By: Adedara Oduguwa
History of African opera, play, drama and theatre would be incomplete without mentioning the name of this great and very industrious dramatist, who more than any contributed in no small measure to the commercialisation of drama in Nigeria, West Africa and Africa as whole. To many, he was the doyen of African theatre, father of Yoruba operatic theatre, a resounding pioneer of the Nigerian drama. Very often referred to as ‘Father of Nigerian folk opera’.
Olooye Hubert Adedeji Ogunde was a folklorist, Nigerian actor, playwright, musician, dramatist, theatre manager, policeman, teacher, teetotaller, human right activist, Seer, prophet and a nationalist of class. Like any mortal, was born into a modest but reputable family of Mr. Jeremiah Dehinbo Ogunde and Mrs. Eunice Owotunsan Ogunde on Monday July 10th, 1916 at Ososa in Ogun State.
Elder Ogunde was a pastor at the Baptist Church, Ijebu Ife and disciplinarian, whose father and forebears were Ifa worshippers and founders of Ososa town. While Madam Eunice Ogunde was a trader whose parents were also enthusiast of Ifa deity. Ogunde’s mother was a pagan at the time he was born. But after his birth she was converted to Christianity. The duo raised and taught their children about African culture and demagogues. An act which helped young Ogunde in later life.
At the age of nine, young Ogunde entered Saint John’s Primary School, Ososa for his elementary education and left the school in 1928 for Saint Peter’s Faji School, Lagos State where he was until 1930. Between 1931 and 1932, Ogunde was at Wasimi African School, Ijebu-Ode. His graduation from Wasimi African School actually marked end of his entire formal education. He altogether spent approximately seven years acquiring formal education. Despite his few years in formal education, Ogunde’s command of English was not only excellent but much better than many university graduates of his time.
OGUNDE: A TEACHER AND CHRUCH ORGANIST
Between the ages of 17 and 25 (1933-1941) young Ogunde was a school teacher at Saint John’s Primary School, Ososa and a dedicated church organist. As a pupil teacher, Ogunde taught in the elementary classes for eight years, an act which was predominant among few educated Nigerians at the time. He organised his first band as a teacher at Oke-Ona United School, Abeokuta. It was during this period he developed special skills for opera and folklore, which in later life launched him becoming the greatest Nigerian folklorist of all time.
OGUNDE: A POLICE OFFICER
After about eight meritorious years in the teaching profession, it was during an holiday in Ibadan that he joined the Nigeria Police Force in December, 1941, a bid to better serve his motherland. He was later to be transferred on training to the Police Training School, Enugu which later led to his appointment as a Third Class Police Constable. As a Police Constable, Ogunde was diligent and performed his duties with all his brains. For this, he was transferred to Nigeria Police Force ‘C’ Division, Ebute-Meta, Lagos. By March, 1945, approximately four years in the Nigeria Police Force, Ogunde resigned from the Force in order to pay full attention to his passion- acting. His passion for opera was mind-boggling. His resignation was spurred by reckless and gross misconduct of the colonial regime, which was demonstrated by Ogunde in his much talk about 1945 opera entitled ‘Worse Than Crime.’ The opera was a political satire on the colonial masters which set to establish that ‘Colonialism in any shape or form is worse than crime.’ This earned Ogunde and Mr. G.B. Kuyinu (His co-director) two days in the Police custody. The opera was staged at Glover Hall and Late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe Chaired the Show.
However, Mr. Ogunde’s altruism also pushed him to produce an opera ‘Strike and Hunger’ in 1945. The Opera was topical. ‘It narrated the events leading to the famous general strike by trade unions for better wages, cost-of-living allowances and improved conditions of service. The strike began in late June 1945 and lasted for forty-four days.’ This play shoots Ogunde into national prominence.
BIRTH OF OGUNDE’S DRAMA
Monday, June 12, 1944, was a special day in the life of young Ogunde. He was supported and sponsored by Church of the Lord, Ebute-Meta to produce his first and oldest opera ‘The Garden of Eden and The Throne of God’ at the Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos. The content of the opera was biblical. It enunciates the ‘fall of man and his expulsion from the Garden of Eden.’ The folk dance by Messrs Hubert Ogunde and G.B. Kuyinu were loudly applauded. Other characters in the opera included: Miss Kotoye Oshodi, Mr. S. O Okeowo, Mr. E.O. Adeleke, Miss M. Samuel, Miss M. Adenuga, Miss C. Bajomo, Miss K. Ashabi and Mrs. King. ‘The audience that night which was over 1000 all clamoured for a repetition of the play at no distant date.’
In 1945, the success recorded in ‘The Garden of Eden and The Throne of God’ motivated Ogunde to establish his first company the ‘African Music Research Party.’ This was an amateur dramatic society. As the saying goes ‘Rome was not built in a day’, this was the first professional step taken by Ogunde in his newly found drama career.
In the wake of 1946, Ogunde turned professional with the production of the ‘Tiger’s Empire’ which was his first opera as a professional under his company (African Music Research Party). Although, Ogunde was warned by the Police for showing the ‘Tiger’s Empire’. The opera was showed throughout the defunct Western Region. In 1946, Ogunde was banned from staging the opera in Jos, Northern Nigeria. This also earned him £125 fine. At this point he took his company outside the border of Nigeria to Dahomey, present day Republic of Benin, this marked his first international outing.
In September 1946, Ogunde felt the need for training and development as a professional playwright; he applied for Passports and UK Visas alongside with his companion Miss Clementina Ogunbule who will later become Mrs. Ogunde (Late Mrs. Adesewa Ogunde- Mama-Eko). Unfortunately, he was refused. This refusal led to another confrontation with the government. To this end, the media supported him and by March, 1947 Passports and Visas were granted to Ogunde and his partner.
In England 1947, Ogunde was admitted into Buddy Bradley School of Dancing at the Piccadilly Circus, London. This is the root of his much talk about aesthetic dances in his plays.
On his return from Britain, in October, 1947, the company name was changed from ‘African Music Research Party‘to ‘Ogunde Theatre Party’ this might be due to the exposure and influence of Great Britain on Mr. Ogunde. ‘That Ogunde financed his trip unaided indicated not only the success and popularity of his Party but also his financial achievement in a short space of time.’ And before December 1947, Ogunde had become ‘Nigeria’s theatre king’
In 1948, ‘Ogunde Theatre Party’ travelled to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) to perform the popular opera entitled ‘King Solomon.’ This outing was disastrous as majority of his Ghanaian audience did not understand Yoruba. He returned to ‘Nigeria penniless after owing his cast a month’s salary and the lorry-owner the fare.’ But as a determined entity, Ogunde did more research on the Ghanaian audience, put together a variety of programme and called it ‘Swing The Jazz’ and this time , the tour was not only a success, but profitable.
Between 1949 and 1950, hardworking Ogunde had extended his works to other parts of West Africa including the Ivory Coast (now Cote d’Ivoire). ‘Ogunde Theatre Party’ was banned in Kano (also in Kaduna and Makurdi) in May 8, 1950, for staging the social lampoon opera titled ‘ Bread and Bullet’ and was arrested for sedition. He was charged to court later discharged but fined £6 for posting posters for the play without prior permission from the government. Moreover, towards the end of 1950, ‘Ogunde Theatre Party’ was changed to ‘Ogunde Concept Party.’
In 1951, Ogunde marked the seventh year anniversary of his theatre with the production of the opera ‘My Darling Fatima.’ For almost the next decade, Ogunde produced eight more plays and also toured the nooks and crannies of Nigeria, West Africa and the world as a whole.
In 1960, Ogunde was invited to produce a play ‘Song of Unity’ for Nigeria at independence. The play was staged at Glover Hall, Lagos and commissioned by Nigerian Government to mark the independence of Nigeria. Ogunde changed name again to ‘Ogunde Theatre’ a name that stuck on him till today. Between 1960 and 1963, no single song or play was written by Ogunde. He only concentrated in the review and modification of his numerous works to fit into the taste of the early 60s.
In 1964, there was a political tumult in the then Western Nigeria. Chief Awolowo was incarcerated on treason accusation and Chief Ogunde, wrote the highly controversial account for his indictment entitled it ‘Yoruba Ronu (Yoruba Think!).’ This account put him at loggerhead with Chief S.L Akintola who was at the time Premier of Western Region since the play directly attacked him and his government. For this, Ogunde Theatre was banned for two years (1964-1966). And in reaction to his ban, Mr. Ogunde produced ‘Otito Koro’ (Truth is Bitter). This ban had grave financial effect on him since majority of his audience were in the Yoruba speaking Western Region.
Ironically, Yoruba Ronu was a prophesy of days to come. And by January 15, 1966, the prophesy came to past and Akintola’s government was not only ousted out of power, but many had paid with their lives. The military had taken over and on request; the ban on Mr. Ogunde and his company was lifted by Lt. Col. F.A Fajuyi, the newly appointed governor of the Region.
In 1967, Ogunde Theatre has grown into an institution. The theatre was to represent the Nigerian Government at Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada. The Theatre utilised this opportunity, stop by in the US and performed in the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York City.
In 1968, Ogunde Theatre was also invited to perform at the International Llangollen Eisteddfod, North Wales and Fairfield Hall, Croydon, Great Britain. Ogunde also produced ‘Ire Olokun’, ‘Keep Nigeria One’ and ‘Mama Eko’ in the same year.
In 1969, Ogunde Theatre reached an important milestone , as he took 45 member dance troupe abroad and perform extensively in Britain and Europe with a special production called ‘Oh Ogunde’ and also while in London produced ‘Obanta’ and ‘Ogun Pari (War is over).’ In addition, Ogunde Theatre performed in the Municipality Milano in Italy that same year.
Between 1970 and 1989 Ogunde staged ‘Ewe Nla’, ‘Iwa Gbe Mi’, ‘Onimoto’ ,’Kehin S’okun’, ‘Muritala Mohammed’, ‘Ore ni won’, ‘Igba T’ode’ and ‘Orisa Nla’. In 1979, Ogunde veered into movie production with the blockbuster film-Aiye. He followed this the following year with ‘Jaiyesimi’ in 1980, ‘Aropin N’tenia’ in 1982 and ‘Ayanmo’ in 1986. And by 1990, Ogunde briefly featured in the popular movie; ‘Mr. Johnson’. Sadly, it was while in the location of the film ‘Mr. Johnson’, which was in collaboration with a UK based English producer that he was taken abroad on a chartered private jet and he passed on. In all, Ogunde wrote over sixty stage plays/opera, produced four films and 99 songs.
Mr Ogunde also had a TV programme called ‘The Hubert Ogunde Show’ on NTA for about a year (1971-1972).
Ogunde founded the Union of Nigerian Dramatists and Playwrights and became its first president. The Union is today called ‘Association of Nigerian Theatre Practitioners (ANTP). Hence, the ANTP presently boasts of membership in there hundreds and professional travailing Theatre companies throughout Nigeria.
In 1975, the Union of Nigerian Dramatists and Playwrights rejected the invitation of the South African Troupe to stage ‘Ipi Tombi’ to mark the official opening of the National Theatre, Iganmu. Ogunde’s objection in capacity of President of the Playwrights was that an indigenous company should have the honour.
Ogunde was invited by the Federal Government of Nigeria in 1986 to demonstrate if the formation of a national troupe is viable. This led to what is now known as the ‘Ososa Experiment.’ It was the success of this experiment that led to the formation of the National Troupe of Nigeria. He thus became its first Artistic Director/Consultant.
However, at the time the Nigerian film industry was using 18mm analogue camera, Ogunde was already using a 35mm analogue camera.
Ogunde was a man per excellence, a thorough and hardworking artist, who will give all to get the best out of his numerous casts in his plays and films. Before any play is shown, he organises practices for his cast for at least nine months to one year. His play rehearsals was twice a day starts from 8am to 2pm and 4pm to 9pm, Monday to Saturday. So rigorous and tough. With a day set aside for dress or costume rehearsal. The play making processes were often managed satisfactorily by the workaholic Ogunde before any play is shown. No wonder the successes recorded by Ogunde through his 47years excellent performances on stage.
OGUNDE: A FAMILY MAN
As husband and father, Ogunde was able to integrate his wives and children in his company and livelihood. It is believed that he fully enjoyed the joys of family life and of seeing his children grow up under his watch. Ironically, Ogunde who during the last count married some seventeen wives and numerous children never allowed separate pots for his children, this helps to fasten the rope of unity among everyone in the yard.
Mr. Ogunde after morning exercises attends to morning routines and at leisure sits among his wives joking and playing a bid to bring happiness to them and their children.
Between 1971 and 1975, Ogunde had constant press battle with the organisers of the second world black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) over what he considered inadequate and unprofessional arrangements for the festival. He also objected to the high cost of hiring the National Theatre.
In 1976, he marked the thirty-third anniversary of his Theatre in January with the dance drama ‘Nigeria.’ The production which was also to commemorate FESTAC, therefore given full supports to the Festival on ground of patriotism.
In 1977, Ogunde succeeded in having the cost of National Theatre reduced, which led to the premiere of ‘Igba t’ode’ at the National Theatre , thereby making it the first time in thirty-four years that Ogunde would stage a play in the National Theatre ,Iganmu, other than at the Glover Memorial Hall.
OGUNDE: A NATIONALIST
Ogunde was an outspoken contemporary political commentator, who was ready to risk the possible destruction of his Theatre in order to fight for the freedom of his people from alien rule. He was jailed and banned on several occasions for fighting and standing against the devious colonial regime with all his brains.
The Nigerian Nationalists movement did not entirely leave him to fight the government alone. They supported him morally and protect him through their various press companies. Believing that the victimization of his Theatre often arose from official aversion of his nationalist bent , not only did they give him protection and cover from the law but they also often allowed him use their press to speak directly to the public about various acts of victimization that he suffered. The West African Pilot, Daily Comet and Daily Service; were the few newspapers that supported Ogunde in his nationalistic rather than radical behaviours.
According to an editorial in Zik’s West African Pilot Newspaper (1947) “Ogunde‘s preoccupations with the projection of the cultural as well as the political identity of his people were enough for the nationalist movement to call him ‘a genius’ who did not seek ‘wealth’ or ‘fortune’ … nor self inflation or any other artifice of fame, a genius who was once a poor police officer, perhaps one who shared with three others ‘ten by eight!! A day came when he sat down , racked his brain, composed nature airs and dramatized them and by 1947 , had become ‘Nigeria Theatre King’
The nationalist movement maintained that through him ‘the realm of the theatre has become a living reality’. They recommended Ogunde’s efforts to all saying that repining in indolent idealism can avail nothing. It is courage to take risks and determination to forge ahead in spite of man-made handicaps. Good luck to Hubert Ogunde”
In the words of Prof. Ebun Clark “ Ogunde was a pure nationalist who believed that the only quick way to liberation was through a united national front that could face and rout the army of the colonial ruler to free the people.
Ogunde became the most popular Nigerian Musician and Dramatist of all time. This is owing to his sheer discipline, determination, integrity and absolute commitment to the institution of drama and a free Nigeria.
OGUNDE: AWARDS AND HONORARIES
In 1983, Ogunde was awarded the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (OFR) by the Federal Government under Alhaji Shehu Shagari, unbelievably; Ogunde rejected the honour arguing that corruption is endemic in the land.
1987 and 88, Ogun state Government awarded Ogunde the Excellence Award in the field of Drama and Film Production which he joyfully accepted.
In 1985, Ogunde was awarded Honorary Degree of Doctor of Literature by the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife and Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters by the University of Lagos on Friday 17th of January, 1986.
In Scotland (1986) Ogunde showed his Play DESTINY which was Nigerian entry into the Commonwealth Festival of Arts in Edinburgh. The Play was described by the Scots as an Epic of its time. Ogunde was also described as one man with unique and large reservoir of creative resources to draw from. His Plays are often different from others always attracting his numerous audiences. With his unique and unbeatable dance steps remains evergreen in the Nigerian Theatre. Ogunde also helped to advanced dances like: Bata, Koto, Fishermen, and women dance, Itsekiri dance, Sango Dance, Agbekor with the dances always showing smiles of Africa.
Ogunde was not only a pioneer in the Nigeria field of Drama, he was Nigeria saviour of native music and drama. For this, he becomes the acknowledged leader and father of contemporary Yoruba Theatre.
“For all the Nigerian Playwrights in Yoruba and indeed in English, Ogunde was the most consummate social commentator and satirist, who easily make his views on people and events known through his sketches and characters (Clark,1979). “
Ogunde died at 5:25a.m on Wednesday, 4th of April, 1990 at Crowell Hospital, London. He was aged 74.