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He grew up amidst the arts learning four of the three hundred languages spoken in Nigeria, as well as English, the official language. Olas mother who excelled in traditional dance, managed her own dance group from 1945 to 1949. His father who often wrote and recited poems, organized the community theater in Port Harcourt where his son, Ola, grew up. Olas uncle, Chief Robert Dede, the lead performer in a traditional dance troupe and his dancers, dressed in elaborate costumes, danced, sang, and acted in what was one of the most spectacular of such troupes, more often called masquerades, in Rivers State.
Ola first appeared on stage when he was only four years of age in 1942 in a play directed and produced by his father. He lived, from then on, on the stage, across the world, with steadfastness, devotion, commitment and zest believing in the power of theatre to redeeming and transforming a society socially and spiritually. Some of his works got broadcast on Nigerian radio and published in institutional magazines.
Being among three Nigerians awarded scholarships to study theatre abroad, Ola Rotimi, traveled to the United States in 1959. He studied at Boston University from where he earned a B.A. in fine arts in 1963 and attended the Yale School of Drama, majoring in playwrighting on a Rockefeller Fellowship gaining an M.F.A. in 1966.
Rotimi was also active in the African Students Union at Boston University, serving as its president, and actively engaging in protests against colonialism and in favor of African nationalism.
Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again his outstanding comedy about African politics written in America, with a literal African-American character in 1965, had roots in Rotimi's own domestic situation in New Haven where he had recently married Hazel Mae Gaudreau, a (white) French Canadian student at Yale with whom he bore four children: Enitan, Oruene (daughter), Biodun, Kole thus making the problems inherent in a cross-cultural marriage expressed in aspects of the play. Born in Kenya, Liza has lived much of her life in the United States, which has shaped her world view when she met Lejoka-Brown in Congo. At Yale the play directed by Jack Landau won the Student Play of the Year Award for 1966.
Cultural diversity was a recurring theme in Rotimi's plays as he often examined Nigeria's history and ethnic traditions. His first plays To Stir the God of Iron (produced 1963) was staged at the drama school of Boston University. His very popular production in 1968 of his adaptation of Sophocles' tragic play Oedipus Rex, The Gods Are Not to Blame ( published 1971) in imaginative verse retells the story of Oedipus the King to address contemporary African and the world issues whilst making ample use of traditional Yoruba proverbs and idiomatic expressions translated to English. The play explores the interplay between the Greek and the Yoruba traditions, as Sophocles explores the tragic fate of a man destined by the gods to kill his father and marry his mother. In Greek mythology, whatever the gods decree must come to pass whereas in the African mythology explored by Rotimi, ways exist through appeals to the gods to avert such horrifying experiences.
His later dramas include some of the most noted classics on the Nigerian stage; Cast the first Stone (1966) Kurunmi and the Prodigal (produced 1969; published as Kurunmi, 1971), written for the second Ife Festival of Arts; Ovonramwen Nogbaisi (produced 1971; published 1974), about the last ruler of the Benin empire; Holding Talks (1979), If: A Tragedy of the Ruled (1979) (1983), Hopes of the Living Dead (1988), which premiered at the University of Port Harcourt and was a common play in the OAU Drama department, the radio play Everyone His/Her Own Problem which was broadcast in 1987 and When the Criminals Become Judges (1995)
His dramatic works have been performed in Europe and Africa and are being studied in European and American universities in African studies programs as well as throughout Africa. He has also published short stories, critical articles on African theater as well as a book on African Dramatic Literature: To Be or to Become which was published in 1991. He has on two occasions benefited from a commission by the British Broadcasting Corporation to write for its overseas broadcast.
Upon returning to Nigeria in 1966, he taught at the Universities of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) and Port Harcourt. The political conditions in Nigeria, made him spend much of the 1990s in the Caribbean and the United States, where from 1995 to 1997 he was the Hubert H. Humphrey Visiting Professor of International Studies and Dramatic Arts and Dance at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has also been visiting professor, playwright, and director in Germany and Italy, as well as at DePauw and Wabash Universities. In 2000 he returned to Obafemi Awolowo University where he lectured till his demise, his wife, Hazel, having died earlier in May 2000.
He brought the school theatre at University of Port Harcourt to such great heights that when he left, his mark of excellence in its Theatre Arts department continued, with the school producing aspiring and budding young stars in the movies industry in Nigeria. Rotimi has taken many works directly to the people with the University of Ife Theatre, a repertory company performing works in Yoruba, Nigerian pidgin, and English.
Rotimi spent the second half of his last creative decade reworking two of his comical plays: Man talk, Woman talk, and Tororo, Tororo, Roro a play of the Absurd he produced as a convocation play. Both were probably meant to be epilogues to both his entire theatrical and comic careers.
Man talk, Woman talk making use of wry humour seeks an even-handed resolution of the biases men and women nurse about one another which affect their mutual co-existence in a court devoid of the usual technicalities of court rooms such as legal jargons, but awash with humor, arguments, counter arguments and the display of a great deal of wit by the youthful and idealistic contenders in a university environment. It was his last production staged at the French Institute in Lagos,
Tororo, Tororo, Roro is about a chance meeting of Tunji Oginni and Philomena James both running Hotel Kilimanjaro with different motives eliciting lessons as both share each other's problems in a version of 'Nigerian English.
These social satires, yet unpublished at the time of his death in 2002, have now been published under the title, The Epilogue.
Rotimi's diminutive size belies the giant that he is in drama in Africa whose views have shaped the development of the theater there. He is a pioneer of the theatre in English, most especially for the bridge he created between the popular Yoruba and English theatres. He has made African history fused with oral history come alive as part of our lives as much as he has demonstrated the power of drama to shape the thinking of the society and to solve some of the problems encountered in everyday living.
He is featured in various reputable international reference works such as: the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Encyclopedia of World Authors, Cambridge Guide to World Theater, and the International Authors and Writers Who's Who.
Perfformio Volume 1, Number 1 â”‚ Summer 2009 â”‚ pp5-14 ISSN 1758-1524
'A Rotimi in the Sun': Lorraine Hansberry, Ola Rotimi and the Connections of African Diasporan Theatre
KEVIN J. WETMORE JR.1
Ola Rotimi's African Theatre: The Development of an Indigenous Aesthetic (Edwin Mellen Press), Hardcover (2005)
by Niyi Coker