Biyi Bandele is a London-based Nigerian playwright and novelist who is known for his often-satirical depictions of African and African-immigrant life. His plays feature fictional settings in which characters address social, political, and moral issues pertaining to Nigerian life, and he has written fiction works reflecting his experiences as an immigrant living in contemporary England. His theatrical works are characterized by complex dialogue that combines colloquial English with the vocal rhythms of African storytelling and the techniques of European absurdist comedy. Bandele has won several awards for his plays, including the BT Ethnic and Multicultural Award for best play in 2000 for his adaptation of Aphra Behn's seventeenth-century novel Oroonoko.
Biyi Bandele-Thomas was born in Kafanchan, Nigeria, in 1967. His father, Solomon, whom he called "Baba," was a World War II veteran of the Battle of Burma and worked as an overseer for the local railroad company in Nigeria. In an article in the Guardian in 2003 Bandele described Kafanchan as a "cutlet-sized bastion of inside-outsiders: although situated in the Muslim north, it was populated mainly by southerners and Christians, most of whom, like my family, had lived there since the 1930s when the town sprang up around the new railway station." He described his father as a man on a "lifelong, trauma-induced, one-man campaign to eradicate all forms of unhappiness," whose weapon of choice was the practical joke.
Raised in Nigeria
After the Nigerian Civil War from 1967 to 1970, Kafanchan's economy withered, and many of the city's residents were unemployed. Growing up in this impoverished environment, Bandele recognized higher education as a key to avoiding the fate of working for the local railroad. His family, which belonged to the Yoruba ethnic group, endured some degree of racial antipathy from neighbors, who largely descended from other ethnic groups. Bandele said later that he felt most at home among the Hausa ethnic traditions of his hometown. "All a Muslim had to hear was my name to know I wasn't Muslim," Bandele said in a 2008 interview with Celia McGee in the New York Times, "and I immediately became a second-class citizen. For me that is the scariest racism: tribalism."
Bandele recalled that his earliest enthusiasm for literature and storytelling came when his father purchased the family's first television set, and he watched a broadcast of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, a play depicting the harshness and disaffection of working-class life in postwar Britain. Bandele wrote of this experience in the Guardian: "The lesson I learned watching Look Back in Anger has stayed with me. Great theatre is the telling of a truthful lie, defined by the degree to which facts of the mind are made manifest in a fiction of matter." From this early exposure to drama, Bandele carried with him a desire to tell stories, and he read voraciously to fuel his growing interest in theater.
In 1987 Bandele attended Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, a Yoruba city in the southern part of the nation. In Ile-Ife, which is home to one of the nation's largest universities and is one of Nigeria's cultural centers, Bandele had access to a variety of cultural and artistic resources. He was exposed to film, literature, and stage plays, helping to inspire him and shaping the future course of his professional career. Bandele began writing plays, poetry, and essays while in university and won a number of awards and contests, including the International Student Playscript Competition in 1989 for his play Rain, and the 1990 British Council Lagos Award for a collection of unpublished poems. After his graduation in 1990 with a degree in dramatic arts, Bandele relocated to London.
Found Success in England
Though he had already gained attention as a playwright, Bandele set about writing novels when he arrived in London. His first novel, The Man Who Came in from the Back of Beyond (1991), was a realistic depiction of modern Nigeria. In a review in The Stand, writer Peter Lewis described the book as a "complex narrative structure with framing devices and stories within stories."
Bandele's second book, The Sympathetic Undertaker, and Other Dreams, was published the same year, also to critical praise. A fictional narrative satirizing details of Nigerian and African culture, the book featured the fictional character President Platini Babagee of Zowabia, who resembled the former president of Nigeria, Ibrahim Babangida. In the novel the president is offered a bribe to dispose of industrial waste from Europe at the cost of his nation's national resources and must weigh the potential of accruing wealth against his country's political and economic difficulties.
Bandele's first play, Marching for Fausa, was produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1993. Set in a fictional African locale, it centers on an investigative journalist caught up in a brutal and corrupt political system. The main character tells the story from her prison cell, having been detained for revealing sensitive information about a government minister. That same year Bandele's screenplay Not Even God Is Wise Enough, a study of a British-Nigerian immigrant life in London, was produced as a film by the BBC and directed by Danny Boyle.
At a Glance …
Born Biyi Bandele-Thomas in Kafanchan, Nigeria, on October 13, 1967; son of Solomon Bamidele Thomas; children: one daughter. Education: Obafemi Awolowo University, dramatic arts, 1990.
Career: Royal Court Theatre, associate writer, 1992—; Talawa Theatre Company, writer-in-residence, 1994-95; Royal National Theatre Studio, resident dramatist, 1996; Churchill College, University of Cambridge, Judith E. Wilson Fellow, 2000-01; Bush Theatre, Royal Literary Fund Resident Playwright, 2002-03.
Memberships: PEN; Society of Authors; Writers Guild.
Awards: London New Play Festival Award, 1994; University of Aberdeen, Wingate Scholarship Award, 1995; Peggy Ramsay Award, The Peggy Ramsay Foundation, 1998; BT Ethnic and Multicultural Media Award, Best Play, Ethnic Multicultural Media Academy (EMMA), 2000.
Addresses: Agents—Leah Schmidt, The Agency, 24 Pottery Ln., Holland Park, London W11 4LZ, England; PFD, Drury House, 34-43 Russell St., London WC2B 5HA, England.
Portrayed African and British Subjects
The following year two of Bandele's plays were produced in London: Two Horsemen at the Gate Theatre and Resurrections at the Cochrane Theatre. The more successful of the productions, Two Horsemen was named best new play at the London New Play Festival of 1994. In the play, two street sweepers engage in a conversation that ranges from the banal to the philosophical, set against an abstract environment. The dialogue is highly stylized and inventive, incorporating comic wordplay and repetition. In a review in the Independent, Sarah Hemming wrote of the play, "Bandele's writing is exciting, enigmatic and disturbing—like Beckett and Pinter, he manages to use dramatic dialogue to create an unsettling slippery world." Resurrections, set in an another fictional African landscape, explores morality among all levels of society from the government to the plebeian.
Bandele showcased his comic ability further in 1995 with the play Death Catches the Hunter, the story of a garage mechanic who is transformed into a prophet when he receives a personal communication from god. According to theater critic Lyn Gardner in The Guardian, "this deceptively simple near-parable is both demanding and rewarding in its thematic complexity, craftily constructed and written in a tone that veers excitingly between jaunty colloquialism and a spare, poetic beauty. It is also belly-achingly funny."
In 1997 Bandele adapted Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart (1958) for the stage. The story follows Okonkwo, a tribal leader, coming to terms with the colonial transformation of Nigeria during the late nineteenth century. Bandele's version was praised for its lyrical style. Bandele also adapted Achebe's work into a radio play produced by the BBC in 1998. Of the relevance of Things Fall Apart to modern audiences, Bandele told Rachel L. Swarns in the New York Times, "In Okonkwo's story, the society disintegrated because the people stopped respecting one another, started distrusting one another. … The sad thing is that we seem doomed to repeat those mistakes over and over again."
Having gained considerable recognition for his works with African subjects and settings, Bandele turned his attention away from Africa in his third novel, The Street (1999). Set in Brixton in south London, the novel depicts the history of African immigrant culture in the area and the colorful characters who live, work, and recreate there. Reviewer Kate Flemming said in World Literature Today, "The Street goes beyond exploring the lives of certain individuals, or an attempt to portray the Brixton Street community; it also pays tribute to the community's African heritage. Bandele has written an intelligent and humorous novel which is most successful for its ability to combine both British and African culture." In 2001 Bandele transformed stories from the novel into a series of short plays, which he entitled Brixton Stories/ Happy Birthday, Mister Deka.
Wrote Award-Winning Adaptation
Returning to African subjects, in 1999 Bandele adapted Oroonoko, a work by the seventeenth-century English novelist Aphra Behn, in a production mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Oroonoko tells the story of an African prince sold into slavery and delivered to Suriname, where he leads a slave revolt. Bandele kept only the plot of Behn's work, rewriting most of the dialogue to create a fresh and updated version, which won an EMMA Ethnic and Multicultural Award for best play in 2000.
The play debuted to American audiences in 2008 with an appearance on Broadway and met with mixed reviews. "I wanted Oroonoko's humanity and flaws to come through," Bandele told McGee. In speaking about Behn's work, Bandele said, "She created in Oroonoko a kind of James Bond figure, a Superman, not because she was an abolitionist, but because she felt that the institution of slavery was inhuman, and she had to exaggerate his abilities to counter the argument that certain people deserved to be slaves because they were less than human."
Bandele's fourth novel, Burma Boy, which was released in 2007, was perhaps his most personal work and dealt with the struggles of Africans, like his father, who took part in the Burma conflict during World War II. "This novel really is the novel that I have always wanted to write from day one," Bandele said in an interview with Koye Oyedeji of BBC Africa. "My father died 22 years ago and my mother died three days after my daughter was born. After that I just felt the need to tell the story, for me it was almost as if I was telling my daughter the story of her granddad. So it is quite personal in that way."
With four novels and a number of successful plays, Bandele continued to draw on his African heritage to create works that enhanced his reputation as an important postcolonial African writer. "I am a writer because I have always been an inside outsider," Bandele explained to McGee, adding that he believes his work is connected to the ancient traveling storytellers of Nigeria. Reflecting on his career, Bandele wrote in the Guardian in 2003 that drama appeals to him because it "derives its universality not from catering to the lowest common denominator but by being specific and local. In the universe of the imagination to which we all belong, we may not always know where we are going, but we require no visas to go there and we need not worry about packing. The name of the place is home."
The Man Who Came in from the Back of Beyond, Bellew, 1991.
The Sympathetic Undertaker, and Other Dreams, Bellew, 1991.
The Street, Picador, 1999.
Burma Boy, Jonathan Cape, 2007.
Marching for Fausa, 1993.
Two Horsemen, 1994.
Death Catches the Hunter, 1995.
(Adaptation) Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, 1997.
Thieves Like Us, 1998.
(Adaptation) Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn, 1999.
Brixton Stories/Happy Birthday, Mister Deka, 2001.
Not Even God Is Wise Enough, BBC, 1993.
Bad Boy Blues, BBC, 1996.
The Guardian (London), April 26, 2003.
New York Times, February 11, 2008; February 17, 2008.
Variety, March 1999; February 11, 2008.
World Literature Review, March 1994.
World Literature Today, June 2000.
Oyedeji, Koye, "Interview: Biyi Bandele," BBC Africa Online, 2007, http://www.bbc.co.uk/africabeyond/africanarts/19924.shtml (accessed March 12, 2008).
—Micah L. Issitt