Playwriting and Publishing
Playwriting in Nigeria, like other forms of literary creativity, was dominated by male writers before the emergence of women writers. The first published play by Ene Henshaw was in 1954, while the first published play by a woman, Zulu Sofola, was in 1968, more than a decade later. Tess Onwueme joined the literary ranks later, in 1983, so Zulu Sofola, as the only female playwright, stood astride the Nigerian dramatic scene for almost two decades.
Luckily, more female playwrights have emerged thenceforth. Zulu Sofola basked in the popularity of her craft as her plays were taught in schools and staged freely. Her plays were able to reach a very wide audience because reputable publishers published and marketed her plays and paid royalties to her.
Tess Onwueme started publishing with an unknown publisher, but, luckily, Heinemann published her before her relocation to America, where she rose to international prominence and fame. Later entrants have been unable to reach a wide audience like Zulu Sofola. Even Tess Onwueme’s plays were relatively unknown beyond literary conferences and few critical works that included her work before her sojourn in America. The reason is that almost all of them engage in self-publishing and marketing, so their plays end up confined within their localities.
This problem of publishing is not peculiar to a particular gender but to playwriting as a specific literary form. Generally, plays are created for performance and not necessarily for reading, so publishers give more attention to novelist than to playwrights. For instance, I sent my plays to Spectrum books and, because there was no title (Mr. or Miss), I received a rejection letter that stated, among other things, that they can only publish a play by a Wole Soyinka or an Ola Rotimi, and that it must be a recommended text. Publishers complain that they do not have a sustainable market for drama, as “it hardly goes into school syllabus (Osofisan and Adeoti 104). However, some of them are willing to publish plays for fees and with a promise to “help” the writer to market the plays. Some fraudulent ones would print one thousand copies for the writer as well as extra copies which they market for their companies. Writers resort to self-publishing. Julie Okoh captures the reality of playwriting publishing and puts it succinctly:
I have never come across any publisher in Nigeria who is willing to publish my work free of charge, and later pay me royalty as it is done elsewhere. I write to communicate to the public. So how do I achieve this purpose if I lock my manuscripts in the drawers in my library? . . . Nigerian publishers are not willing to invest their money in promoting writers, neither is government offering grants for that purpose. . . . Marketing books constitutes the biggest discouragement to me as a writer. You spend resources to write a play, you pay to have it staged, you pay to have it published.
After publishing, the problem of marketing arises. Some colleagues promise aid to the writer in selling, but some of them sell and never pay shares to the writer. Some university libraries also take consignments from playwrights, sell some or all of the copies, but the process of recovering the money from them becomes an uphill task embroiled in bureaucratic issues. Most of the playwrights market their plays “slowly” within their universities (Osofisan and Adeoti 105) and at conferences. For instance, Tracy Utoh “is often seen selling her plays at conference venues. Apart from submitting her plays at the registration desk, she also hawks them during breaks” (Udengwu 369). She also goes to secondary schools in Anambra State to sell her plays. Irene Salami also markets her plays in “bookstores” and publishes “privately.” Most of the playwrights, therefore, market their plays in tertiary institutions as recommended texts, or try to get them enlisted in junior secondary schools and in other places.
The few publishers who do consider the publication of plays without fees prefer renowned playwrights. The problem of publishing became worse with the deteriorating economic situation in Nigeria and, if the present depression is not stalled, even self-publishing will become extremely difficult and manuscripts will end up in drawers collecting dust. Playwrights write in order to convey messages to uplift their societies, but remuneration also acts as inspiration and morale booster. At present, few of them hardly get proper remuneration from the sale of their plays. Even Zulu Sofola admitted a few decades ago that royalties from publishers “don’t come enough to live on” (France 31) as they tickle in or do not come at all.
The publishers, on their part, insist that their business is being wrecked by the activities of the pirates. They claim that “In Nigeria, millions are spent on publishing books without profit due to piracy. Paying royalties to authors despite not making profit has remained an impossibility to run an independent publishing house in Nigeria. The quest for qualitative publishing has driven so many creative minds abroad to get their books published” (Daily Trust).
Female Nigerian Playwrights
It is clear that men still dominate the Nigerian dramatic scene, but women artists are gradually increasing in number. The two pioneer playwrights, Zulu Sofola and Tess Onwueme, gained national and international prominence; Chris Dunton, seen as “the greatest critic of Nigerian female playwrights” (Udengwu 123), added Stella Oyedipo, Onyeka Onyekuba (now Onyeka Iwuchukwu) and Chinyere Okafor, to the list of significant female Nigerian playwrights.
In more recent studies, Irene Salami, Tracie Utoh, Julie Okoh, Osita Nwanebe and Akachi Ezeigbo are also mentioned, but there are many other female playwrights who, unfortunately, have remained obscure. These less visible women are striving hard to be heard by writing and projecting their works in many ways. The list here may not be exhaustive, but I have tried to include all the playwrights that I could find. Interestingly, the majority of the playwrights are lecturers or may have lectured at one point in their careers.
This study is, therefore, designed to enhance the visibility of other playwrights and the challenges of a female playwright given her irreversible condition “as a writer, as a woman, as a third world person … is implicated in all these. . .” (Ogundipe Leslie 10). Although the focus of this study is on playwrights who have published their plays, this does not mean that those who have performed their unpublished plays are not playwrights, or that those who were not fortunate to acquire western education but composed and performed dramatic pieces are not playwrights. For instance, Zulu Sofola recalled that some women founded their own theatre troupes in the Old Bendel State of Nigeria but did not mention specific names. According to her:
the history of professional theatre in the whole of Bendel State (the present Edo and Delta States) reveals that there were women who owned theatre troupes with men and women onstage and backstage. These troupes were even recognized by government and that these women were respected and that when a man dares to show he has anything masculine . . . he would instantly be checked by her. Just a flash of the eye and he knows where he belongs. He would either be sent out or fined [sic] instantly (18).
These women were at once playwrights, directors and producers. They were like the women who owned theatre troupes in the Yoruba Travelling Theatre but were never celebrated like their male counterparts. Two of them are included in this study to enhance their visibility. However, script writers for radio, television, video or film are excluded, not because they are not playwrights, but for lack of space, as they are too numerous to count.
Any discussion on the development of modern drama and theatre without a mention of The Yoruba Popular Travelling Theatre is incomplete. Unfortunately, studies on this theatre extol and celebrate the contributions of male artists like Hubert Ogunde, Duro Ladipo and others, while little or nothing is heard about the women who participated as theatre leaders. This explains why names like Adunni Oluwole and Lady Funmilayo Ranko are hardly mentioned. Recent inquiries, however, seek to ascertain whether such women existed, and, providing that they did, to study and document their contributions so as to enrich theatre studies and, also, to ensure “a gender balance in Nigerian theatre studies and scholarship” (Udenwu 15).
Research shows that some women actually “founded and lead their own professional travelling theatre [but] . . . were not given any space in Nigerian theatre studies” (Udengwu 15). Hubert Ogunde’s wife claims that she co-scripted some of her husband’s plays (Udengwu 19). These women were not highly educated in terms of western education, but they were creative and resourceful in scripting and theatre production (Osanya 12). Two of the women are included in this study to set the theatre history straight, though there is no evidence that their plays were published. They may have published if that was their focus, but they were more interested in reaching out to both the literate and the illiterate; they may have succeeded more than modern playwrights whose plays end up in the universities catering to the few and the literate.
Adunni Oluwole (1905-1957) could be seen as the pioneer female dramatist in Nigeria. She founded her own theatre troupe, The First Actress Party, though her theatre practice was short-lived. Realizing the potency of theatre for sensitization and mass mobilization, she deployed theatre as an instrument of protest against politicians who, she insisted, were insincere, selfish and ruthless, and thus not responsible enough to take over mantle of leadership from the British (Olusanya, Daily Times 7). She was, therefore, a visionary dramatist as the reality of her position is still staring the country in the face after sixty years.
She adopted “the guerrilla type [of] theatre that she was known for, from 1952 to 1954” (Udengwu 16), staged in the street—apparently in order to avoid the wrath of politicians—and based on contemporary issues in the country. In 1954, she disbanded her theatre troupe and went into full-time politics. She was hailed for this decision because, at that time, women in theatre were regarded as irresponsible prostitutes (McIntosh 175).
She was also the first woman to form a political party, Nigerian Commoners Liberal Party. Unfortunately, she died before the elections. According to G.O. Olusanya, her message was the same whether in the theatrical or in the political arena, and she was regarded as “an unheralded leader in the struggle for the emancipation of Nigerian women (Daily Times 7). Although she was more prominent in politics, she remains the first Nigerian professional actress, the first female theatre troupe leader in Nigeria and the first Nigerian female presidential aspirant (Udengwu 18).
Funmilayo Ranco/Lady Ranco Baby (Funmilayo Ajayi) obtained the Modern School Certificate from the Anglican Modern School. Her conviction that power is not the exclusive preserve of men propelled her into theatre practice which started in the form of dramatic activities in school, through the Yoruba Popular Travelling Theatre, before the playwright started her own theatre Company, Ranco Baby, which later, in 1968, changed to the Irawo Obokun International Theatre.
She toured with her troupe within and outside Nigeria. Her plays include: Se bee ni oo? (Is that so?); Jisoro n’payan (Jealousy Kills); Ope-Oku (Palm Tree Does Not Die Easily/Quickly); Igbo Oro (The Forbidden Bush); Ese Obirin (A Woman’s Ways); Ebu Ika (The Harvest of Malice); Ika a P’onika (Evil Attends); Evil Akada; Acada Afro; Afro Gongo so (A Wonderous Affair) Omo Okun orun (The Orphan); A n ju won (Spite); and Ta l’o jebi? (Who’s to Blame?).
The study by Ngozi Udengwu, contains synopsis of some of these plays and the posters advertising the performances. With the evidence of her scripts, Funmilayo Ranco could be said to be the first Nigerian female playwright who unfortunately was neglected by early theatre scholars.
|Posters for the frequently performed Wedlock of the Gods|
Zulu Sofola is the first Nigerian published female playwright who, until her death in 1995, was a professor and the Head of the Department of Performing Arts at the University of Ilorin. Her first play, Disturbed Peace of Christmas, was published in 1968, but it was her second play, Wedlock of the Gods, that brought her in the limelight.
Her other plays are: The Deer Hunter, and the Hunter’s Pearl (1969); King Emene (1975); The Wizard of Law (1975); The Sweet Trap (1977); Old Wines are Tasty (1981); Memories in the Moonlight (1986); Song of a Maiden (1986); The Lost Dream and Other Plays (1992); and The Ivory Tower and Other Plays (1993).
Tess Onwueme is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, US. She is the most popular female playwright in Nigeria and one of Africa’s leading playwrights. Her plays include: A Hen Too Soon (1983); The Broken Calabash (1984); Ban Empty Barn (1986); Mirror for Campus (1987); The Reign of Wazobia (1988); The Desert Encroaches.(1988); Legacies: A Play.(1989); Three Plays. (1993); Tell it to Women (1995); Riot in Heaven (1996); Shakara: Dance-Hall Queen (2000); Then She Said It (2002); What Mama Said (2003); and No Vacancy. (2004).
Stella Oyedepo was Principal Lecturer at the Kwara State College of Education before her appointment as Executive Director of the Kwara State Council of Arts and Culture. Her published plays include: The Greatest Gift (1988); Beyond The Dark Tunnel (1992); Don’t Believe What You See (1994); Worshippers of Naira (1994); See (1997); Doom in the Dimes (1997); A Play That Was Never To Be (1998); My Daughter Is An Egg (1998); Alice oh! Alice (2000); The Mad Doctor (2001); Brain Has No Gender (2001); The Gentle Heart that Bleeds (2002); At the Devils Mercy (2002); Burn The Fetters (2002); On His Demise (2002); The Rebellion of the Bump-Chested (2002); Blinded by Fate (2004); Our Wife Is Not a Woman (2004); All for Nothing (2006); The Days of Woe (2006); and The Wives Fury (2009).
Catherine Acholonu was a former Lecturer at Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Owerri. Until her death, in 2014, she was the Director of the Catherine Acholonu Research Center, Abuja (CARC). Her plays include: Trial of the Beautiful Ones: A Play in One Act (1985); Who Is the Head of State (1985); and Into the Heart of Biafra: A Play in Three Acts (1985).
Julie Okoh is Professor of Theatre Arts at the University of Port Harcourt. Her plays include: Mask (1988); The Mannequins (1997); Edewede (2000); In the Fullness of Time (2000); Aisha (2005); The Trials (2008); Closed Doors (2007); A Haunting Past (2010), and Our Wife Forever (2010).
Onyeka Iwuchukwu, who also wrote as Onyeka Onyekuba, is Associate Professor at the National Open University of Nigeria. She also taught at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. Her published plays are: Sons for My Son (1990); Into the World (1992); Whose Fault? (1994); Regal Dance (1994); Like Father Like Son (1994); Our Honourable Member (2014); Choices (2014); and Enough Is Enough (2014).
Chinyere Okafor is Full Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. She also taught at the Universities of Port Harcourt and Benin, both in Nigeria, and at the University of Swaziland, Kwalusen, Swaziland. Her plays include: The Lion and The Iroko (1996); Campus Palavar and Other Plays (1996); The New Toyi Toyi (2012).
Charity Angya is Professor of Theatre Arts and she was the first female Vice Chancellor of Benue State University. She also taught at the University of Calabar. She published Cycle of the Moon and Other Plays (2000)
Irene Salami-Agunloye is Professor of Drama at the University of Jos. Her plays are: Plays for Junior (1986); Emotan (2001); More Than Dancing (2003); Sweet Revenge (2004); and Queen Sisters: Ubi and Ewere (2002).
Osita Ezenwanebe is Associate Professor of Theatre Arts at the Department of Creative Arts (Theatre), University of Lagos. Her plays are Withered Thrust (2006); The Dawn of Full Moon (2009); Giddy Festival (2009); Adaugo (2011); Daring Destiny (2011); and Shadows on Arrival (2012).
Tracy Utoh is Professor of Theatre Arts at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University. Her plays include: Our Wives Have Gone Mad Again and Other Plays (2001); Who Owns this Coffin (1999); and Nneora (2004)
Ogochukwu Promise, who also wrote as Promise Okekwe, is a publisher and Founder of Lumina Foundation, the initiator of the Biennial Award for the best literary work produced in Africa. Her plays include: The Key; The Hardnut; and Afulenu.
Adegbusola Elegbede is a freelance script writer and owns an Entertainment Company. Her plays are: The War in the Sky (2007); The Worms Under His Feet (2007); and Lolade’s Labyrinth.
Zainabu Daillo is a freelance journalist, script writer and a playwright with two published plays: Saraya Dangana (2007) and Onions Make Us Cry (2008).
Akachi Ezeigbo is Professor of English at the University of Lagos and a renowned novelist. Her two plays are: Barmaid and the Witches of Izunga (2010) and Hands that Crush Stones (2010).
Folaranti Abiola Olubunmi is a Lecturer at the School of Performing and Visual Arts, Kwara State University, Malete. Her published play is Igbauyora (2011).
Daniel-Inim Praise is a Lecturer at the Department of Theatre Arts, Igbinedion University, Okada. Her plays are: Examine Yourselves (1996); Born to Excel Minus Dorcas (2006); Born to Excel (2007); Married But Single and Other Plays (2013); Ebiere My Love (2013); Wrong Foundation (2013); and Deacon Dick (2013).
Umukoro Julie is a Senior Lecturer and Head of the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Port Harcourt. Her two plays are: Oshimili and Marriage Coup (2013).
Bunmi Adedina is a Lecturer at the Department of Theatre Arts, Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education. Her plays include: Homecoming (2010); Too Young to Die (2009); and Enemy Within (2004).
Tume Oluwatosin Kooshima is a Lecturer at the Federal University in Oye-Ekiti. Her plays include: The Pact; Sweet Poison; Familiar Vampire; Invisible Tatoo; Untie the Wrappers; and The Future Is Now.
Udoka Pamela is the Assistant Director of the National Troupe. Her plays include: I Dream a Christmas; Clash of Ants; and Rejected Blessing.
Olumide Popoola is a London-based young Nigerian writer. She writes in the three genres of literature: fiction, poetry and drama. Her published play is Also by Mail (2013).
Uduak E. Akpabio. Her works include: Perfect Mother and Little Devils and A Nurse.
Rosemary Asen is a Lecturer at the Benue State University. Her play is The Woman in Black (2006).
Bunmi Obasa Julius-Adeoye, before her death in 2010, was a lecturer at the Department of Theatre Arts, Redeemer’s University, Lagos. She wrote the play The Thorn (2007).
Felicia Onyewadume is a teacher at Queens College, Lagos. Her plays include: Echoes of Hard Times and Other Plays (1996); and Dance of the Maidens.
Foluke Ogunleye, until her death in 2015, was Professor of Drama at the Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife. Her plays include: The Broken Hedge (2002); the Innocent Victim and Other Plays (2003); A Nest in a Cage (2004); and Jubulile (2005).
Folashayo Ogunrinde’s published play is The Woman with a Past (1990).
Oby Nnamani is the author of A Twists of Death (1998).
Tope Olaifa is a lecturer at the University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Ogun State. She wrote the play Golden Rays Productions (2000).
Jane-Frances Okekearu is a journalist. She wrote the play Offspring Greed (1995).
Queen Ijeoma Okweshie is a Lecturer at the Federal College of Education, Okene. Her plays are: The Precious Child (1992); Led by the Nose; Table Terms; and The Polygamic Scape Goat.
Bose Ayeni-Tsevende is a Lecturer whose published play is The Man Lives.
Anuli Ausbeth-Ajagu was an actress, now a preacher. Her works include: Nwanyibuife (2003); The Kings Verdict; The Maiden; Happy Days Ahead; The Sly One; and A Date with Tina.
Bose Afolayin is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of English, University of Lagos. Her plays include Look Back in Gratitude (2013) and Once Upon an Elephant (2015).
Ngozi Chuma-Udeh is Associate Professor and Dean of Arts at the Anambra State University, Igbariam Campus. Her published plays are: The Journey of Faith (2009) and The Thing Between Your Legs (2016).
Thirty-eight female playwrights are listed here, though the list is not exhaustive. This means that the number of women writing and publishing was and still is quite insignificant (Ezeigbo 117) in relation to the entire population of women in Nigeria. The general output is even worse in the field of drama, since many new entrants prefer to write for the screen where they are paid better.
In a Keynote address delivered at the Second International Women Writers Forum, organized by the Women Writers of Nigeria (WRITA), Femi Osofisan observed that women have risen to “enlighten men, as well as discover and nurture into limelight as many female writers as possible, in order to bring the female voice into hitherto male monologue of History and Literary Creativity” (qtd. in Obi 81).
This challenge has been accepted. Writer Tess Onwueme insists that she sets out to rewrite “the truths and insights of the male writers regarding the African woman,” and that she can only do it well as long as she is writing as an “an insider and from pivotal experiences and insights of that insider”(qtd. in Adeoti 44). Irene Salami also felt that society was unfair to women, thus she was propelled to deploy the tool of dramaturgy to accord these women their proper place in history through a deconstruction of conventional views of men and women, so that a new model for African woman would not be reconstructed (Obi 79).
This means that the primary pre-occupation of Nigerian female playwrights is to present an oppositional discourse to the image of women in male authored plays, which feature women such as Amope, a termagant (Wole Soyinka’s Trials of Brother Jero); Mrs Omeaku, a cantankerous and illiterate prostitute (Emeka Nwabueze’s Parliament of Vultures); Oraeme, the witch (Clark’s Ozzidi); or, at best, the fragile, docile and well-bred pigeon, Sikira (Ola Rotimi’s Our Husband has Gone Mad Again). Salami-Agunloye, therefore, insists that “[w]omen playwrights have mastered the language and words used against them, with this knowledge; they challenge the master’s craft” (121).
However, a cursory perusal of their thematic preoccupations shows that these female playwrights have not limited themselves to the reconstruction of the disparaged image of women in plays written by men, but have tried to present objective and balanced images of women in society, as one can see in Zulu Sofola, the first Nigerian female playwright to be published (i.e Wedlock of the Gods), and Tess Onwueme’s Broken Calabash.
However, many of the playwrights advocate a re-examination of gender issues geared towards a reversal of the subordinate position which women currently occupy in society. This is evident in plays such as Tess Onwueme’s The Reign of Wazobia, Julie Okoh’s In the Fullness of Time and Edewede, as well as Irene Salami’s Emotan and Sweet Revenge. These playwrights seek to empower women by dismantling oppressive cultural and patriarchal structures that inhibit women. Many of the characters are able to achieve their objectives through the acquisition of formal education, which propels them to freedom through self-actualization.
The playwrights are not oblivious to the intra-gender problems among women; rather, they dramatize and expose such issues. This re-assessment of dysfunctional inter-personal relationships among women is expected to encourage women to avoid jealousy and rivalry, and to unite for the realization of common objectives. Some of them also present both noble and ignoble women, as in Tess Onwueme’s Shakara: Dance Hall Queen, where Madam Kofo is portrayed as “corrupt, amoral, ruthless, vicious and uncompromising in her oppression of a fellow woman” (Iwuchukwu 243). She is a prostitute and drug baroness.
By projecting and condemning the oppression, subjugation and marginalization of women, they call for the abrogation of such practices. Yet, they do it via presenting a balanced view of women—and not via idealizing them to compensate for earlier misrepresentations by male.
Drama was considered a male profession in Nigeria, hence Zulu Sofola, the pioneer playwright, encountered the problem of being accepted into the profession. She recounts an experience:
In Nigeria, when I arrived on the scene, the men were in charge of theater. The women were in the theatre only as actresses, or backstage accessories, in charge of costume and makeup. If you are not in those two areas, then you are invading the men’s area. If you are writing, you are invading the area of concept and original creation, which means you will control the man who will act in the play and direct it. The first thing you will hear is “You have to stay where you belong.” There are areas in the theater for men, where the theatre artist is in control of everything, and there are areas for women, where the women must obey. (17)
Sofola felt that this conception of women was (and is) a misrepresentation of reality, because the history of professional theatre in the entire Bendel State (the present Edo and Delta States) reveals that there were women who owned theatre troupes with men, as well as women onstage and backstage. These troupes were even recognized by the government and these women were respected. Therefore, she forged ahead.
Another challenge for Sofola was the problem of directing the actors on stage because some men resisted being commanded by a woman (Kay 17). She has said that some of the men deliberately decided to frustrate her efforts or ruin her production either by outright confrontational disobedience or by carrying out an instruction the wrong way. In such instances, she stood her ground, insisting that, since all of them were colleagues, none is superior to the other. Eventually, she continued writing and directing her plays.
Julie Okoh encountered similar problems. She has stated that she was drawn into playwriting by the story of a woman who poured acid on her husband. While the society condemned the woman, Okoh felt that there was another side to this story which, she felt, should be told. She felt that the dramatic medium was best suited for this purpose as it will elicit reaction from people “to the same story told from a different perspective” (100). Thus, when the play was produced in 1988, the spontaneous reaction of the audience propelled her to go fully into playwriting.
However, Okoh could not stage her plays because a male lecturer decided to obstruct her way into professional theatre. She was compelled to pay an exorbitant amount for the production, but the play was misinterpreted. Her second play suffered an even worse fate since, after paying exorbitantly for the production, and half way through the rehearsal period, she was accused of contaminating the CRAB (Theatre Arts) with her “dirty, smelling play,” although she could not understand what was dirty about it, “the subject matter, the language or the structure” (Osofisan and Adeoti 102). Rehearsals of the play were cancelled two days prior to the premiere and the HOD “bluntly refused to allow the play to go on stage” (Osofisan and Adeoti 102). However, she was not deterred and, eventually, transferred to the department of Theatre Arts where she has remained ever since.
Generally, playwriting is fast becoming a thankless engagement. Financially speaking, plays are not sold easily and, in many universities, they are scored very low in the assessment for the promotion of a lecturer. Thus, given the present syndrome of “work less and earn more” that is being propagated by a new generation preachers, many people are not ready to waste precious time in the seemingly fruitless venture of playwriting. This means that those who are writing are the talented ones with love and passion for the art, although there are also those who write in the hope of winning literary awards. Many publishers are not ready to invest on playwrights, so most of them resort to self-publishing. Julie Okoh justifies self-publishing. According to her, since the big publishing companies charge exorbitantly to publish, the writer chooses a cheaper avenue to publish her work.
Another major challenge is that of women combining their roles at home, their profession and writing. Zulu Sofola recalls the artistic image that depicts the Nigerian woman strapping a baby on her back, her belly protruding with a pregnancy, a load on her head, (in some cases) holding a toddler and, finally, on her knees before her husband. She is portrayed as a burden carrier. Sofola wrote her plays “carrying pregnancies and wiping the nose of babies and caring for my husband” (Kay 30).
Stella Oyedepo took her children to rehearsals, Irene Salami started writing after her children were grown enough to fend for themselves, while Onyeka Onyekuba took a break of twenty years after her marriage and resumed when her children were in boarding school. Tess Onwueme and Ogochukwu Promise had to give up their marriages, but Ezeigbo and Sofola have full support of their husbands. Zainabu and Busola are still unmarried. The strain of married life, to a very large extent, affects creative output.
In spite of the challenges of being a woman, each of these playwrights has managed to write and publish. However, unlike their forebears, younger writers admit that, although it has been challenging to write as women, they do not see their gender acting against them as writers. Adegbusola, for instance, says it has been to her advantage: “No, instead it empowers me because I have my own way of deciphering situations and challenges which reflects in my writing.” Onyekuba does not see the rejection of her manuscripts as a consequence of her gender since the publisher addressed her as “Mr.”. . . .
The female playwright faces these challenges (and more) because she has decided to venture into the hitherto male-dominated profession of playwriting which entails her working twice as hard—and with men. In the words of Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, “being a playwright implies production: working in the theatre for hours, in the company of men? [sic] Such a profession would be a source of insecurity for some husbands” (10). Onwueme, therefore, sees the female playwright as operating in a “High Voltage Zone” where she risks dancing with the “wolves.” She advises any aspiring female playwright to fight and remain undaunted.
The claim that the “culture of self-effacement which compels women to take a back seat in matters relating to self-assertion and self-expression is a real plague ravaging the woman in our society and blighting her career in writing and publishing” (Ezeigbo113) may not be completely true. For instance, despite the fact that Ezenwanebe faces “gender bias as a playwright, producer and director with colleagues, critics, publishers and relations,” she persists and has six published plays. Playwriting or production is a serious task that requires talent and discipline.
It is difficult to discuss women and writing without mentioning Feminism. Almost all of the playwrights I interviewed are not direct about being feminists, though some agree that they focus deliberately on women. Irene Salami prefers “to write about women’s issues,” while Daillo writes “on issues that nudge me, . . . [which] could range from women issues to terrorist issues” and she sees herself “primarily as a writer; my gender comes secondary to my writing.” Busola does not set out to tell a “‘woman’ story . . . [but] a powerful story through powerful characters . . . and maybe, because I am a woman, . . . the issues women face, [while] making sure it [the story] is true to the society they live in.” Zulu Sofola insists that she recreates “what exists . . . [reflects] all aspects of life as captured [by her] artistic sense” (Kay 20). Tess Onwueme asserts that, despite knowing that her society is a male-dominated one, and one which does not fortify her to perform other roles beyond that of being a woman, she is determined “to forge ahead and to sprout anew, to shoot, to seed and to grow into the future” (Kay 239).
In the same vein, Osita Ezenwanebe also highlights that “the role of empowered women in national and human development is to transform the patriarchal, capitalist, cyber world with the gems of womanhood.” Some female playwrights deliberately write about women, while others set out to communicate their experiences or issues that affect society irrespective of gender.
Renowned female writers have complained that the “creative contribution of African women writers has not always been recognized. . . .” Their significant contribution “until recently, has been only grudgingly acknowledged . . .” (Adeola 2). This is not surprising since men have been dominating the Nigerian literary scene as critics, producers and publishers.
Women argue that male critics do not acknowledge female writers, discuss their works, prescribe or recommend their texts to students. Instead, they have “devised techniques to dismiss women’s writings” (Ezeigbo 115). Female writers were, therefore, viewed with “distracting or opaque perceptions through male lenses, molded in frames of optical illusions” (Ezeigbo 238).
Meanwhile, every artist thrives on criticism, as affirmed by Chinua Achebe’s assertion that it was critics and reviewers that introduced his Things Fall Apart to readers in different parts of the world. However, “not all the reviews were kind or positive but the fact is that people from different parts of the world have been able to respond to the same story” (38-39). In the western world, reviews and criticism introduce a new book to the reading public, but, in Nigeria, critics and researchers avoid or ignore new writers and concentrate on the renowned ones. This is a dangerous trend for, according to Flora Nwapa, “you are killing that writer if you don’t even talk about her. To be ignored is worse than when you are writing trash about her” (James 3). Those few African women that are writing today are not receiving the nurturing attention necessary for emerging writers (Abraham 34).
Zulu forced her way into the male-dominated theatre scene in Nigeria and trudged the lonely path as the only female playwright for more than two decades before Tess Onwueme’s emergence. These two pioneers loom large on the critical scene, whereas scant attention has been paid to others, such as Julie Okoh, Irene Salami, Stella Oyedipo, Onyeka Onyekuba and Tracie Utoh. However, in this study, thirty-six female playwrights and their works are listed to enhance their visibility. The pioneers were published by reputable companies and, consequently, enjoyed wider criticism and readership, but the later playwrights are finding it very difficult to publish and get their plays to a wider audience and critics. In spite of all odds, these playwrights are encouraged to continue to write, produce and publish so that more women in the future are inspired to venture into playwriting.
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*Onyeka Iwuchukwu is an Associate Professor of English at the National Open University of Nigeria. She is a playwright with eight published plays and the Deputy Dean, Faculty of Arts of the University.
Copyright © 2017 Onyeka Iwuchukwu
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