BY GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR
THIS gusty morning, Wole Oguntokun saunters in to the Renegade Theatre office on Akinwunmi Street, Alagomeji, Yaba, Lagos, in a tired mood. He is in a T-shirt and jeans. The dark complexioned playwright/ has been on the set of Ajai, The Boy Slave, a play he wrote and directed, whose final performance was on Sunday, April 29, at the MUSON Centre, Lagos.
After four months of rehearsing three plays, two of them already performed, you wonder how Oguntokun, popularly called Laspapi by friends, gets his energy.
“It’s certainly not drugs,” he smiles.
The lawyer-turned theatre director, who symbolises what can happen when an artiste dares to dream, doesn’t touch anything hard, “they are not for me,” he says.
Since 1998, he has been on the Nigerian theatre circuit and on May 24 and 25, he will be presenting his latest directorial work, Itan Oginintin (The Winter’s Tale in Yoruba), one of the plays scheduled for World Shakespeare Theatre Festival 2012.
April 21 and 22 saw the opening performance by one of the 37 international companies selected to present William Shakespeare’s plays in different languages over six weeks in the run up to the London 2012 Olympic Games. The play, Venus and Adonis, by Isango Ensemble, in IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, SeSotho, Setswana, Afrikaans and South African English, was staged on Shakespeare's birthday and it’s part of efforts to celebrate both the cultural diversity of London and Shakespeare's worldwide appeal.
Highlights of the festival include a hip-hop re-interpretation of Othello from the Chicago-based Q Brothers, as well as Deafinitely Theatre's British Sign Language rendition of Love's Labour's Lost.
“Whether you want to see A Midsummer Night's Dream performed in Korean, Richard III in Mandarin, Julius Caesar in Italian or Macbeth in Polish, Hamlet in Lithuanian and Henry V in English, the Globe to Globe Shakespeare plays give you the chance to approach The Bard from a new direction and see some of the most acclaimed Shakespearean companies from around the world,” the Oguntokun’s voice crackles.
He thinks for a moment, glancing down at me, then he says, “we are the only theatre company invited from West Africa. And this puts us on a positive light to fly the Nigerian flag.”
There’s a pregnant pause. Suddenly, he draws a long breath, as he scrapes in words to fill the void. “We have a culture and tradition that is very solid. This worldview is what we are selling with the play, Itan Oginintin,” Oguntokun says.
Audition and casting for the performance held in Lagos in January. Reading of the Yoruba and English versions started almost immediately.
With Wale Adebayo, who played Sango in Even Ezra Studio’s flick, Sango, playing Sango, Rotimi Fakunle as Ogun and Kehinde Bankole as Oya, Oguntokun promises that Itan Oginintin is going to be a helluva of excitement on set.
Putting Yoruba language on global stage, through Shakespeare
IN Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Polixenes (the King of Bohemia) visits his childhood friend, Leontes (the King of Sicily). After a nine-month, Polixenes is ready to head back home to Bohemia, but Leontes’s devoted wife, Hermione, convinces Polixenes to stay a little bit longer.
As Leontes watches his wife and best bud chat it up, Leontes suddenly becomes wildly jealous and suspects that his very pregnant wife is having a torrid affair with Polixenes – Leontes is certain that Hermione is carrying the man’s love child.
Leontes quickly arranges to have his old pal poisoned, but when Polixenes catches wind of Leontes’s plot to have him killed, he flees with a Sicilian guy named Camillo to his home in Bohemia.
According to Oguntokun, Yoruba folk tales inform the magical new production, Itan Oginintin, where Leontes becomes Sango; the god of Thunder, and Hermione is Oya, the warrior spirit of the wind.
“We are doing the Shakespeare’s play from a Nigerian perspective,” he says. “We have put a Yoruba mythology, introduce our culture to an audience that is foreign.”
Itan Oginintin dramatises the intricate, but revealing story of Yoruba myths and legends — the altercation between Ogun, the god of Iron and Sango, over Oya. In the legend, the marriage between Oya and Sango was consummated after Oya divorced Ogun, her first husband.
How would these foreign audiences appreciate the script, which seems different from what they know?
“Trust that we are going to do something that is fitted to their standard,” he jokes. “We have had about four months of rehearsals and still checking on what is missing in the script; from-time-time, we are looking at the script to see and feel the sub-text— hidden messages.”
Chief Tade Ipadeola did the translation of the play.
Why Chief Ipadeola?
“We wanted somebody who could do the original translation without missing anything; somebody who knew the importance of what is at stake and wouldn’t allow it to be watered down,” Oguntokun says.
What could have influenced the decision to have Oguntokun direct a play for the Shakespeare Festival?
“My contributions to Nigeria theatre,” he answers. “They had done some research and my views were sought out before I was offered opportunity to direct the play.”
You ask what his feeling is?
“A mighty feeling,” Oguntokun exhales. “I haven’t taken it all.”
A CHILDHOOD fascination with literature, dramatists and theatrical works which continued well into adulthood as well as a burning desire to create and show others his own works, brought Oguntokun to the theatre.
He says confidently, “as a child, I’d create little sketches that kids in the neighbourhood would be part of. I could sit and watch plays as well as television for 12 hours at a stretch when I was growing (I still do that now). It was easy to see that I would end up in that field even though I studied Law. The country appeared to be suffering a shortage of productions, large-scale works being few and far-between. There also appeared to be lethargy on the part of producers concerning the promotion of the stage. I thought I’d brighten up the literary landscape. It’s worked so far.”
A pouch filled with theatrical productions
IT turns out that everything is connected with what Oguntokun envisioned. In the last 14 years, he has consistently done theatre and now, his dream is to take theatre round.
He is grinning from ear to ear. You could feel the happiness, as he leafs through handbills announcing different productions on his table.
When did he storm the theatre and with what production?
He stands up, and takes his guest round the Renegade Theatre office and brings out pictures from his past production.
“I’d been part of stage productions at the Obafemi Awolowo University, though I was a student of the Faculty of Law. My first stage production for the general public was in October 1998 at the MUSON Centre. It was a play I wrote, produced and self-sponsored, titled, Who’s Afraid Of Wole Soyinka?, it was a satire of the military in governance in Nigeria and it brought me a lot of attention. I still hold the record for the highest number of stage productions at the MUSON Centre in Lagos,” he breathes.
Oguntokun emerged as a player on the Nigerian Theatre landscape in September 1998 with his productions of his satirical stage drama, Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka?, which lampoons the Nigerian military leadership.
The first productions were put up at the University of Lagos' Arts Theatre in September. In October and December of 1998, he produced the same play at the MUSON Centre, Lagos.
The Centre, thereafter, hosted many plays he wrote and directed including restaging of Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka? in May 2002; Rage of the Pentecost (August 2002); Ladugba! (September 2002) and The Other Side — November 2002.
At the same venue, in March 2003, he produced and directed his adaptation of The Pied Piper of Hamelin titled, Piper, Piper; and his play on the dangers of HIV/AIDS, Gbanja Roulette, in May and July 2003. In December of that year, he featured the matriarch of Nigerian Drama, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, in his The Inheritors.
Other plays of his produced at the prestigious facility, MUSON Centre include Prison Chronicles, The Other Side, starring Kate Henshaw; The Sound and The Fury; The Inheritors featuring Joke Silva in August 2006, and Anatomy of a Woman featuring Stella Damasus-Aboderin.
In July 2007, he initiated a collaboration with the Terra Kulture Arts Centre on Victoria Island, Lagos and commenced the Theatre@Terra, becoming its founding producer and artistic director and turning it into one of Nigeria's most consistent venues for Theatre, with plays being produced every Sunday at the venue. Oguntokun ceased to be the sole producer of Theatre@Terra in January 2011 though he continues to direct plays at the venue from time to time.
Oguntokun was official consultant to the British Council/Lagos and the crew of the National Theatre in London for the purpose of that National Theatre's production of Wole Soyinka's play, Death and the King's Horseman in April and May 2009.
He directed Ola Rotimi's The Gods are not to blame for the MUSON Centre International Festival of 2006 and was commissioned by the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND) to head the writing team that adapted Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues for the Nigerian populace. The end result was V Monologues-The Nigerian Story, a production, which he directed in March 2008 and staged at the National Arts Theatre, Terra Kulture, The Muson Centre (all in Lagos) and also at the Women's Development Centre and Shehu Musa Yar'Adua Centre in Abuja.
Oguntokun created the yearly Season of Soyinka in which plays by the Nobel laureate are featured for a period spanning at least a month, and The Legend Series in which evergreen plays by first and second generation Nigerian dramatists are featured. He is the author of the published poetry collection, Local Boy and other poems.
He wrote, directed and produced the unprecedented The Tarzan Monologues — a dramatic stage-rendering of Monologues by men touching on topics that include Religion, Politics, Erectile Dysfunction, Infidelity, Finances, Love and Marriage, Infant Mortality among many others.
The performances were all Sundays in November 2009 and February 2010. This led to the production of The V. Monologues v. The Tarzan Monologues in which male and female actors duelled on stage in all the Sundays of March, September and October 2010 in Lagos, as well as at the National Theatre, Ghana.
Oguntokun directed Aime Cesaire's "A Season in the Congo" for the Lagos State Government /UNESCO-sponsored ‘Black Heritage Festival’ in April 2010 and his own play, The Waiting Room  in the same festival  in April 2011.
He was one of five Nigerian theatre directors selected by the British Council to be part of a Nigerian Theatre Director's Residency/Workshop in the United Kingdom in May 2011.
In August 2011, he was one of two Nigerians chosen to be British Council delegates to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.
In January, He directed Ntozake Shange's multi-award winning play, For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf.
…Sustaining Live Theatre Performances
WITH Theatre @Terra, has it been a success to revive theatre in the country?
“That’s a definite ‘Yes’. Terra is Nigeria’s most consistent venue for stage plays in the country now, with plays being staged regularly without interruption for the past few years. It has allowed the development of artistes, set designers, costumiers, make-up artistes, stage managers and directors. Theatre artistes who are involved get paid well and quite a number are into it full-time. The project is a well-oiled machine but it wouldn’t have been possible without the unflinching support of Bolanle Austen-Peters, the Managing Director of Terra Kulture, a major collaborator and partner with us in Theatre@Terra.
“Legends like Professor Wole Soyinka have become bulwarks of the project by allowing some of their plays staged at the venue regularly. As a result, many people have made theatre attendance a compulsory part of their calendars now and it’s finally showing that consistency pays off if you can continue to stage competent works. It’s a pity we don’t have theatres everywhere, like for example, Germany, with more than 300, but we hope to attain those heights some day. We are striving to make it a success financially but good things come to those who wait, is what they say.”
The challenges of producing theatre in Nigeria?
“Opo gan,” he retorts in Yoruba.
According to him, “a shortage of suitable venues. There are very few places with the status of Terra Kulture that would make their venues available. Often, by the time the producer pays for a venue, there’s little or nothing left over to pay the cast. There’s also a dearth of sponsors. In many places, gate-takings are not adequate and very few actors want to practice art for art’s sake and can one blame them? Bills have to be paid and commitments met.”
After three and a-half-years why did he pull out of the project?
“I guess the place grew more attractive to people and many thought I was making a fortune so they got interested,” he says. “At the beginning, directors refused to work with me. They didn’t see the financial returns, now they seem to have become interested, so, I gently watched my steps.”
Oguntokun says, “I had thought of leaving my comfort zone, Theatre@Terra, and travel round the country doing theatre.” He adds. “I didn’t want to go auto-pilot.”
So you now left because you didn’t want any competition?
“No,” Oguntokun says. “I just wanted to do something else. Doing something of hardcore has been challenging, and all these while, I couldn’t do anything else. Every Sunday, I was always doing one play or the other.”
According to him, “there is no hard feeling between the management of Theatre@Terra and I. I did a project there in January.”
Without sponsorship can theatre survive in the country?
“Sponsorship?” He asks. “It comes in many forms and not all instances have to be formal. It would be difficult for theatre to survive without sponsorship but it can be done. What is essential is a re-awakening of the theatre-going culture in many Nigerians. If there are enough enlightened people streaming through the gates, the production will be a financial success. The producer must be ready to put his own money where his mouth is, however. Very rarely, will people back you until they see you’ve kick-started your project yourself. If you don’t believe in your own dream, why should anyone else?
How does he get sponsorship and are the sponsors always ready?
“Word of mouth is a very powerful tool and produces better results than any letter requesting sponsorship can,” Oguntokun say.
He adds, “there are few things stronger than a person who comes to see your production and is so firmly convinced of your abilities, he or she decides to support you or recommends you to a potential sponsor.”
For him, “sponsors are not always ready to go on, and you must be ready to continue without them. I suppose that’s the major difference between a lot of would-be producers and me. I’ve learnt not just to talk the talk, but also to walk the walk. If one waits for all the lights to turn green, one will never leave one spot. We must move from point to point. Use your own resources sometimes. You must treat the theatre as a business too, if you want it to grow.”
And Five Years on The Girl Whisperer…
WITH a Bachelor of Laws from the Obafemi Awolowo University; Master’s of Law (LL.M) and Master’s in Humanitarian and Refugee Studies, M.H.R.S. from the University of Lagos, he continues to write weekly, The Girl Whisperer — on gender relations in The Guardian on Sunday, a column he has written since March 2007 and is a member of the Governing Council of the (Committee for Relevant Art) (CORA), a leading Arts and Culture Advocacy group in Nigeria.
The Whisperer through the years?
He continues “it has been an interesting ride, sometimes bumpy but always fun. What started as an inspiration shared with the Editor of the paper has since gathered momentum and someday will be made into book-form and in several volumes. I have been loved by many (and sometimes hated, some people refusing to take to my postulations). What no one must forget is that this column is not a Holy Book. It is me telling what I think of gender relations, and the things that can go wrong between partners and potential associates.”