Hubert Ogunde The Doyen of Nigerian Theatre

While Hubert Ogunde is commonly praised as the father of modern Nigerian theatre, his impact transcends theatre.

To many older Nigerians familiar with actor, theatre manager and playwright, musician, folklorist, policeman and teacher, activist and nationalist, Hubert Ogunde was a mystical figure. His movies relayed ancestral stories; some who knew him remember him fondly as the father of Nigerian theatre, a claim that while true does not capture the legitimacy of his legacy as one of Nigeria’s founding fathers.

Born in present-day Ogun State, to Jeremiah and Eunice in July 1916, Hubert Adedeji Ogunde’s family hailed from a long line of Ifa worshippers. Jeremiah, however, was a Baptist missionary and young Hubert was raised as a Christian. Hubert attended St. Johns Primary School, Ososa (1925-28) and St. Peters School, Faji, Lagos (1928-30) for his primary education. He then studied at Wasimi African School for secondary education before returning to his alma mater, St John’s Primary School, as a teacher. Like his father, Hubert played the organ and was the church choirmaster. While on holiday in Ibadan sometime in December 1941, he passed by a police recruitment centre, and decided to join the Nigerian Police Force. As a young police officer, he was posted to Ebute Metta Police Station in Lagos, and he began directing plays for church events. On 12 June 1944, at the height of the Second World War, his first play, ‘The Garden of Eden and The Throne of God’, premiered at Glover Hall in Lagos. The play combined Biblical themes with elements of Yoruba culture, and it formally marked the beginning of Ogunde’s career as a dramatist.

OGUNDE’S THEATRICAL BEGINNINGS

Ogunde eventually left the police force in 1946 to focus on his theatre career. As a young person, he had been exposed to the Yoruba travelling theatre, ‘Alarinjo’, and he had seen masquerade performances during festivals. His career as a dramatist and entertainer benefited immensely from his knowledge of traditional practices gained through his background, his familiarity with the Bible and successful plays that had been sponsored by the church early in his career Ogunde managed these multiple identities effortlessly. His biographer, Professor Ebun Clark, noted that ‘one of Ogunde’s major contributions to the history of professional theatre in Nigeria is that he withdrew the theatre from the direct patronage of court and the church and gave it to the people.’

Ogunde faced many challenges as a theatre pioneer in Nigeria, one of which was recruiting actors and another being making money from theatre. The first problem was due to the conservative nature of the society. Entertainers were considered unserious by Nigeria’s growing educated middle class; additionally, Ogunde struggled to convince an audience hitherto used to free masquerade performances to pay for performances. Nevertheless, he successfully navigated these problems and founded what he called the African Music Research Party in 1945 to recruit actors and stage plays across the country.

OGUNDE’S POLITICAL VISION

Ogunde began staging plays and touring across Nigeria. Gradually, he broke away from staging plays based on Christian themes and began addressing broader, topical issues. He also began an extensive touring schedule that took him to the hinterlands across Nigeria. This was the era of nationalism and Ogunde was fully involved in the process through his theatre. He would often address social issues in his plays, working alongside nationalists such as Samuel Akisanya and Ernest Ikoli with entertainment as his own tool for emancipation. Ebun Clark noted that Ogunde developed plays ‘to imbibe cultural pride into Nigerians so they can realize that colonial rule had to stop.’ His extensive travels across Nigeria also contributed to the eventual imagining of Nigeria as a single entity by the masses.

When he premiered his play, ‘Worse than Crime’, in 1945, future Nigerian president, Nnamdi Azikiwe chaired the event. The play showed the people that colonialism was worse than common crimes society openly punished. In October 1946, Ogunde was arrested in Jos after the police dispersed a staging of ‘Strike and Hunger’, a play that detailed the 1945 general strike in Nigeria, which paralysed activities in many sectors and infuriated the colonial government. He also staged ‘Bread and Bullet’, which detailed the Iva Valley shooting in 1949.

As an artist, Ogunde complemented the nationalist efforts of politicians, journalists, and activists. He continued to perform plays about topical issues and his power over the masses unsettled the colonial authorities. He travelled across Nigeria sharing a vision of what the new nation should be through his theatre. He had access to the masses, and he combined entertainment with political education which made the colonial authorities censor him several times. Like the other nationalists, Ogunde made good use of the local press to defend himself each time he was hounded by the authorities and the local press supported him.

OGUNDE AND AWOLOWO

Ogunde often played multiple roles in his theatre troupe. Coupled with his role as artistic director, dance choreographer and playwright, he drove the tour bus in the early days. In 1970, he experienced a tragedy when Adeshewa, one of his wives who doubled as a lead actress in the troupe, died in an accident on the way to a performance in Ilesha. Ogunde married 17 wives and had more than 20 children, all of whom, like his wives were active members of the troupe in different capacities.

After the nationalism era of the 1940s and 1950s, Ogunde was commissioned to stage a play to commemorate Nigeria’s independence. The play, ‘Song of Unity’, premiered at Glover Hall in 1960. Few years after independence, the Western Region was enmeshed in crisis because of clashes between the premier, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola and his predecessor and party leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. At the time, many Nigerians identified more with their ethnic groups than the British-constructed Nigeria, and many political parties were formed along ethnic lines. It was also normal for political parties to have a cultural arm. The Action Group had Egbé Ọmọ Odùduwà whose leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Ogunde publicly admired.

Ogunde was commissioned to stage a play for Egbe Omo Olofin, the cultural arm of the newly reorganized Nigerian National Democratic Party, championed by Chief Ladoke Akintola. Like many Yoruba people, Ogunde supported Awolowo who had been jailed by the Federal Government in 1963 on treason charges. On 28 February 1964, Ogunde staged ‘Yoruba Ronu’, at the Obisesan Hall, Ibadan. ‘Yoruba Ronu’ alluded to the events that led to the fallout between Akintola and Awolowo. The play narrated the story of a good king who was betrayed by his deputy, mirroring the popular sentiments about the ongoing crisis in the Western Region.

In the play, the treacherous deputy was eventually disgraced and killed. Chief Akintola was at the event where the play was premiered and he was scandalized, walking out of the hall with some of his ministers. The following day, Ogunde was banned from performing in the Western Region. The ban period was tough for him as his songs and plays were also banned from being played on the government-owned Western Nigerian Broadcasting Services. Ogunde’s prediction in the play came true when Akintola was killed in a failed coup attempt that led to an eventual military takeover of power across the country.

This was not the first time Ogunde would be censored but this was the longest censorship he experienced. The ban was eventually lifted when Ogunde petitioned the newly constituted military administration of Western Region. His success at getting the ban lifted might have been connected to his cordial relationship with Awolowo who was released from jail and made the federal minister of finance by the military head of state. Upon his return, Ogunde wrote a welcome song that was broadcasted on local radio. Ogunde’s relationship and the songs he wrote for Awolowo contributed to the deification of Awolowo in Nigerian history.

OGUNDE DURING THE CIVIL WAR

Ogunde navigated both his identity as a Yoruba and as a Nigerian with ease. His social concerns transcended his own ethnic group, but his loyalty was with his ethnic group. Even though his first language was Yoruba, he introduced Pidgin English to his plays so non-Yoruba audiences could understand him. He also used English during performances outside Nigeria. In many songs and plays, he advocated for unity among the Yoruba people. During the Nigerian Civil War in 1968, he wrote ‘Keep Nigeria One’ in support of the call to avoid secession.

Being an ally to Awolowo, who had by now become the federal finance minister, Ogunde echoed popular federal sentiments about the war and advocated for a united Nigeria. He moved from politically engaged plays to social commentary and adopted a concert party style in the 1970s as tastes evolved. He performed regularly at the Federal Palace Hotel and other high-end spots with middle class and rich patrons who had now developed a preference for a new form of entertainment as a result of the oil boom. Ogunde did not lose his audience in the rural areas while catering to rich patrons at the time. Still, his plays reflected the society’s culture and beliefs. In an interview with British Broadcasting Corporations TV Series, The World About Us, he declared that ‘My stories are for my people.’

Ogunde also joined the then-nascent movie industry with his production of Aiye in 1979. By then, he had become a theatre legend and many other troupes had sprung up across the country. He had also become an industry leader and he invited other dramatists to form the Union of Nigerian Dramatists and Playwrights, acting as the organization’s first president. He went on to make other movies and he established a film village in Ososa, Ogun State, to serve as a shooting studio for his films in 1982. His last films brought expatriate filmmakers who lived with him in his country home in Ososa during production.

THE INTERNATIONAL OGUNDE

Ogunde was cosmopolitan but he retained his primary identity of being a Yoruba person. His theatre combined elements from many cultures from across the country and outside the country. He exported Nigerian culture to Europe, the US, and other African countries. He had successful tours to many countries. After representing Nigeria at the Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada, he performed at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York.

Ogunde also combined traditional instruments with modern ones. Remarkably, he used the agba drum, which traditionally belongs to the esoteric Ogboni cult and was not used for entertainment purposes. This led people to speculate his membership of the Ogboni cult though it was publicly known that members were not allowed to use the drum for other purposes. Modern folk musicians who now use the drum have Ogunde to thank for demystifying it. He also used some chants and folklores that were hitherto unknown to many people in his plays. Ogunde was also an accomplished musician but his success as a playwright makes it easy to ignore his prolific song writing. The website of the Ogunde Museum lists 97 tracks as his discography. With a vocal range that switched between bass and tenor, his voice remains unmistakable and distinct.

OGUNDE’S CONTRADICTIONS

There were also some notable contradictions that marked Ogunde’s life, but he navigated them with ease. He was born a Christian, but he had a successful life depicting Yoruba cultural practices. Ebun Clark also notes that ‘Ogunde’s attacks on the white man was directed solely at the political masters, namely, the official agents of colonial rule; not once did he direct his attacks at missionaries.’ He was grateful to the missionaries for Christianity and Western education, but he was vehemently opposed to slavery and colonialism. In ‘Worse than Crime’, a play written to denounce colonialism, he thanked the same Europeans for the abolition of slavery, declaring thus:

We give thanks in life-you council

The council of the white people

That promulgated a difficult law

That no one should serve as

Slaves in life.

He also adapted dance steps from other cultures within and outside Nigeria to his often didactic Yoruba-based theatrical performances. A lot of Ogunde’s plays featured the traditional good against evil dichotomy and the audience always left the theatre with lessons.

THE FATHER OF MODERN NIGERIAN THEATRE?

While Ogunde is commonly praised as the father of modern Nigerian theatre, his impact transcends theatre. He was one of Nigeria’s founding fathers and his legacy is preserved in popular culture, memory and modern imagination in many forms. Theatre in Nigeria has gone through many stages and Nigeria’s movie industry remains one of the country’s biggest cultural exports. The success of Nollywood home and abroad is traceable to Ogunde’s pioneering efforts. Gbemisola Adeoti, an actor and professor of Literature in English at Obafemi Awolowo University explains that:

Ogunde’s pioneering efforts in film making provided a model for theatre practitioners to follow. For instance, they approached film making as a kind of co-operative event where I rub your back and you rub mine as exemplified in the making of Ogunde’s films where so many theatre practitioners came to take part with less emphasis on monetary remuneration as it is the tradition in other climes.

Some believe Ogunde also contributed to the cultural revolution that changed the traditional perception of artistes in Nigeria as layabouts. According to Adeoti, ‘Ogunde showed his contemporaries and subsequent generations that theatre practice is a noble profession through which one can earn a good living, reputation and fulfilment. Theatre could be organised like any business outfit to yield income, profit and self-fulfilment.’ Ogunde made a full-time job and a successful career out of entertainment. Ogunde’s genius was also in his blend of influences in producing theatre that was both indigenous and cosmopolitan. The syncretism Ogunde’s oeuvre was known for eventually became a regular fixture in Nigeria’s movie industry. That herbalists and diviners have been staple features in Nollywood storytelling is among Ogunde’s impacts on Nigerian filmmaking.

Although he did not make many movies in his lifetime, Ogunde’s pioneering efforts in the industry gave impetus to early filmmakers. He is recognized as an artist whose works reflected the politics of his time and still have something to say. For instance, songs he produced are still used on radio and television shows across Nigeria. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the title track from his 1981 movie, Jaiyesinmi, resurfaced because it features a prayer against pandemics. Each time there are discussions about the place of the Yoruba ethnic group within the larger Nigerian nation, his song, ‘Yoruba Ronu’ (which was a call for unity among Yoruba people) re-emerges. His 1974 song about Lagos, ‘Eko’, remains one of the most important commentaries on life in Lagos.

REMEMBERING OGUNDE

In 1983, the administration of President Shehu Shagari decided to award Ogunde a national honour, but Ogunde rejected it in protest of the corruption he felt had become endemic in Nigeria. However, he received other awards such as the Ogun State Excellence Award in Drama, and honorary doctorates from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife and the University of Lagos. In addition to his efforts in forming Nigeria’s first professional theatre group, he hosted a television show on Nigeria’s national television, and headed the Nigerian Censors Board shortly before his death in April 1990. His works include over 60 plays, four films and hundreds of performances staged across the world in nearly five decades of active performance.

Ogunde’s estate has preserved his costumes, props and other things related to him in the appropriately named Hubert Ogunde Living History Museum. The museum sits in his country home in Ososa. Notably, Ogunde did not adopt foreign drama styles when he started out. Despite its international appeal, Ogunde’s style remained ‘native’. On this, he once told an interviewer that ‘I thank God I didn’t go to college or University at all, I could have possibly been exposed to some classical way of doing drama that I wouldn’t have been able to do what I am doing today’

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