Interviewed by Ngozi Udengwu
Stella ‘Dia Oyedepo will be remembered as the one who kept stage performance alive in an age when that art form is believed to have met its waterloo, almost displaced by the screen and the satellite television. Oyedepo keeps the flag flying for live theatre saying, “There is no excuse for failure.” She is recognised more for her performances (for which she has won many awards) than her plays. Since 1979, when she made her debut, she has written and produced more than 300 plays and dance dramas (television series excluded). And yet she has only published about thirty of them. As literary texts, her plays have yet to receive adequate critical evaluation.
Among her most adventurous plays are Beyond the Dark Tunnel, which was commissioned by the Committee on Action Against Apartheid, to celebrate the release of Nelson Mandela from prison; Burn the Fetters, which was commissioned by the French Embassy in Nigeria for the Bicentenary of the French Revolution; The Mad Doctor, an absurdist satire on one of Nigeria’s dictatorial presidents, Ibrahim Babangida. Her plays cut across themes and subject matters, but they are mostly directed at current issues in the society; thus, she has written enough plays to cater for different areas of interest.
For example, Oyedepo has tacked political matters, as inVigil for the Prisoner of Conscience (commissioned and performed for the Association of Nigerian Authors but yet to be published), and Days of Woe. Her plays have dealt with social issues, as in Beyond the Dark Tunnel, Burn the Fetters, The Mad Doctor, See!, Doom in the Dimes and Worshippers of the Naira. Plays such as At the Devil’s Mercy and The Gentle Heart that Bleeds contend with religious–philosophical issues. She is also quite outspoken when it comes to women issues, as in Rebellion of the Bumpy-Chested (on gender war); Our Wife Is Not a Woman (on childlessness); Wife’s Fury (on wife abuse and revenge); On His Demise (on widowhood); Blindfolded By Fate and My Daughter Is an Egg (on child abuse); and Alice Oh! Alice (on sex slavery and AIDS), among many others.
Oyedepo runs her theatre in the tradition of the popular travelling theatre in which the leader plays multiple roles. In her own case, Oyedepo writes the script, casts and directs, designs and constructs the elaborate costumes, as well as composes the music (her performances overflow with songs and dances). Oyedepo is a remarkable woman who has taken theatre in Nigeria to an amazing level. She is that country’s most prolific playwright and theatre director, and perhaps in Africa as well, and the most commissioned. She is also a past director of the Kwara State Council for Arts and Culture from 1990 until 2009. Currently she is working on a project she calls Mama Africa Art and Cultural Centre.
1. In your country/city, is there any major issue (e.g. a contemporary social problem) that artists fail or neglect to address on stage? Why? Is this due to censorship, or to a blind spot in the community’s shared perception of the world?— or to a community’s consciously or un-consciously avoiding it?
I can’t think of any, because even the very sensitive issues like politics, we still have a away of putting them on stage and you do not have to mention names. That way nobody can pin you down, no matter whose ox is gored. I had an experience before when we staged a convocation play The Days of Woe. The provost of the college came out from the performance annoyed. A few weeks later he wanted to sack me, because he thought the play was a satire of him. Anyway I survived it.
How far did he go with his threat?
He couldn’t go far, because he could not prove anything. He could not even say it in public, that the play was referring to him. In fact that play was motivated by Emperor Bokassa of Central African Republic, another tyrant of the world. If he thinks he is a tyrant, that is too bad. (Laughs)
Did he see himself in the character?
Exactly! In the character of Agbako, that mad character, the tyrant in the play.
How did he actually do it? Did he call you to talk about it or…
He just told some people. He didn’t call me. And there after he wanted me out of the college. He did not. Rather he told some people that he was going to sack me, and one of them came and told me.
There was another incident, when we produced a play that was commissioned for the bicentenary of the French revolution and which we performed in the University of Ibadan in 1990. There after a riot broke out in the university setting, and people thought it was the play that sparked off the riot. The play was entitled Burn the Fetters. The language was strong and had potential to incite people into revolt. There was actually a revolt in the play against the tyrant. It was staged during Ibrahim Gbadamosi Babangida’s regime when things were going worse in the country. There were pockets of riot here and there. It soon went out of hand in the Western axis there. It even got to the Eastern axis. But it was more serious around Lagos and Ibadan. The riot was serious. Though it started in the university, it soon spread to Lagos with masses joining in. People were fed up with the regime. At the performance, people were asking me what if I was arrested because of the message of the play. It was sponsored by Alliance Française in 1989 and had a repeat performance in 1990 in the University of Ibadan.
How soon after the performance did the riot break out?
Even at the performance people were afraid I may be arrested. I think it was the following day that the riot broke out. It was a mass riot, though the university was the boiling point. You know that in Nigeria, people do not get arrested because of performance; I hope you know that. We do not have too many incidences of people being arrested because of performance.
But Soyinka was arrested a number of times.
That was in those days. After his era you hardly hear such incidents. Today, even if you abuse them directly they do not make an arrest. They just don’t take us seriously. That is the thing.
What do you think is responsible for this change in attitude on the part of the leaders?
They obviously believe such things cannot do any harm to them. Besides, stage performances are no longer popular in Nigeria. You know we had so many performances in the Government House. The type of performances we did we consider more of entertainment value than anything else. But even when there are such message they do not think they are directed against them. They even defend such messages.
Do you think that the change from military to democratic rule has something to do with the change in temperament on the part of the leaders?
But the military rulers encouraged performances more than the civilian leaders. The politicians hadn’t the time, and I think many of them did not have the mental attitude toward performances. In the state of Kwara, we had only one civilian governor who was very much involved with the theatre and encouraged theatre performances, but he did not last long on the seat. During his regime there could be three performances a week in the Government House. After that we had a military man who converted to civilian governor. He, too, showed interest in the performance. But there after, no subsequent governor showed enough interest. They had other interests. They did not appreciate anything intellectual.
Can you give our readers an insight into the content of Burn the Fetters, the play that was believed to have sparked a riot in 1990?
Burn the Fetters was commissioned by the French Embassy in Nigeria to commemorate the Bicentenary of the French Revolution. We took the historical elements that led to that revolution and set them in African context. It portrays the king as a tyrant and the queen also as a tyrant. They marginalized the people and exploited them so much, and at the end of the day, the people rose up and revolted against them. I portrayed the queen as vain, extremely vain and callous. And in the way she changes clothes in the play, people saw a reflection of Maryam Babangida, the wife of Ibrahim Babangida, the former military president of Nigeria. Since she is dead now, I do not need to talk evil of the dead. They also saw Ibrahim Babangida in the character of the king and his agents of tyranny whom he used to terrorize the people. In those days people reacted a lot to wrong doing, but these days people no longer react against bad governance. Look at what is happening now. People are no longer reacting.
What do you think is responsible for this level of complacency on the part of the people?
I don’t know. It is very sad. I think people have lost their courage, and they are seeing things getting harder and harder, and when people are so poor they can’t afford to add another burden to their lives. Many of them are afraid to lose their bread winner, so they advise them not to join.
2. What, if anything, is difficult in communicating with the designers/directors/actors/playwrights? Why? How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production? Have you designed shows yourself, and if so, does that make communication easier?
For major performances, I hold meetings with all the groups, like when we produced Beyond the Dark Tunnel, to welcome Nelson Mandela from prison. That production was very, very involving.
Maybe if you would take us through the process of that production the question will have been answered.
It is the normal process of writing the play and showing the design to the production team, and in turn the team contributes, and we made adjustments here and there. I couldn’t do much of sketching, but after describing it, we get somebody to do the sketching, and then we started the construction. We had our technical team. We had Africa carved out on a dais, we had a forest, a large forest; we had Africa like a mother with full breasts and so on.
Did you have difficulty communicating with these designers and technical team?
No. At our own level we did not have any difficulty. We did not have to do anything beyond our capabilities. Sometimes when we need special effects like fire and smoke, we have to improvise, because we do not have the modern techniques. We use gun powder to create explosion from backstage. They are not extraordinary anyway, but they are effective. The financial capability we had that time would not permit that level of sophistication. We had limited resources and so went for what is affordable which may not be as sophisticated as such. Luckily for us I try to avoid unnecessary conflicts. You would want people you can work with. You have to work with the right people. If there is somebody who cannot work with you for one reason or the other, he or she should not be part of that production. We look at the budget and decide how to manage the budget to realize what we want to do. We use the cheapest means to realize the best result. That has always been my style.
Have you ever had any such situation when somebody failed to fit in and had to leave?
Yes, there was a time it happened. Although it did not create any major crisis. There was this chap from the university, during the rehearsal of Beyond the Dark Tunnel. The boy wanted to be part of the production. And when I was busy running around doing some things and going to Ibadan to consult some people, I had to throw him out of the production. I don’t remember exactly what he did. I think he tried to incite the actors to demand for higher pay. I made him the stage manager. Actually the Committee on Action Against Apartheid sponsored it, and he thought we were making millions. That was the only incident we had. At artistic level there will always be disagreements, but it is usually done on cordial level. If someone suggests something, I respect that person’s suggestion. We look at it if it will work better than mine. I accept it, and we try it.
3. In your creative process, which part do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?
When I get a topic to write on, at times you are not even given enough gestation period. Sometimes you are given only three days to write and produce. But when I have to write from my own inspiration…. The part of my creative process I dislike most…when I saw that question I wondered why should it be the one that I enjoy least? Why shouldn’t it be the one i enjoy most?
You can speak on both.
Let’s talk about the commissioned plays because you have such short time to be inspired. There is a pain involved in that. You still do it well, but it is more strenuous than having your own creativity. Because of the short time that you have to produce a commissioned play, you often wonder if you will be able to make it. That makes it the least enjoyable.
In your productions you usually play many roles including writing the script, casting and directing, design and costume construction …
Compose the songs.
Yes, compose the songs, thank you. Which of these tasks do you enjoy the least?
I think it is the rigors of rehearsal, the rigors of grooming people. Grooming the drummer, the dancer, the singers, the movement of the actors, the delivery, etc. Maybe this is the aspect I enjoy the least. But the writing itself I enjoy. You now have to transfer all these to people — to make people put life in the story — so you will realize the purpose of the play, that is the least enjoyed.
4. During your career, have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When, and what did it say? What made it especially important for you?
I welcome criticism. The criticisms I get are sometimes about the way a character is depicted. At times when it gets to real argument, they may accept or they may not accept. But most of the criticisms, you look at them, you cannot contest, because anybody is entitled to his own opinion.
There is one case I remember. I had a friend, Adebayo, maybe you know him. He used to work with theDaily Times. He was a very strong member of the Association of Nigerian Authors. He has written about four reviews of my performances. I developed soft sports for his criticisms. I remember when we put onThe Rebellion of the Bumpy-Chested at the University of Ibadan. He told me, because he was sitting close to me, he asked, “Why are your actors always standing up when they want to render their lines, and after rendering their lines they sit down?” It stuck to my mind. Subsequently during the blocking, I made sure that did not happen, because it is mechanical and unrealistic. That criticism may appear minor, but I used it for many years to improve my performances. It has guided me for many years.
Thank you very much for granting me this interview.
You are welcome.
 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.
 A Nigerian army officer, Babangida ruled Nigeria from 1985 to 1993.