Mbajiorgu: Our Scholars, Artists Are Too Lazy To Innovate
Greg Mbajiorgu (a.k.a Wota na Wota), exponent of solo/ecological theatre, is the first African to publish a monodrama. He is also the first to launch in print a seminal drama on climate change. His eco-drama, Wake Up Everyone, won the first prize for Arts and Humanities Research at the 2012 Inter-Universities Research and Development competition, organised by the National Universities Commission (NUC). From 1991 to 2000, during his self-sponsored historic national tour with his one-man show (The Prime Minister’s Son), Mbajiorgu recorded over 600 successful performances in universities, secondary schools, army barracks, cultural centres and other educational institutions within and outside the country. The senior lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Film Studies, University of Nigeria (UNN), Nsukka, in this interview with OMIKO AWA, sheds light on issues relating to drama, climate change and theatre of extreme minimalism, popularly referred to as one-man-show art or monodrama.
You recently won an award with your play, Wake Up Everyone, on climate change. Could you throw more light on that award?
YES, Wake Up Everyone, my first experimental drama on climate change, was awarded first place at the Inter-Universities Research and Development Competition organised by the National Universities Commission and hosted by Federal University of Technology, Mina, Niger State, in 2012.
I feel blessed and privileged to be the first Nigerian to write a play on climate change. I am also humbled by this prestigious award from NUC. A lot of scholars in Nigeria and overseas have used my climate change drama, as a handle to engage their critical lenses on eco-drama and contemporary eco-critical literary studies. But beyond the growing awareness on the subject in the academia, I sincerely wish that Nigeria, as a nation, would give the kind of attention it has given to Boko Haram insurgency to the problem of climate change. I would suggest a Nigerian climate change mitigation and adaptation council, which will comprise experts from diverse fields to proffer lasting solutions on how we can tackle this planetary crisis.
There is no national audit on who is doing what work in climate change mitigation and adaptation in Nigeria. The first thing we should have done with ecological fund is conduct a national audit of climate change experts and activists; a comprehensive official directory or who is who among Nigerian authorities in climate change mitigation and adaptation ought to have been produced by now. That way, we get to know who is doing what work in this regard. Such national audit would enable professionals from disparate and diverse fields of studies to interact, interface and network on how to collaborate in tackling the problem of climate change, not only in Nigeria, but Africa in general.
Imagine a forum that integrate social environmentalists, climatologists and others brought together in a two-week retreat in which they would be mandated to fashion out a multi-disciplinary formula for addressing the threat of climate change in the nation? Such a forum can accomplish in two weeks what the climate change office or our national ecological institutions can hardly accomplish in 10 years.
The basis for selecting members of this roundtable must be nothing else, but proven excellence or practical results of previous efforts and notable accomplishments in tackling ecological problems in Nigeria. This is a task the climate change office should undertake with an air of urgency.
Government should also commission Nigerian dramatists, musicians, choreographers, dancers, novelists, poets, stand-up comedians and master journalists to produce climate-proof songs, climate-proof Theatre, and radio jingles/slogans. Unless we produce more songs and well-researched plays, the Nigerian populace may remain uninformed and unequipped on what they can do to mitigate and adapt to our changing climate and its devastating consequences.
How did you harness climate message into a play?
The commissioned plays I did for Prof. Charles Soludo and Prof. Eric Eboh at the African Institute for Applied Economists exposed me to experts from different parts of Africa. One of the economists, Dr. Kelvin Urama (Executive Secretary of ATPS, Nairobi, Kenya) took interest in what I did for Soludo’s institute, and invited me to write a short play on climate change for an international conference on climate change. After performing this play for ATPS, Nairobi, I developed it into a full-blown drama and got it published in 2011 and 2012. The prize it won shot me to the limelight. Since then, this drama has become a subject of academic interest for eco-critics, scholars and Ph.D students in Nigeria.Interestingly, this play has created more awareness on the threat of climate change than thousands of media reports and theological sermons on the subject.
Theatrical performance is known to be higher in the western part of Nigeria than in any other region. Why is this?
Naturally, the Yoruba are more theatrical than any other tribe in Nigeria. Theatre is embedded in their everyday life; you find it in their parties, markets, churches, and even in their dressing. Theatre is in their blood and their theatre is all encompassing. In Yoruba theatre, you find dance, music, incantation, orchestration, colour, beauty, exhaustive display of spiritual and cultural affinity and group dynamism at its best.
The Igbo, unlike the Yoruba, are extremely business-minded. The Igbo and other southerner tribes generally take life too serious, but for the Yoruba, life is like a chess or ludo game in which both the winners and the losers are jubilant. You can understand why there are more cases of suicidal deaths in Igbo communities? Again, the Yoruba elites are more culturally enlightened and sophisticated than the Igbo elites. How many Igbo politicians can patronise the arts and immerse themselves in the world of artistes the way Bola Ige and many other Yoruba politicians and elites did and are still doing? Ndi Igbo at their best are individuals, while the Yoruba function better in synergy, upholding the spiritism of team play. Igbo think more in terms of commerce and business. For the Yoruba, life is nothing, but a cultural expression. You can now understand why theatre should thrive in their midst. Entertainment is an occasional luxury for Ndi Igbo. They celebrate only during Christmas season, but Yoruba’s find reasons to celebrate the joy of living every now and then.
You are an advocate of solo performance. Do you think this is still relevant, as some people believe ensemble theatre is the way to go because it creates jobs and allows for multiple role casts?
It is solo plays that create jobs and not ensemble theatre. Only very few Nollywood stars can achieve what I have accomplished as a solo dramatist. Let me ask you, how many ensemble theatre in the last 10 years have toured Nigerian universities? As a solo dramatist, I have done a nation-wide tour, staging my play in different secondary schools, universities, army barracks and other tertiary institutions numbering over 600 in all, in almost all the cities in Nigeria. Which ensemble group can accomplish that without a sponsor? How many ensemble theatre groups can pay their bills from their earning as actors and actresses? But as a theatrical soloist, I can stand shoulder to shoulder, eyeball to eyeball with the best-paid bankers or oil workers in Nigeria. If ensemble theatre creates a job in the real sense, why have all of them deserted the stage for home video films?
But solo performance seems restricted in terms of production crew like producers, directors, playwrights and others, isn’t this true?
If you read our forthcoming book, 50 Years Of Solo Performing Arts In Post-Colonial Nigeria: 1966-2016, you will see that one-man show is not a one-man production. The golden jubilee book edited by G.N.N Mbajiorgu and A.A. Akpuda, addressed this very question. From the multiplicity of voices in the collection, we have demonstrated that the domain of one-man theatre is not an actor-restricted territory. The pioneer exponent of this art in post-colonial Nigeria (Betty Okotie) though an actress of repute, made her debut in the art of one-man theatre as a director not as an actress. Both Benedict Benebai and Akpos Adesi, who are unquestionably fresh bourgeoning exponents of solo drama in Nigeria, are playwrights, not actors.
These playwrights have written exciting solo plays for others to perform. Eni Kenneth, too, is neither a soloist nor a mono-dramatist, but he has successfully served as a technical director or set and light designer for different solo productions in Nigeria. Rudoph Kansese has also directed two of Benebai’s solo plays and Mbajiorgu’s The Prime Minister’s Son as well. My co-editor for the forthcoming Golden Jubilee book, Amanze Akpuda, is neither a playwright nor a stage director, but he remains one of the merging critical voices and one of the courageous scholars of this controversial genre of theatre.
The fact that solo dramatic art is an actor-centred theatre does not negate the obvious truth that it requires more than the effort of a single artiste to produce. The playwright, directors, set designers, business managers, costume and make-up artists, etcetera, all have a part to play to make it even more vibrant and deeply engaging as a one-actor theatrical form.
Why do you think most theatre groups are still doing old plays? Is it that they can’t perform new ones or are there others mitigating issues?
I have no problem if Nigerian directors are producing the classical works of Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, Ola Rotimi, J.P. Clark, Zulu Sofola, Ahmed Yerima, Esiaba Irobi and their likes. After all, we still enjoy the works of William Shakespeare almost 500 years after. My problem is with young playwrights/directors, who have published rather very infantile plays and would insist on producing them every now and then. We mustn’t forget that human beings naturally tend to resist change. They like to stick to a world they are already familiar with. Artistes and scholars tend to plough on already cultivated grounds.
It is difficult to chart a new course; that is why there are many copycats and a few innovators and original thinkers in the industry. Why is it that I am one of the very few African dramatists engaging serious issues? This is why we are where we are as a nation. Our scholars/artists are too lazy to innovate; we keep sticking unto the same old stuff we are familiar with. I sincerely hope to wake our people up with my forthcoming pro-innovation drama commissioned by the African Innovation Foundation, Switzerland.
Some people are calling for theatre groups to hook on to the screen to make them more visible and popular. How realistic is this?
Hear this, you can screen live theatre, but once it is screened, it is no more live. Screen automatically removes the ‘life’ in it!
How best can the masters encourage upcoming ones in the field?
By telling them what most textbooks don’t tell you about our creative icons. I start my creative working classes with upcoming artists by reminding them that Shakespeare left formal education after secondary school class four, yet he ended up more informed and educated than most of our Ph.D holders. I remind them that Achebe, Soyinka and El Anatsui did not require more than a first degree to become the greatest artists in the African continent with frightening global repute. I remind them that Chimamanda did not necessarily study English literature at university level to become one of the greatest young authors of our continent.
I also tell them that the father of professional theatre in Nigeria, Hubert Ogunde, did not even have the opportunity of a secondary school education and yet, he could travel to London to import sophisticated theatre equipment that most lecturers in theatre arts cannot afford with their current salaries. I make them know that Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart at a very young age (just 28); that Eneh Henshaw trained as a medical doctor and not as a dramatist and that Femi Osofisan had his first degree in French and not in theatre or dramatic arts, yet he is one of our best dramatists around. You must tell them things that will jolt them up and force them on their toes. That for me is the best way to motivate them and bring the best out of them.