Olawunmi Adewoyin

While preparing to write this little piece on Professor Ola Rotimi, checked many areas of contact
and interactions with him, and will say that he was a giant in goodness, merit and greater in theatrical stature than his regular human frame and presence.

Let me confess, he’s worthy of heaven, surely at home with God and the gods

Nobody can write on the African drama and theatre and boast of its complete report without the mention of the immeasurable contribution of Emmanuel Gladstone Olawale Rotimi.

He was a leading playwright, a total theatrical icon and a product of inherent artistic endowment. Trained in Boston, became a professor of theatre who left an indelible mark and an unforgettable input in the history of drama and theatre in Africa.

Wrote the following plays: The gods are not to blame, Kurumi, Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, Holding Talks, If… A Tragedy of the Ruled, Man Talk, Woman Talk, Hopes of the Living Dead, Gbe’ku De (Grip Am), Akassa Youmi, Tororo, Tororo Ro-Ro, Cast the first stone, to stir the god of iron, Initiation to Madness and Buckets.

Ola Rotimi demonstrated profound heroism both in writing and directing historical drama with an in-depth artistic philosophy.

Our Paths didn’t cross in 1968, not until after having read and heard about him and his productions during the memorable Ife Festival of Arts.

The Orisun Theatre that metamorphosed into the School of Drama Acting Company were instructive

 We were just enjoying the status of being the first students of the first School of Drama in Africa. Cut my first thespian tooth through my devoted years of activities at the Arts Theatre, U.I after which Ile-Ife beckoned to me.

Through Mr Gboyega Ajayi, messages came from Ile-Ife, that eventually caved in,  gave it a thought, left the School of Drama and joined the Ori-Olokun Theatre.

On my arrival in Ile-Ife, accepted the offer to be an Assistant to Professor Rotimi, Professor Akin Euba (Music) and Peggy Harper, the choreographer/dancer who taught me to dance in the School of Drama at the University of Ibadan.

Believe me, it was a golden experience, given what was gained from the triad position at Ori-Olokun which has remained useful to me to date, that it also becomes a point of reality to be used to Ile-Ife than Ibadan.

My experiences with Professor Ola Rotimi proved all points that drama is a representation of man’s immediate method of expression that has been with mankind from childbirth.

 We all knew that while we were children and could not communicate in words, we were communicating with different dramatic gestures. Even as adults, we do express joy, anger, fear, sadness and surprise dramatically to make people acknowledge our feelings. We are in all aspects of life actors.

 Professor Ola Rotimi was a greater actor; one thespian who would not express openly his faith in the gods, whereas most of us would love the world to acknowledge our understanding of our cultures, the deities and all the rest. But when Professor Ola Rotimi inserts the presence of such deities or rituals in his play productions, one would easily feel the strong impact of the rituals and appreciate the importance of the gods.

I have had the opportunity of touring the character “Kurunmi”, playing different roles in “the gods are not to blame” and once in a lifetime posturing in the premiere role of Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, the Benin monarch. Experiencing Professor Rotimi’s presentations of rituals in his plays led me to be more and more interested in these deities or gods. I did personal research on them.

Then I was made to abandon the styles of other playwrights who would just rigidly use lines to express rituals. Not to even talk of playwrights who are totally afraid of going near the mentioning of the gods or rituals.

The portion of rituals in Ola Rotimi’s plays will forever move the audience to compassion, provoke righteous beliefs, deepen understanding, point the way to the right attitudes about rituals and expose the role of the gods or deities in the true sense of the word.

Talking about the Ori-Olokun experience, it came with many gains, indeed, a lot! A dramatization in itself is an essential teaching or training technique. Teaching starts with experience.

There are total experiences of life; there are experiences contrived that are specially arranged. Some experiences, there are entered into through imagination. This is where my dramatic sequence at Ori-Olokun comes into its own.

My particular interest as a Lagos-bred boy, who stopped over in Ibadan, but is now in Ile-Ife participating in the processes of cultural norms, rituals or traditional jamboree in plays formed the basic cultural eye-opener during productions at Ori-Olokun. Culture is fully exploited in all aspects of productions; drama, dance and music.

During workshops, It was a highly elated one given the approach of Professor Ola Rotimi at making playwrights out of teachers, traders, mason men and the rest.

 Rere Run, Wahala, Gbe’ Ku De and other plays were the results of one of such workshops. That one can sit and write play scripts coming as a result of one of those vital experiences gained at such playwriting workshops.

 The majority of us top actors and theatre gurus today I am sure must have stories to tell about Ori-Olokun and the Ola Rotimi experience.

Over many decades past, the theatre has been with us here on earth. Drama has been the most natural form of expression among the most diverse communities due to its being the mirror of day-to-day affairs.

Drama is closely related to festivals, related with fun, pleasure and most especially ritual offerings.

Ola Rotimi’s plays are nourished by reality and this ignites a spontaneous effect on the audience.

Remembered vividly one scene in Ovonramwen Nogbaisi when after all the deities of Edo land have been invoked, yet, the white man cornered the oba (king) and ordered that he relinquishes his authority.

 He was worried about the people, he was about to remove his crown in Benin, the Ogbe Stadium performances, as the Oba, I made an attempt to remove my crown, the whole audience at the stadium roared in disagreement.

They cursed the white man. That mammoth reaction confirmed that the Oba must not remove his crown no matter what.

Ola Rotimi at that point knew what the reaction of the Edo people would be. He made sure he directed the Oba to refuse to relinquish his authority.

The Oba gracefully set his crown and set out of the presence of the white men. The reaction is what I will go on to refer to as the mirror effect where the Edo community was distanced from and were allowed to see themselves in a different light.

 A reflection that stimulated the level of analyzing themselves and their on-the-spot reaction- disagreement! Obahatokpene.

I never thought of Professor Rotimi and death, a few months before he passed on,  I cornered him at Swift Studios, just to express my gratitude to him for my having experienced the art of directing from him. It was a practical example.

Played lead roles in his productions and he would direct and give me directions, perfectly. He did not really understand my ramblings but came out point blank that the experiences gained in his use of the crowd on stage were tremendous, he just smiled and said “Jimi”.

Professor Ola Rotimi was meticulous, and would direct a play of over fifty members of the cast from the blackboard by drawing with chalk on the board to tell actors and actresses where and when to position themselves on the stage. He was meticulous and apt in the use of the crowd on stage.

Never had that much crowd on the stage in my days at the Arts Theatre, it could be because the stage at the Arts Theatre was smaller in size.

 The opportunity of being on a stage that contained a proper crowd in Oluokun remained Evergreen. Everyone would have known how to reach their own spot and how to leave, even in the dark.

Ola Rotimi would use dramatic movements to express some actions and this would normally draw enthusiastic responses from audiences everywhere, with masterly use of music, song and dance created.

He helped in transmitting and advancing dramatic action, replacing it with dialogue and this reflects successfully on the actions of playwrights.

Olarotimi, it was discovered was very close to the Kalabari tradition; his daughter bore a Kalabari name (Oruene) was instructive to note

Findings by Robin Horton on the Kalahari people indicate that they have a division of the universe into two great orders of existence. One is that of “oju”, the body or the material while the second is that of “teme”, the spiritual or immaterial.

 The situation surrounding oju can be seen and touched by anyone suitably disposed to do so but with teme, its own situation can only be seen by special people or the innocent young ones that the material world has not spoilt their senses. You can create your own “teme”. The Kalabaris say this always: “It is men who make the gods great.” With this background on his mother’s side, Professor Ola Rotimi had a wider understanding of the gods due to the easy access to deities of the Kalabari culture.

 Experiences in almost all his plays, especially the tragic ones, the gods, Kurumi, and Ovonramwen the theme of failed leadership.

 The tragic failure of the leaders also became the fate of their communities: Odewale-Kutuje, Kurunmi-Ijaiye, Ovonramwen- Benin.

As for the reasons for their failure, we must leave that for another opportunity to discuss.

Ola Rotimi has to go to the land of our ancestors, quiet in his dealings with us, maybe to ascertain hope for the living dead or to stir the god of iron and see if… perhaps we can be holding talks because the present democratic era we are living in has proved that our husband has gone mad again, despite the humiliation, disgrace and unqualified melancholy of Ovonramwen Nogbaisi and Kurunmi…. well, till another year that we will have to remember Professor Ola Rotimi, the gods are not to blame.

(Culled from Ola Rotimi at home with the gods: An experience, an unpublished paper presented by renowned actor and folklorist, Olujimi Solanke during the 2006 Dramatic Arts Students’ Association (DASA) Week tagged “Celebrating Ola Rotimi”)

Olawumi Adewoyin Wrote Via Wumzyangel@yahoo.com

Can Be Reached via 08106597089

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