Rotimi, Ola 1938—

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Ola Rotimi 1938

Playwright, director

At a Glance

Selected writings


The dramatic works of Ola Rotimi are known throughout Africa and have made him one of the most significant playwrights on that continent. His dramatic works have been performed in Europe and Africa and are the focus of study in Europe and in American universities with African studies programs. He has also published short stories and critical articles on African theater. An accomplished play director, Rotimi has taken many works directly to the people with the University of Ife Theatre, a repertory company that performs works in the Yoruba language, Nigerian pidgin, and English.

The youngest of three children, Olawale, known as Ola, was born on April 13, 1938. His father, Samuel Enitan Rotimi was a steam-launch engineer from the Yoruba ethnic group of Western Nigeria, and his mother, Dorcas Oruene, was an Ijo from Nembe in Eastern Nigeria. The young boy grew up learning four of the three hundred full-blooded languages spoken in Nigeria, as well as English, the administrative language of the country.

The Rotimis were interested in the arts: Olas mother excelled in traditional dance and managed her own dance group from 1945 to 1949. His father often wrote and recited, and he organized the community theater in Port Harcourt where Ola grew up. Olas uncle, Chief Robert Dede, was the lead performer in a traditional dance troupe called a masquerade. Dede and his dancers, dressed in elaborate costumes, danced, sang, and acted in what was one of the most spectacular of such troupes in Rivers State. The young boy first appeared on stage at age four in a play directed and produced by his father.

Rotimi attended the Methodist Boys High School in the capitol city of Lagos from 1952 to 1956, during which time he earned the nicknames Shakespeare incarnate and the Poet for his writing. Some of his works were broadcast on Nigerian radio and published in institutional magazines. On a scholarship from the Nigerian government, Rotimi studied theater at Boston University, and from 1963 to 1966 he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in playwriting and dramatic literature at Yale University on a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship. His socio-political comedy Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again was chosen Yales student play of the year in 1966.

Since then Rotimi has become a household name among

At a Glance

Full name, Emmanuel Gladstone Olawale Rotimi; born April 13, 1938; son of Samuel Enitan (a steam-launch engineer) and Dorcas Oruene (a dancer) Rotimi; married, wifes name, Hazel Mae Gaudreau; children: Enitan, Oruene (daughter), Biodun, Kole. Education: Holds undergraduate degree from Boston University; Yale University, M.F.A., 1966.

Playwright, director. Head of Department of Creative Arts at the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria; has also served as visiting professor, playwright, and director in Germany and Italy, as well as at DePauw University and Wabash University.

Awards: Awarded two Fullbright Scholarships.

Addresses: Office Dept. of Creative Arts, Faculty of the Humanities, University of Port Harcourt, PMB 5323, Rivers State, Nigeria.

the educated of Nigeria. The driving force of his artistic endeavor is to achieve what he calls total theater. Rotimi extends the boundaries of traditional Western theater by embracing dance, mime, music, and song, as well as the ritual aspects of traditional African life. Because he believes that theater should be a medium of the people, Rotimi elicits audience participation, targeting as his audience the literate minority who speak Englishthose who determine the social course of the nation.

When I studied in America, there is no doubt that my scholarship gained immense depth. My self-confidence in writing and teaching grew tremendously, Rotimi told Mike Lillich of the DePauw University Alumnus. But I was inundated with Americanisms. I had to link up with my people. So my immediate audience has been the Nigerian people within my own cultural context. Any other kind of writing for me would be artificial. Once my people accept me, the world will look at me. It has taken me a long time to get out and test the world market. Rotimi continued by saying that he tampers with the English language in order to temper its Englishness, to experiment with the English language to create an elegant simplicity. Trademarks of Rotimis works are his use of mostly monosyllabic and disyllabic words and his incorporation of traditional languages, song, and dance.

Rotimis literary popularity also derives from the historical reaches of his plays. Im concerned with history first of all because of the pedagogic motivation, Rotimi stated in an interview with Kunle Ajibade of the African Concord. Most of us Africans are ignorant of our history. When I was in secondary school, we learnt tangentially African History and usually from a myopic, jaundiced perspective of Western scholars. The play tries to teach history through drama. My second mission is, of course, to see whether we could emulate some heroic figures in history. With these goals in mind, Rotimi tries to answer this question: Who runs the political landscape of Africa?

In Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, Rotimi depicted the cocoa farmer and businessman Lejoka-Brown as a self-seeking, opportunistic leader who could make better contributions to Nigeria outside the political arena. In Ovoranwen Nogbaisi, the title character simply luxuriates in the grandeur of his office. Although he is a custodian of culture who inspires people, he does not actively participate in their struggles. Similarly, in if the young firebrand Hamidu is nowhere to be found when a real commitment is required. Kurunmi from the play of the same name is a jingoistic narrow-minded leader, and in The Gods Are Not to Blame Odelwale, a man of the people, comes to grief because of his ethnicism, according to Rotimi, the bane of modern Africa.

In contrast to these negative portrayals, in Hopes of the Living Dead, Rotimi depicts a different kind of leader in Harcourt Whyte. Now we have a selfless, result oriented, committed leadership complimented by a followership that believes in the good of the generality of its members through the application of itself to the cause that is beneficial, the author told Ajibade. Hopes of the Living Dead illustrates what I consider as a very good leadership and an approximation of an ideal followership.

Selected writings

The Gods Are Not to Blame, Oxford University Press, 1971; reprint Ibadan, Nigeria: University Press, 1985.

Ovoranwen Nogbaisi: An Historical Tragedy, Ethiope Publishing Corporation, 1974.

Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, Oxford University Press Nigeria, 1977.

If, Heinmann Educational Books, 1983.

Everyone His/Her Own Problems, 1986.

Hopes of the Living Dead, Spectrum Books, 1988.

Kurunmi, University Press Limited, 1989.


African Concord, April 1, 1991.

DePauw University Alumnus, Winter 1990.

LACE Occasional Publications, Vol. 1, No. 3 (June 23, 1984), Theatre Department, University of Gbadan, Nigeria.

Weekend Concord, April 20, 1991.

Jeanne M. Lesinski