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50 years of solo performing art in Nigerian Theatre 1966-2016 - Review

14 Sep 2022 3:30 AM | Anonymous

Carolyn Nur Wistrand, Assistant Professor of English and Drama Dillard University reviews 50 years of solo performing art in Nigerian Theatre 1966-2016 by Greg Mbajiorgu and Amanze Akpuda.

Since the 1970s, Performance Art has championed site-specific artists conceptualizing singular visions as nontraditional theatre practitioners throughout the globe. The collective international rise of solo performances that utilize open spaces as diverse as street corners to shop windows has brought us revolutionary artists whose messages, offered to the people, are not for sale.

Challenging and discarding many conventional theatre aesthetics, this minimalist theatre style began as a vehicle for agit-prop, in your face, performances to bring spectators into a raw engagement with the performer. 50 years of solo performing art in Nigerian Theatre 1966-2016, is the first anthology to provide an overview of this practice as it has developed in Nigeria. Edited by Greg Mbajiorgu and Amanze Akpuda, this important addition to the study of Performance Art includes over 30 essays from Nigerian scholars and theatre artists, providing a definitive and up-to-date study of solo performance in Nigeria.

Organized in nine sections, the anthology begins with three essays from Moses Oludele Idowu, Emeka Nwabueze, and Chike Okoye that lay the historical foundations of Performance Art from a West African Cosmology. Chapter One, Idowu’s Words of Power, and the Power of Words: The Spoken Word as Medium of Vital Force in African Cosmology leads off the edition with an essay on spoken word that captures the mystical root of “The Word” in traditional African, Judeo-Christian, and Muslim religious belief systems, before narrowing in on Ase in Yoruba Cosmology. Nwabueze (Chapter 2) continues to trace the origins of Performance Art in his essay through a narrative on the traditional griot as storyteller and guardian of the people that would also be of interest to African American spoken word artists.

Throughout American streets and college campuses, countless young “Neo-griots” rhyme and recite their poetry unaware of the African roots in their aesthetic. Okoye (Chapter 3) then takes us into sacred rituals surrounding Igbo masks/masquerade and the evolution in scholarly arguments that identify the Igbo Mask as an example of solo performance. The first three essays are vital in locating the foundation of Performance Art in Nigeria far beyond 20th century Western Avant-Garde theatre.             

Section B targets “Meta-Theoretical, Comparative, Analytical, and Generic Studies” to pinpoint various approaches to the solo performer, from the American comedian Lily Tomlin to Greg Mbajiorgu. Unfortunately, this section falls short, losing an important opportunity to cross the Atlantic by not mentioning Ana Deavere Smith, whose one-woman performances (portraying over 30 characters in each performance) of Fires in the Mirror (1992), Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1994), and The Arizona Project (2008) have brought international acclaim to Solo Performance Art.

Throughout the text references to numerous Western artists-Shakespeare, Jean-Paul Sartre, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Bertolt Brecht, and Virginia Woolf (to name a few) are made; to not include the foremost African American Performance Solo Artist, Ana Deavere Smith leaves Section B with a major omission that would have added dimension and scope.

The Pioneer Nigerian Soloists: Betty Okotie, Tunji Sotimirin, and Funsho Alabi are captured in nine essays in Section C. Tracing the rise of solo performances and the issues in crafting a solo play, the essays consider how various pioneers in the discipline, Okotie, Sotimirin, Alabi, and Mbarjiogu have responded and claimed this theatrical genre in post-colonial Nigeria to give voice to their own creative force.

Directing the Monodrama Script includes four essays that target real-world issues a director encounters working with a solo performer to flesh out authentic character/s.  This section provides a fascinating discussion of a director’s challenge in capturing the distinct physical, intellectual, and emotional nuances of each character that is brought to life on the stage through one performer (since a solo performer may take on numerous characters in his/her mono-drama).

The transitions from and to each character are tackled in the direction and enhanced working with other theatre practitioners to mount a one-wo/man production. Section D is also a testament to the evolution of this art form as technical designers (lights, sound, set, and costumes) are considered to enhance the vision of the director.

It is midway through the book that we are introduced to the creators of Nigerian Performance Art in Section E: Encountering Dramatists/Actor-Dramatists. This is one of the most important sections of the book, highlighting interviews with Tunji Sotimirin,  Greg Mbajiorgu, Tunde Awosanmi, Inua Ellams (arguably Nigeria’s most renowned performance artist in England), and Benedict Binebai. What makes these interviews so engaging is their universal appeal to theatre artists throughout the globe seeking to take risks and forge fresh vision as they create new works for the stage.

Additionally, personal reflective essays by Akpos Adesi, “My Heritage as a Dramatist and My Monodrama Creations: Reflections and Benedict Binebai, “My Monodrama: The Vision and Philosophy” allow the reader deeper insight into the process by which individual theatre artists forge into the dramatic landscape of monodrama as technique and craft continue to evolve. These artistic statements offer a wealth of primary material for future theatre practitioners and scholars of theatre performance.

Greg Mbajiorgu, (the editor whose original vision and dedication to monodrama brought this text into fruition), is prominently highlighted in Section F. Seven theatre scholars offer essays that seek to deconstruct Mbajiorgu’s theatre practices in his definitive piece, The Prime Minister’s Son, a modern sorrow song that takes the audience through the harrowing tale of a homeless and bereft young man.

An examination of Mbajiorgu’s monodrama and his non-binary performance consider the layered subtexts he crafts to bring to the stage the consequences of war, sexual abuse, and shameful discarding of street children in this singular piece through dialogue, poetics, and music. Short excerpts from the play The Prime Minister’s Son are incorporated into the essays, although including the entire script in this section would provide added weight to the criticism.

Incorporating essays on one singular play (moving dangerously close to a “vanity press” chapter by the editor) from seven scholars demands the reader have the opportunity to access the script under scrutiny. An additional section with a sampling of the major Dramatists works (Okotie, Sotimirin, Alabi, Mbajiorgu, Awosanmi, Ellams, and Binebai) would carry this volume to a wider audience.        

Two essays on Inua Ellams’ work bringing magical realism to the stage through the voice of the outsider are highlighted in Section G, while Benedict Binebai, (who was interviewed and provided a personal essay in Section E) is considered in three distinct essays in Section H beginning with a discussion of Karina’s Cross and feminist aesthetics in Nigerian monodrama.  

Chidi O. Nwankwo’s Chapter 38, Idiomaticity of Feminist Aesthetics in Binebai’s Karina’s Cross locates this piece as the first monodrama in Nigeria to incorporate feminine consciousness and empowerment.  Section I concludes this epic study with two essays by Kenneth Efakponana  and Emeka Aniago placing feminist theory at the forefront of their examinations of  Akpos Adesi’s “Whose Daughter Am I?” a one woman play originally staged by The Department of Theatre Arts at Niger Delta University in 2015.

Eni considers how identity is presented in Adesi’s work (who defines the identity of the female gender-controls the identity of the female gender) as a major theme at the core of this one woman monodrama. Aniago goes on to consider the layers of victimhood in Adesi’s main character, Tarilayefa, who believes her descent into prostitution is the result of misery, poverty, and inequalities-blaming society as her oppressor.   

The book concludes with short bios of all 36 scholars and theatre practitioners who contributed essays and conducted interviews. At 614 pages, this project is a monumental undertaking that began in 2015. Documenting in one volume the first practitioners in post-colonial Nigeria to create solo performance as a viable stage practice, makes this work, edited by Mbajiorgu and Akpuda, the foundation of all future studies in solo performing art in Nigeria.

Since none of the monodramas were included in this book, a second volume that provides the major works in one anthology is recommended. This edition should not be confined to Nigeria. 50 Years of Solo Performing Art in Nigerian Theatre 1966-2016 widens the discussion of this innovative art practice to Solo Performance Artists, scholars, and students of African Drama throughout the globe.

Reviewer: Carolyn Nur Wistrand, Assistant Professor of English and Drama Dillard University, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

Mbajiorgu, Greg and Akpuda, Amanze. 50 years of solo performing art in Nigerian Theatre 1966-2016. Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria: Kraft Books Limited, 2018. ISBN: 978-978-918-514-6.

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