At Colloquium, Scholars Salute Agbeyegbe’s Theatrical Virtues
Once again, the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, came alive for the quintessential theatre game-changer, Mr. Fred Agbeyegbe, who recently turned 80. Messrs Jahman Anikulapo, Ekpo Williams and Steve Ogundele ensured that the rich legacy of Agbeyegbe, as theatre’s living icon, be celebrated with the measure of intellectual vigour a colloquium could offer. They, therefore, assembled a crop of scholars that helped the audience gain insight into the unique contributions Agbeyegbe has made to the development of Nigerian theatre through his plays and how he used them to enliven the dramatic space, an achievement unmatched almost 30 years after.
Profs. Gordini G. Darah, Duro Oni, Tony Afejuku, Mabel Evwierhoma and Ahmed Akhor and Babatunde Obalana were the scholars assembled to situate the dramaturgy of Agbeyegbe and its relevance in the Nigerian socio-cultural and political space. Oni, who chaired the event, expressed his privilege “to celebrate the most important and industrious playwrights in Nigeria. Then came the 1980s when he turned the Lagos theatre upside down. There was the play The King Must Dance Naked. It turned out the king is a woman. How was this woman going to dance naked? Those were high-level interventions in the annals of Nigerian theatre. We thank Fred for bringing these everlasting works to us. This is honouring a quintessential man of letters”.
To speak on behalf of organisers was Tomoloju, who praised Agbeyegbe’s heroic championing of an enlightened society. According to Tomoloju who also participated in the 1980s Ajo Festival, “The event is a culmination of the heroic effort of a man who championed the knowledge base and chose the pedestal of an enlightened society. As a student, he used unionism to fight for liberation of Nigerians both at home and abroad before independence. He also used his poetry to explode myths. Agbeyegbe is freedom-loving and freedom-giving. From 1982, we began to hear echoes of somebody who has been meditating about Nigeria to further cause progress.
“Agbeyegbe is a man who has been trying to weave artistry into an idea and weave idea into artistry. Uncle Fred camped us together so we could just perform. It was a mixed bag of fun, fantasy and creativity. We had some of the biggest names acting in the plays – Richard Mofe-Damijo, Clarion Chukwurah, etc. Uncle Fred wrote Woe Unto Death that addresses the problems of this country in a militant way; he attacked dictators. It was a whole rambunctious effect. Then came the satire Budiso, which tackled human rights issues. The resonant statement in the play is, Is the law an ass? Some people thought he wouldn’t survive, but he survived in a big way. Then came the Agbeyegbe festival which enabled us to reflect on the state of the nation. He’s lord of the creeks. The way he dresses, prim and proper, and debonair!”
IN the keynote titled ‘Drama and the Niger Delta Struggle: The Contributions of Fred Agbeyegbe’, which he simply rephrased as ‘Tribute to Fred Agbeyegbe at 80’, Prof. Darah, as usual, traced the struggles of the peoples of the Niger Delta, whose oil and gas wealth the larger Nigerian nation plunders at will with concocted degrees that help them steal the wealth for the development of other parts of Nigeria at the expenses of the Niger Delta ethnic nations. Agbeyegbe, like other writers and cultural workers from the regions have ensured, through their works, to keep the struggle alive and going. He further argues that the literature so far produced on the Niger Delta conundrum far outweighs that produced on the catastrophic Nigeria Civil War.
As Darah put it, “The arts in Africa have celebrated life, renewed hope, and empowered millions with knowledge and confidence. Agbeyegbe has been in the vanguard of these life-affirming engagements for over 50 years. He is an accomplished poet, playwright, folklorist and sculptor. He is an inventor and engineer of theatre and stagecraft. With about 20 plays and numerous theatrical productions, Agbeyegbe is one of Africa’s most gifted and multi-talented intellectuals. As a lawyer and human rights defender, he qualifies to be saluted as revolutionary democrat and activist. He has earned himself other iconic sobriquets: newspaper columnist, iconoclast and ideological rebel.
“The institution of the monarchy is one of the most cherished aspects of Itsekiri culture and history. The aristocracy features prominently in a number of his plays. Agbeyegbe does openly denounce or repudiate the practice of the formula of primogeniture. However, he deploys subtle ways to raise doubts about the continued relevance of this method of choosing a traditional ruler in a world where democratic renewal of leadership is the norm… His is an example of Africa’s heritage of total theatre”.
The professor of oral literature summed up by saying, “…Agbeyegbe’s investment of time and resources in the sustenance of a thriving theatre tradition is without parallel in contemporary Nigeria. Agbeyegbe is assured an imminent place in the pantheon of artistic and intellectual immortals”.
However, Darah was quick to challenge Agbeyegbe for not directly locating his theatrical interventions on the core problems of the Niger Delta, pointing out that it was an obvious gap in Agbeyegbe’s dramaturgy. Although an outspoken activist against Nigeria’s despoiling oil and gas politics, no known play of Agbeyegbe directly addresses these debilitating issues in the Niger Delta. So, Darah asked, “Where is the theatre in Warri, Ughelli, Sapele, Benin City, Calabar? Something Fred is silent about (in his plays) is the environment, oil companies and federal government’s oppression of the Niger Delta people”.
ALSO to present papers on Agbeyegbe were Profs. Afejuku (Department of English, UNIBEN) and Evwierhoma (Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Abuja). While Afejuku presented his on ‘The Socio-Cultural Relevance of Agbeyegbe’s Plays in Itsekiri Worldview’ Evwierhoma had hers on ‘Gender Representation in Agbeyegbe’s Plays’. Afejuku, also an Itsekiri, argued that Agbeyegbe’s plays pose a contradiction inherent in Itsekiri attitude to kingship and succession and aligned himself to the dominant patriarchy and matrilineal worldviews practised. He said while the Itsekiri culture is unique for having only one king, one language that has no dialects like most, it is the only ethnic group that tries to practice both patriarchy and matriarchy, with some communities having women founders.
Afejuku praised the playwright for bringing women forward, especially in The King Must Dance Naked by “dwelling on the theme of matriarchy, but does so subtly and subject to ambivalence”. He also highlighted other virtues that stand Agbeyegbe out in his plays, virtues deeply implanted in Itsekiri psche. Such virtues include patience, “which is a mighty weapon the Itssekiri have, which has enabled them overcome all kings of vicissitudes. In anything that happens in the plays, when it comes to the resolution, patience prevails. When you’re patient there’s nothing you cannot overcome. Another virtue is silence even in the face of odds”.
Afejuku also coined timocracy, which he said is “a kind of monarchical system in which integrity is a guiding principle”, as Agbeyegbe’s approach to the issue of monarchy, adding, “Agbeyegbe does not repudiate monarchy, but says that there must be honour and integrity. He’s a very beautiful, intriguing and perplexing playwright”.
On her part, Prof. Evwierhoma argued that Agbeyegbe’s plays uphold gender discrimination against women while holding the men as the favoured ones. She noted, “It is biological sex and not gender that assists the community to know who the usurper is. If the investigation was in terms of administrative role play, role differentiation, the king would not have been found out. Omagbemi was still not found out when the harem became empty of its women. She performed as any male would; as king, leader, and in the process subverted tradition, but affirmed the god’s foreboding, “The oracle said she might be king”. It is the prescribed nakedness that helps to establish the suspicion about the king’s femaleness. Therefore Omagbemi crossed the lines of maleness and femaleness.
“Anatomy and not role play gave her out. Afinotan the priest knew and was bent on unraveling the sex of the king. Why should a king who must be obeyed dance naked? Is it not impudent to demand a king to dance, and of all impertinence to ask for a naked dance from a king?”.
This gender discrimination, Evwierhoma stated, also applies to the political space where women occupy a marginal slot and only assume another role and name when they cross the line. As she put it, “The political space is a patriarchal one. Omajuwa cannot rule because she does not have a phallus! Powerlessness is thus feminized. She is not male and so cannot rule or govern. No wonder in many cultural terrains, a woman who succeeds in politics or governance is said to inhabit a man’s world, with or without supernatural powers. This makes The King Must Dance Naked, rather phallocentric. A look at Queen Odosun also reflects the usurper as outsider. Men are often portrayed as usurpers, as seen in Prince Eyitwoyo in Woe unto Death; but as it is shown, Odosun dethroned Queen Lube”.
In response, Agbeyegbe simply said he believed he was destined to be a playwright and lamented the plight of writers and intellectuals in Nigeria who are largely pauperized for practising their passion. He noted, “Living on income from writing is not possible. I have a source of income that comes from somewhere else, but I’m considered a very successful playwright. The writer and intellectual are strange elements in the Nigerian society!”