By John Otu
The 614–paged 50 Years of Solo Performing Art in Nigerian Theatre 1966-2016 edited by Greg Mbajiorgu and Amanze Akpuda is a monumental accomplishment in the annals of the theatre tradition and scholarship in Nigeria. The book is a compendium of varied vignettes of theatrical practice surrounding Solo Performing art in Nigeria.
Until the arrival of this treasure, perhaps Solo or mono-dramatic subgenre was at least, seen as a perfunctory art without any generally accepted form or structure. In Nigeria, stand-up comedians or masters of ceremonies practising an art which then was regarded as a far cry from the organized theatre with up-to-date dramaturgy were commonly seen as Solo performing artists. It is this lacuna that this book has palpably filled, thereby incontrovertibly becoming the first authoritative book on the mono-dramatic or minimalist theatre in Nigeria.
Diverse, if variegated aspects of Solo- theatre are reflected in nine parts with insightful and enlightening essays crafted by theatre veterans, renowned scholars and critics, celebrated playwrights, actors, directors and producers of plays to adequately anchor and illustrate current theoretical trends and ideas surrounding mono-drama in contemporary Nigeria. Section A, entitled “Theoretical And Proto- Historical/Pre- Generic Foundations” made up of three seminal essays traces the Solo drama to its pristine origin in African folklore as seen in spoken poetry, the aesthetics of the griot and the Igbo mask, and also reflective of Yoruba and Ijaw incantatory poetry. Section B comprises articles that underscore meta-theoretical, comparative, analytical and generic studies revolving around the character of a solo performer – the elements of tradition and talent evinced by a performer in this genre and the literary accoutrements of Monodrama such as Asides and Apostrophe, and their application in the requisite texts. In this section also are a number of essays that articulate the concept of monodrama from a mélange of perspectives, philosophical, religious, etc.
Section C is a historian’s delight as it properly situates the origin of Solo Drama in Post-Colonial Nigeria steered by such precursors as Betty Okotie and Wale Ogunyemi under the tutelage of the legendary literary patron, Wole Soyinka, at the University of Ibadan. It is from these pathfinders that the more popular and prominent practitioners of this trade today, namely, Tunji Sotimirin, Funsho Alabi, Greg Mbarjiogu, etc honed their skills.
Section D is unique for its demonstrative relevance in treating in depth the techniques and challenges of directing the mono-drama script. The reader comes away from this section with a distinct knowledge that a one-actor show is not synonymous with a one-man Production. Whereas one actor can embody and act different characters, many facilitators behind the scene enhance performance.
In Section E, the reader encounters the major dramatists/Actors practising in this genre in no-holds-barred interview sessions with seasoned practitioners or critics, who through their conversations coax or coerce from the interviewee the salient motivations behind their artistry. For instance, in the interview with Sotimirin by Austine Amanze Akpuda and Chikwura Destiny Isiguzo, Sotimirin makes a clear distinction between Solo performance and Stand- up comedy.
Other sections, F, G, H & I are essays approached from diverse perspectives on the key plays of outstanding Solo-drama performers. These essays examine the works of Greg Mbarjiogu, Inua Ellams, Benedict Binebai and Akpos Adesi.
However, what invests a ring of authenticity on the 50 Years of Solo Performing Art is the magisterial tone with which some of Nigeria’s acclaimed theatre authorities analytically proclaim this genre. It is impossible to ignore a book which features such theatre scholars and practitioners as Emeka Nwabueze, Kalu Uka, Ahmed Yerima, Ben Tomoloju, Chimalum Nwankwo, Ademola Dasylva etc. These certainly constitute a rare constellation of stars. Nwabueze’s, “The Griot as Solo Artiste: Aesthetics of Performance in African Folk Art” situates monodrama in Africa in the folklore. He also dissects the aesthetics of performance by the griot, bard and minstrel- making it a delight to a taxonomist. With Uka we see the point of intersection between western influence on Solo- theatre in Nigeria and unique African performative theatre that reminds us of T.S. Eliot’s famous paradigm of Tradition and the Individual Talent.
Perhaps, this book also puts paid to the perennial controversy that had dogged Solo- theatre in Nigeria with regard to its primogenitor(s). Aside the indubitable fact established earlier in this work regarding the origination of this genre in the hands of Okotie and Ogunyemi in the 1960s with the performance of Acts Without Words, Beckett’s play, 50 Years of Solo Performing Art states authoritatively that after the disquieting lull that followed that premier stage, it was only in the early 1990s that what appeared like an attempt to capture Solo theatre in text emerged with Greg Mbarjiorgu’s popular play, The Prime- Minister’s Son. This assertion is also authenticated by many analysts and knowledgeable interviewees in the book. Austine Amanze Akpuda clinches this position properly in his profound essay in chapter six in which he brilliantly illustrates the features of the classical monodrama vis a vis The Prime- Minister’s Son, among other acclaimed plays in this genre.
From turning open the rich vault of The Prime- Minister’s Son other practitioners Innua Ellams, Benedict Binebai and Akpos Adesi have obviously drawn inspiration to present their enthralling art to the Nigerian theatre audience. Ben Tomoloju in chapter 5 deftly x-rays Sotimirin’s interesting play, “Molue” against the backdrop of the aesthetics of ‘One- man Showmanship.
Given the ambitious scope of this work and the depth of engaging analyses of the plays that hinge on mono-dramatic aesthetics, 50 Years of Solo Performing Art is clearly a timely arrival to confer some form of symmetry and authenticity on Solo Theatre scholarship in Nigeria. The errors- mostly typographical- are minimal, and the layout of the book is elegant and appealing. The issues thematized in the individual works of the core practitioners are many and exhaustively treated. However, beyond Moses Oludele Idowu’s deftly executed “Words of Power, and the Power of Words…” there is need to have devoted more chapters to linguistic (phonological/phonetic) elements such as diction and the speaking cadence of the voice as primary forces that drive Solo theatre.
Overall, this book convincingly establishes the fact that though Solo theatre reached its high water-mark in Europe and America, Nigeria is not lacking in gifted practitioners who have through their remarkable genius, taken this art to a clearly unprecedented height. This book is a testament of all that is ennobling in Solo Drama, without giving short shrift to its flaws, although the gifted editors- Greg and Amanze robustly contend in their well-crafted introduction that the former elements outweigh the latter. Any library that is not decorated with this gem is famished of a current intellectual sensation.
- John Otu is a lecturer at the Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo