice. First I like to know if my language worked well, if they understood where I was going, if the play was really sinking, if the actors are comfortable. It is more difficult when I direct the play. I am having the problem with what I am doing right now. I have written the convocation play. I am directing it, and the students are having a hard time, because I want them to get it right. I want them to close to the vision I had while writing the play. In fact this evening I am going to apologize to them, because I am pushing them real hard. Last night I lost it. I just screamed at them. I told them, “You must get it right.”
Which one are they rehearsing now?
It is a new play: The Sacred Mortar. It is in the press right now. It was commissioned, and I wrote it specifically for them. But you won’t catch me sitting down watching my play, but maybe because I know the next thing that is going to happen. But sometimes it gives another view. I like watching other people’s plays so that I can steal ideas, rework them to make them better or see how other people have used their own ideas, and I can learn from it.
As a director what difficulty do you have communicating with other production team members—actors, designers and so on?
The people I work hardest on are the actors, because I believe once the actors get what I want, then it becomes easier for every other person to fit in. The first thing for me is to translate what is in my head to the actors, because I know that the actors also have their own vision of what the play should be like. Especially one or two students who had done my play before. They come up with a sense of authority that they know what I want. Some may even say, “I wrote my PhD or my Master’s Degree on Yerima, so I am an authority. Then I find that Yerima has to rescue Yerima from them. One woman said, “I have played old woman three times in your plays, so I know what your old women are like.” I said, “No, this is not the kaka you find. This is kaka in Igatibi. The woman you played was from Lantarn; this one is Ilorin woman. So I want a total break.” Then we started working. So there is always that kind of problem: transmitting my own idea to them. But I respect the actor. I would let you create what you have, show me what you’ve got, then I try and twist it a little, but sometimes you find that you have to wrestle, not just twist or persuade. I have to wrestle the actor to get him to come to my side.
7) In your creative process which part do you enjoy most or the least and why?
I enjoy writing the most, because then I can escape, I can leave, I can fly. Why it is beautiful for me is because I write from different cultures. I can go anywhere I want to go. I can be an Igbo man as in my new play Requiem. I can become a Yoruba man as in The Sacred Mortar. I can be an Hausa man as in Tafida. I can be anybody I want to be. That is good, because as the story grows I also grow with it.
When it comes to directing, I love the power that goes with it. But I don’t love the impatience, because I am very impatient. I am in a haste to see the play grow. I want to see it on stage, and sometimes I become impatient with the actors, and again what ruined me was the opportunity to work with very experienced actors at the National Theatre—to work with the best Nigeria has to offer—and then I now have to work with students. It really kills me; that is why I said I am going to apologize to them. I am dealing with a hundred level students who are seeing the stage for the first time, and here is a man who has worked with Olu Jacobs, who has told Clarion Chukwurah move to the left, turn to the back when you get there just look up and say, “My God, this is just what I want”—you understand. And the next day I will just say, “Joke Silver, let’s go, and I don’t have to ask, ‘Did you do your homework?’” In fact they will be happy if you say Yerima won’t come at five; he is coming at five thirty, because you have 30 more minutes to prepare for him. But my students will say, “Yeah, he is not coming. Give me your groundnut and banana.” For them it is extra time to play. I am working with two totally different parallels. Unfortunately I am the one who has to move, the one who has to understand they need more patience and understanding.
Lastly, during your career have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism, when and what did it say?
I have received several. I think the most insightful one was a lady who came out from The Sisters in MUSON Theatre. I was outside, and she was holding the programme. I think somebody told her, “That’s the playwright.” She came to me and said, “Wow! You wrote the play?” I said yes, and she said, “It’s so lovely, it’s so gossipy. Do you have sisters?” I said, “No, I am the first child.” I asked, “What type of sisters do you mean?” “Big sisters,” she said. “You wrote like you are the only son among big sisters, and so you were listening and picking up gossip from them. You know, it’s a woman’s play.” I said, “Yeah, I know.” She said, “But how did you know about us? There was a little bit of every woman in the play.” I liked that. It was very nice.
The one that was, for me, critical was directing Soyinka’s The Bacchae. Someone just sent me a mail through Femi Osofisan yesterday, saying someone is doing thesis work on Soyinka’s The Bacchae, and she wants to know if Soyinka had attended the production, and so on. I had always wanted to direct that play, especially when I read Soyinka’s comments and his arrogance in his author’s note, stating you must not do this, you must not do that. I wanted to take up Soyinka’s challenge and look for an easy way of directing The Bacchae. I got my directorial concept together which is what the lady is now asking about. I found it was the simplest play to direct, and my actors came, having read also the background and how Soyinka stopped the National Theatre of England, how he was disappointed with their production, how he walked out of the performance and how they threw him out of the theatre because he was angry. So when I was directing I said, come this way, do it this way, do it that way. I said that is the play. They were disappointed. Because they were looking for something very grand, something we would spend so long in directing.
The same thing with JP Clark’s Song of a Goat. All I did was to cut off. I said Song of a Goat is good, but it is a very simple play. All JP has done is to add too much poetry. So cut off most of those poetry. In three or four pages he told me Zifa was impotent, so why do I have to add 10 pages doing the same thing all over again? You know, in doing that I made the drama simpler. But it was interesting when the artists asked, “Is it going to be acceptable? He is making it so easy. Are we sure we are using the original text?” On and on until Toyin Akioso of The Guardian now wrote that Yerima’s production may be better. JP Clark got angry; he was very upset. At the end of the day, when the production was shown, I was very happy that he enjoyed it.
Soyinka never saw my version of The Bacchae, but those who saw the version said it was ok. It was critical, but the critical comment at the beginning, even the actors who felt maybe the directorial approach could have been more rigorous was enough to guide me. That’s that. I’m always ready to accept my own faults—to respect the level of creativity of the actors and at the same time correct them but also push them towards what I want because they are the ones who take the applause. They are the ones that people give the bow not me. I want them to work for that.
Who do you produce a play for: the critics or the audience?
You have to produce it for both. When I am directing this play, I am directing it for both the mission, the church who owns the school, and the outsiders who come and say, “Oh, it is Yerima’s play, I know Yerima, it will be nice for us to see the play.” The Obasanjo Library in Abeokuta started their theatre week with my play, Kaffir’s Last Game, and have already told me they were coming to see the play. And the church will say, “Let’s see what this overpaid Yerima is doing with our children. Why are we making him Dean after one year? What is the big deal about Yerima always in the newspapers talking about ‘my writing.’ Is he one of us? Is he true to God? Is he writing plays that are against our culture? Because he is a cultural man.” So I will have to not only write plays that will be accepted by both parties, I will also have to write a play for a society, the new environment, which will dictate an interpretation. Maybe if you gave me the National Theatre or the National Troupe to direct The Sacred Mortar, the situation would be different. But for here, the environment determines my interpretation.
Have you observed any improvement in theatre criticism in Nigeria?
No. In academic criticism, yes. In theatre criticism, no. I think it is falling, one, maybe because there is also a dearth in theatre productions. Since I left the National Theatre, I don’t think there have been a steady flow of theatre productions. When I was there, at least every two months we had a play; if I could not produce it, I gave room for people to come and show. But since I left, I have heard about secondary school students competition, children’s theatre, but I have not heard of professional performances. Since you do not give the people performances, then there is a problem. Maybe that is why they are beginning to reproduce some of my old interviews in the newspapers, because there is nothing new to write about. On the other hand, for academic scholarship, you find that people like you in the universities are encouraging students to write thesis papers, and so academic scholarship is working—it is booming. But when it comes to criticism of the professional theatre, it is actually almost down. It is sad.
 Dr. Ngozi Udengwu is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Film Studies at Univesity of Nigeria in Nsukka. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Dramatic Arts and a Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. She has a PhD in Theatre Arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She teaches courses and supervises projects at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. She has presented papers at over twenty conferences both nationally and internationally and has also published over eleven scholarly journal articles and book chapters and has conducted workshops on literacy and reading for the UNICEF Field ‘A’ Projects. Her PhD thesis discovered seven active female playwrights in Nigeria, one of whom is believed to be the most prolific theatre director in Africa. Udengwu is currently a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Society, which is about to document, for the first time, the contributions of women in the Yoruba travelling Theatre of Nigeria. She is a member of several learned societies, including the Society of Nigerian Theatre Artists, International Federation for Theatre Research, African Theatre Association, African Theatre and Performance Working Group, International Reading Association, African Literature Association and Arterial Network.