Yerima: Younger playwrights too angry, unprepared for art of playwriting

Prof. Yerima giving pep talk to cast and crew of Kinonso Concepts Production after performing his play, The Mirror Cracks at Theatre Republic, Lekki, Lagos

…Garlands For Ahmed Yerima At 60

Ahmed Parker Yerima, a dramatist, award-winning playwright, former Artistic Director of National Troupe, former Director-General of the National Theatre/National Troupe of Nigeria, former Director-General of Abuja Carnival and currently a professor of Theatre Arts at Redeemers University, Ede, Osun State, turned 60 last Monday. He spoke to ANOTE AJELUOROU and OMIKO AWA on his milestone age and the theatre.

Sixty is quite a milestone, especially for a writer and academic like you. Looking back the road you have travelled, what strikes you the most? What are the fond and bitter memories?
What strikes me most when I cast my mind back are the people; old and young, alive and dead that I have met in my short life. I have been a very lucky man, and I thank God for this favour. It was as if they had been placed in the right place, so that I might meet them at the right time to help me climb the ladder of life. It overwhelms me when I try to reel out their names in my mind. I pray for them always.

The only bitterness I have is the complexity of the character of some of the people I have met and have had to work with. How human beings are capable of both the loving and ugly sides. The capacity of man to become evil in a flash: The dual nature of man’s attitude and behaviour. I have continued to reflect such characters in my plays.

Some of my fondest memories are the day I married my wife, Bridgette, my great friend, and when my children where born. Then, when I became the Director General of both the National Troupe and the National Theatre. I knew that was the only way I could achieve anything good on the job. That was why I chose to leave when they were separated again. And in the academics, the day I became a professor, and the day I delivered my inaugural lecture. My fulfillment was complete. However, my worst day was when my father died. He was my best friend.

You started out in a public university, but now in a private one. What are the experiences like? Why did you make the transition?
One major difference sets the public university from a faith-based private university like my present university, Redeemer’s University. First, it is smaller, everybody knows everybody; the student number is smaller. So, you are able to speak directly to each student and touch their lives, and finally there is the aura of God – the presence of God in every aspect of life in the school. It was difficult at first, but with time you get sucked into it, you become one with it… and at peace with it.

I left the public school to come to the private one because at the time, it was closer to Lagos than Ilorin. My family means a lot to me. But the joke is on me now, because three years later, my school moved to Ede from Mowe. With time I have learnt that it is not where you are, but what you do where you are that matters. I still get invitations from everywhere, including to attend government programmes. And scholars come from all over the world to consult with me on my works. I am fulfilled.

Your unpublished play, The Mirror Cracks, looks at combatants’ lives and what many don’t know and may never know about the life of a soldier at war. Why did you decide to make that unveiling? Why has the play remained unpublished?
The Mirror Cracks was published in a collection of my short plays titled, The Angel And Other Plays in 2004. There are five plays in the collection. I like writing about topical issues and at the time I wrote it, one thing was on my mind, the loss of my two dear friends – Tunde Akinloye and Akin Aboruwa.

And I had to be convincing about what I wrote. The play, like most of my plays, are real in content; the illusion is what Ahmed adds to the story as little ‘god,’ the issues, the characters and, most of all, my empathy with the issue of the play. I had to read… research into the lives of the soldiers. I wanted to say goodbye to my friends from the bottom of my heart. I have done the same for The Sisters, The Wives, Hard Ground, Little Drops, Heart of Stone, Iyase, Abobaku, Pari and Jakadiya. Nigeria presents so much topical issues to write about.

How did you rate the interpretation of Mirror Cracks by Kininso Concepts Production, led by Joshua Alabi?
I liked the Kininso Concept production of the play. It was experimental. The producer interpreted the play the way he saw Joshua Alabi use his poetic license as a Director to the fullest; I saw it and enjoyed it.

When you managed the National Theatre, there was a difference compared to it being comatose these days. What was your experience? What would you recommend to make the cultural edifice work again for artist(e)s?
The mistake most people asked to run the National Theatre make is that they see it as just a building. If you do, you will fail. There is a spirituality about the National Theatre, which is often lost to people. It has a soul… to get it to work. You must be at par with the soul of the place. Have a plan for it. Secure a budget and plan programmes for it. And it will come alive again.

There seems very little meeting point between town and gown in terms of theatre practice, with the effect that those you trained have very few performance spaces after leaving school. How do you propose to bridge this gap?
Bridging the gap between town and gown is turning to be very difficult to achieve these days because the young graduates do not want to dirty their hands. Theatre is a very difficult work to do. When I was at Ife, I had my theatre group. I wrote, my friends would direct and act with me. So, we were earning some money and learning even while in school. That is why I remember Segun Adefila with respect; even when I was at the National Troupe, he would invite me to the University of Lagos, where he was always rehearsing with his friends of the Crown Troupe. He reminded me of my efforts in school. That was why when I had to take a group of young artistes to Manchester on a British Council visitation programme, it was natural to make members of his group the base of the troupe. These days, those who read theatre just do it because they just need a degree. But sadly, they are the ones who should take theatre to town. The Yoruba theatre groups, which used to take theatre to the towns, are all at film locations now. So, the town has turned to Nollywood films, while the actors have turned to other jobs. Pity.

Having navigated both town and gown, as it were, one would have expected more outing from you to give your students wider exposure, but this is not so. Why?
Yes, I should have given more exposure to students I train like Wole Soyinka gave quite a number of us in our time. He was able to do that because we were focused on our carrier goals. These days, it is to note that even at the point of graduation, most students don’t even know what specialised theatre area they want to specialise in. I knew I wanted to write plays from 1977 in my Diploma class. So, I grew up in it. My teachers will remember how every Monday I gave them a new play of mine like a newspaper vendor. They read and corrected them and I learnt from them. I still do it even now as a professor with every newly published play with my colleagues. And I learn from their critical academic analysis in the forms of articles, dissertations and theses.

Now, with all I know in my small head, my students don’t even care who you are until they find other students come to their school to ask you questions about the plays you wrote a long time ago, and they have not even read them. It is sad when you try to enforce a learning process that would bridge the gap of town and gown. No body cares… So sadly, I concentrate on writing my works and teaching. I come alive at conferences, summits or external extermination encounters with other scholars, where I can use some of the loads of information in my aging brain.

How would you respond to the charge that there is a dearth of young playwrights emerging on the scene to complement the Soyinkas, the Rotimis, the Osofisans and the Yerimas; young playwrights who would write about current socio-political realities?
There are younger playwrights writing in Nigeria today. But they are too angry, too unprepared to learn the art of playwriting and are too quick to announce themselves as successful. Playwriting is an intellectual and talent-demanding act. One needs time to mature. The young playwrights must know that Soyinka, Rotimi and Osofisan were not created in one day. Read Soyinka’s The Lion And The Jewel and then read Death And The Kings Horseman, you will appreciate the process I am talking about. To write plays, which deal with topical issues, you must research, listen, ask questions, and read other playwrights. Most young playwrights find these steps boring. They have a story and they just write. One must be humble to learn. Humility is sadly lost to many of them.

Hard Ground won you The Nigerian Literature Prize some years back. Looking at current realities in the Niger Delta, what has changed and what is changing in relation to that work?
Hard Ground did what I wanted it do. Soyinka had taught us in school about the Guerrilla Theatre… how to use theatre to speak to society directly. I wanted Nigerian drama to be more focused in its presentation of serious issues like the sketches we did at Ife. Or the community theatre we did at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. So winning The Nigerian Prize for Literature in 2006 was good for my personal intention; it made writers to say if he could win the prize talking about us, then we can write like that, too. The Nigerian writers started to concentrate more on socio-political problems of their immediate societies.

But I went beyond Hard Ground. When I saw that no one cared about the women and children who were dying, I wrote, Little Drops and when amnesty became the topical issue in the Niger Delta, I wrote Ipomu. So, I wrote a trilogy for the Niger Delta. Now I am writing plays for northern insurgency. No one understands the current reality in the Niger Delta anymore. But I am sure God will grant peace to the whole country. The good thing is that new plays from the Niger Delta are concerned with the issues of the area now. These plays, overtime, will serve as historical materials, and if we playwrights are honest and sincere with our thematic preoccupation, the plays will, with time, become instructive materials in future. That is what drama is supposed to do in the first place.

What should the theatre community expect from you next?
For next year, with the will of Almighty God, I shall continue to write plays, teach my students and contribute with the development of theatre and culture, if and when I am invited.

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