‘Poetry enjoys more social favours than drama’ Prof Ahmed Yerima

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With his first and last name, what might probably pop-up in one’s mind is a figure who has ruled the political atmosphere of Zamfara State for so long. Professor Ahmed Yerima–a direct opposite– doesn’t have such trappings. Born to average parents of northern and mid-western origin in the 1950s, he rose to become one of the most notable dramatists to have surfaced in the Nigerian literary world in the last part of the twentieth century.

Rising through the ranks and working very hard to be where he is today, he joined in leading the third generation of playwrights into the individual search for a spiritual solution to the country’s socio-political problems and of self-survival in the midst of the nation’s numerous crises as opposed to socialism which was portrayed in earlier works of other playwrights.

To his credit, he has directed and written so many plays ranging from “Attahiru” to “Yemoja,” “The Sick People,” “Otaelo” and the like.He has also won several local and international awards. Currently,he is the Professor of Theatre and Culture Studies, and Dean of Humanities at Redeemer’s University, Ogun State. In this interview with Oluwayamilenu Bamgboye, the former Director of Abuja Carnival, former Artistic Director of the National Troupe and later, the Director-General of National Theatre and the National Troupe bares his thoughts on world-view, the development of theatre and the conflicting issues. Enjoy.

You have an accent, what brought that about?

What accent?

  

A mixture of Nigerian-British kind of accent

Well, I think it’s because that’s where I schooled.I was born and raised in Nigeria but I schooled in the UK.

With your name, anyone could mistake you for some politician.

Yes, my err…my political counterpart (laughs).

Do you feel any need to change yours?

No…infact, there was a time I went online, typed in my name and  I didn’t see myself except this counterpart of mine (laughs).

When it comes to getting materials for any creative piece, different writers have ways of doing theirs. How do you get materials for writings that are outside your environment?

The first thing I do is to make a lot of research.After that, I think in the language of the people I’m writing about and their culture as well.For instance, I’m more comfortable writing yoruba plays in English because I can speak the language from the top of my head. So, what I just do is translate it into English and write it down.

And it works for you?

 Yes, it works for me.

Like femi Osofisan, have you tried your hands on any adaptation?

Yes I have. I have written two adaptations. In the second one “Otaelo,” I adapted Shakespeares “Othello” into an Ibo setting.I used that material to address the osu caste system which I feel is worse than racism. So, I was looking at how a man–belonging to a certain set of people,from the Igbo cultural angle, was hated just as Othello was hated for the colour of his skin.Although as a writer, the multiplicity of the Nigerian culture makes it challenging and a little complex because some Ibo will say “we don’t have this in our culture” or an Ijebu will say “this isn’t how we handle things.”

Like Wole Soyinka who reflects the influence of  a personal god in his writings, do you have a personal god like him?

You  mean my own god,my own personal god? I am the god (laughs).infact, the playwright is a god. He creates his own world and allows things to happen.

However, I’m lucky to be multi-religious. I was born a muslim and errm…went to school, got exposed to christianity. I went to Ife and got exposed to people like babalawo Fatomilola. He and Soyinka dumped all the gods into my head. So by the time we were doing the plays, the Yoruba plays “The gods Are Not to blame” and I was looking at Ogun, Sango and others, I began to know these gods. I wanted to ask questions about my environment. At some point, I was confused. I went to a catholic school where the reverend sisters would tell you you would go to heaven and I looked forward to that every time. But has you mature, your mind grows and you overcome some of these things. That’s why you even hear some pastors say I was bad when I was growing up.Now,you see how the maturity of the mind contradicts the sense of growing up. As you grow up,you begin to ask questions about yourself, your identity and where you really belong.

So,because I need a lot of characters in my book, I have to create them. I have to first of all define for me. Do I want idealist characters that people will not be able to relate with or the ones that will make people say I know that guy, he is the uncle next door or he is my neighbour’s son or something and with that I am able to capture my audience. So, that’s why I say the playwright is a god himself.

Still on religion, do you believe there is a higher power that stirs the affairs of men?

I believe in destiny. But i also believe God gave man some level of freedom and this freedom allows you to do and change your destiny,you understand. It’s just like the Ibos that say when you tell your chi to say yes, it says yes. So, I believe man has the right to change his destiny. Uncle Peter Fatomilola got distinction in Yoruba acting in school. He has excelled and over time become the best. When we were growing up, he said his mum wanted him to be a babalawo but he refused and then turned round and round to become an international babalawo,you understand. So, where God says you’ll be,you’ll be… ”ayanmo ko gbogun.” But for me, I trust in the almighty God, I pray to Him alone.

Plays generally enjoy some social favours especially when being acted on stage unlike other genres. Do you think with time, poetry can enjoy the same social favours?

I thought poetry enjoyed more social favours than drama. It’s very difficult to write drama and that’s why there are more poets in this country than playwrights. It’s difficult to write drama because a lot of people are talking while you look at conflict in pieces of human beings whereas in poetry or prose,only one person is talking.

I define drama as the act of story telling through characters, language and dialogue. So,I’ll turn your question around because I’m hoping that more playwrights would come because more people need to understand the act of play writing. One needs to use the right ingredients and mix it all up into a bountiful story.

Poetry is an intellectual thing. With it, I could describe my feelings to things…love, man, nature and break it, you understand, and that becomes the essence of most of the issues about life itself. When we talk about the emotional powers of poetry, it becomes more difficult than just dialogue in colloquial language.

Sir, do you think stage plays and poetry could be merged?

Yeah,it depends on the style the playwright decides to use.

How is technology affecting stage craft?

Fantastic. I just saw a group perform my play and what technology has done to it. From typing out the script using a laptop to other stage paraphernalia that make production of plays fantastic.

Today, billions of naira are invested in home videos. Does it mean there is more premium on home videos than the theatre?

Well, I think the problem is that we see the national theatre as a building. The national theatre is not a building but a place for the celebration of culture and heritage and it has to be done there. When that is not in place, it’s a dead place. However, the connection we are talking about is basically refined that theatre continously provides the man power. Look at Nollywood for instance, most of the stars in there are not trained,you understand. So,after a while,they reach there melting point and they boil over.It is the theatre that continues.

I have this problem with my students because they keep saying there is Ramsey Noah and others who read accounting and whatever but they are stars and I say to them that stars dwindle,stars fall even the ones created by God.After a while, these stars will go but if you keep at it and you do your theatre properly,learn the techniques,you’ll now have more avenues to function and you won’t just fall over.

When you were the Director-General of the National Theatre, what things did you do?

What I did? The evidence is there. I brought life to the National Theatre. While I was the DG, I was lucky because I had the National Troupe merged together and so what I did with the troupe was to use them as the performance arm. The problem of those who run the National Theatre is that we don’t have a troupe. Troupes are supposed to be resident in the theatre. We never understand what that means in this country, we think they should be two parastatals but they should be one. So, whether a group comes or not,there is performance going on in the place.

And then the next was getting back the posture of the place. So, it was easy for me to convince them: the minister,council members and the chairman of the governing board and tell them what to do. But we were under pressure because government wanted to sell, in fact they had sold technically for thirty two billion. I had to convince the government using international bodies that the theatre had to stay. So, we started working on it, doing everything and fixing it. When it was good enough, they said they wanted to reverse it and that’s when I said goodbye. I don’t have time for politics…i hate it. I handed over when it was in good state.

Since I left, I haven’t been there but I hear all sorts on radio. So I’m getting worried that someone let all of that slip back to what it was. I am hoping that it would be revamped once again and then put into proper use. It has to be run like a commercial outfit not as a government estsblishment.

Do you think the right amount of finance is given to the theatre considering how the government of Brazil makes a whole lot of money from arts and culture, do you think we treasure what we have?

Yes we do.But I don’t blame the government because I worked for them for 18years. But when I was running the Abuja carnival,I knew that we were culturally rich in this country. But the problem is the people. After the government has set up those parastatals and agencies and has given them money to start up shows and carnivals, it is now left to us to generate and organize ourselves. That is what is lacking: organization. So, once the element of seriousness isn’t there,then it’s difficult for you to plan and once planning isn’t there,there is death in the process of developing theatre.

Is there any basis for comparison between Duro Ladipo,late Hubert Ogunde,Ola Rotimi and Prof Wole Soyinka?

There is a base. First,you look at the genre which they chose.You look at their training and then you look at the hand of God in their matters.If Hubert Ogunde and Ola Rotimi were alive,I’m sure they would have done more than they did however,these people were very distinct in their chosen arts. Ogunde,as he grew, went deeper into culture.Then Duro Ladipo who also started from the church but then found out that there was a need for him to author a way to look at his people and he chose the historical plays because he was more comfortable with that. So, for every artist, God gives you a very little parcel.

Ola Rotimi and Soyinka on the other hand got educated. None was a policeman like Hubert Ogunde or a teacher like Duro Ladipo. Ola Rotimi went to Yale,one of the best schools in the world for drama. So, when he came back his consciousness was there. Ola Rotimi’s uniqueness for me is that he was able to think about the language that the audience could understand. He wanted to tell stories because he was a story teller. Soyinka my teacher,my beloved teacher, chose a unique form–the satirical form. He used to call something when we were in school iconoclasism and he would say you could write a play and make fun of a  person and the person is laughing together with you.We found that when we were doing guerrilla theatre with him. It’s a way of hiding what you really want to say. So like I said, each of these people made significant contributions to the development of theatre through their unique gifts.

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