A Concise History of Nigerian Theatre, Television-Cum-Film and the Future of Drama

A Concise History of Nigerian Theatre, Television-Cum-Film and the Future of Drama

The evolution of theatre, TV and film in Nigeria is in consonance with William George Jordan’s assertion in The Power of Peace that Charles Darwin’s 1859 book, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, was inspired by Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. Other writers also opine that the work of Alfred Russell Wallace similarly stimulated Darwin.

Jordan then went on to say that Malthus may have been stirred by another’s writing, which could progressively be traced to the words of a shepherd in ancient England who might have died, believing that he did not make any impact in the world when indeed his words spoken at auspicious moments culminated in arguably the most influential book of the 19th century. By the same token, Nigerian theatre, TV and film derive from folklore plus traditional dance and music of yore, where people gathered as families, kindred, clans, villages and communities in the evenings or during festivals and ceremonies to entertain themselves.

In the 1940s and 50s, the late Hubert Ogunde popularized the travelling theatre, which went from one south-western Nigerian city to another, staging plays. Unlike the pre-colonial times, interested spectators paid Ogunde and his team to watch the performances. Incidentally, he was also one of Nigeria’s pioneer filmmakers, whose films include: Aiye, Jaiyesimi and Ayanmo. However, Pa Orlando Martins was the first Nigerian to feature in a film, Sanders of the River – a 1935 film by Zoltan Korda, which starred Paul Robeson, Leslie Banks and Nina Mae McKinney. The movie was partly shot in the country.

It is also pertinent to mention that John Ifoghale Amata, the patriarch of the Amata film dynasty, which includes Zack, Fred, Ruke and Jeta – was the first Nigerian to produce a colour film, Freedom, in 1957. The other first generation filmmakers include; Ola Balogun (Amadi 1975, The Music Man, 1977); Eddie Ugboma (The Rise and Fall of Dr Oyenusi Omiran, 1979, Oil Doom, 1980); Francis Oladele (Kongi’s Harvest, 1970, Bullfrog in the Sun, 1970); Ade Afolayan (Ajani Ogun, 1976, Taxi Driver, 1983); Jab Adu (Cool Red, 1976, Bisi, Daughter of the River, 1977); and Moses Adejumo alias Baba Sala (Orun Mooru, 1982, Aare Agbaye, 1983).

The roles played on the one hand by Francis Oladele, who adapted Kongi’s Harvest and Things Fall Apart, as well as Wole Soyinka-cum-Chinua Achebe on the other hand, who consented to the adaptation of Kongi’s Harvest and Things Fall Apart in 1970 and ’71 respectively must be underscored. Incidentally, the screen adaptation of Things Fall Apart produced by Oladele was called Bullfrog in the Sun, but the book was adapted again into a 13-hour TV film in the 1980s by the BBC and the NTA, with Pete Edochie playing the lead role in the new version. Unfortunately, the adaptations of those two great works of art did not lead to an adaptation inertia as the excellent literary works of Nigerian writers remain on the shelves, waiting for screen adaptation. Yet, Tunde Kelani must be commended as a lone literally voice in the adaptation campaign as several of his films, including Dazzling Mirage, Maami, Oleku and Thunderbolt, are adaptations.

Filmmaking, like other businesses in Nigeria, suffered a setback impediment, following a dipping economy in the 1980s. In 1989, Muyideen ‘Alade’ Aromire of blessed memory ingeniously produced Ekun, Nigeria’s first video film in response to the plunging economy. Scores of other videos films then followed, produced on the Video Home System (VHS).

In 1992, Living in Bondage was made on a shoe-string budget like the video films preceding it. Surprisingly, the audience identified with the film, which tells the story of a man, who is facing hard times and decides to use his dear wife for a money-making ritual. The film is said to have sold tens of thousands of copies within a few weeks of its release on VHS cassettes, setting a hitherto unattained record in Nigeria’s video film world. It is incontrovertible that Nigeria’s film industry (and those of a few other African countries) stands on the shoulders of Living in Bondage’s ground-breaking success.

Ola Balogun, who bagged a Ph.D. in Film from a French university, is esteemed for taking Chris Obi Rapu, the director of Living in Bondage 1, under his tutelage as his assistant director in his 1976 film, The Music Man. Obi Rapu admits that it was his involvement in that project in addition to his experience as the director of The Art Alade Show, Barbie Show and New Masquerade at the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) that culminated in the cutting-edge output in Living in Bondage 1, where he depended on improvisation because the producer (Okey Ogunjiofor) and executive producer (Kenneth Nnebue) had approached him with an outline of the project rather than a proper screenplay. Curiously, he too did not write a screenplay for the film, a situation that still considerably obtains amongst some movie producers and directors today.

The Western Nigerian Television (WNTV) Ibadan was the pioneer TV station, which began broadcasting in 1959. It later metamorphosed into NTA with several TV stations across the country. The NTA was popular for many outstanding drama series between the 1970s and 90s including The Adio Family, The Village Headmaster, Cockcrow at Dawn, The Third Eye, Mirror in the Sun, Check­mate and Fortunes.

Little wonder the individuals who made the films that followed the success of Living in Bondage, were mostly independent television producers who produced drama series for the NTA, the only television platform at that time as private television stations started obtaining licences in the mid-1990s. These personalities include; Tunde Kelani (Ti Oluwa Ni Ile 1, 2 & 3; O Le Ku 1 & 2); Zeb Ejiro (Fatal Desire, Nneka, the Pretty Serpent); Bolaji Dawodu (Battle of Musanaga 1 & 2) Christian Chika Onu (Living in Bondage 2); Chico Ejiro (Silent Night, Dead End); Tade Ogidan (Hostages, Out of Bounds); Amaka Igwe (Rattlesnake, Violated); and Andy Amenechi (Mortal Inheritance).

By the mid-1990s, with the video film business now a money-spinner, less attention was paid to TV productions, resulting in low-quality TV series on air. The theatre-going public, who were already dwindling owing to growing insecurity at about the same time, thinned down the more; the staging of plays became few and far between, happening mostly during special events. Moreover, the lack of maintenance of theatre facilities at the National Theatre, where many of the big plays were presented, equally affected the stage business.

Thankfully, in the last decade or so, the emergence of places like Terra Kulture has resulted in the resurgence of theatre productions as theatre enthusiasts are entertained with one stage play or another almost every weekend. Hear Word, Love is the Musical, The Last Drop, Hard Ground and Saro, the Musical are amongst the prominent stage plays that have graced the stage in recent times. With corporate sponsorships for stage performances and a crop of committed stage advocates like Bolanle Austen-Peters, Ifeoma Fafunwa, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Joke Silva and Kemi ‘Lala!’ Akindoju, the future of the stage is quite bright.

In television, Africa Magic and a few other pro­duction outfits have, in the last decade, invested handsomely in the production of exceptional TV series, which are comparable to those that made waves during the era fondly described as the golden age of TV. Doctors’ Quarters, Edge of Paradise, Tinsel and Hotel Majestic are some of the outstanding drama series from the new TV houses. Some of them have been rested. Mo Abudu’s Ebony Life TV has also joined the crusade for high-quality TV productions with TV series like Desperate Housewives Africa and Friend Zone.

Additionally, several magazine programmes surface daily both on terrestrial and satellite TV; celebrating, highlighting and analyzing the movie, TV and theatre sub-divisions of the entertainment sector. Nollywood Uncut, Entertainment News, Art House, VVIP Events, Glam Squad, Metro File, Jara, 53 Extra and Entertainment Weekly are some of the programmes that are wholly or partly dedicated to this cause.

Much as the technical quality of Nollywood films has improved considerably in the last decade or so, industry practitioners should realize that nothing can take the place of compelling stories and riveting screenplays that are then well-executed. Indeed, these filmmakers have a lot to learn from Nigerian theatre, where many of the stage plays are laden with humour that hardly fails to make the audience think at the same time. Today’s films are filled with slapstick comedy that is at best superficial without any sort of resonance!

Accordingly, the watchword for today’s movie-makers should be to vacate the beaten tracks and explore the innovative-cum-thought-provoking ideas in the numerous unexplored areas of the Nigerian experience because, with the right people and exceptional ideas, the movie industry is set for Olympian heights.

Chika Okpala


First published in Omenka Magazine Volume II Issue III

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