Tuesday, June 22, 2021 9:11 am
By Olu Obafemi
Femi Osofisan is 75, in the morning Season of Winter and midway on the journey towards the Season of the Octogenarian. But it is yet early noon of creation and creator’s day. If you look at his spell- bounding oeuvre—over 60 published and stage produced plays, undoubtedly Nigeria’s most staged dramatist; his four volumes of poetry, five novels, three biographies, including the most authoritative written testament on the departed JP Clark, seven seminal essayistic and polemic outings, you would certainly wonder, what else at 75? But if you are close to this great, irrepressible weaverbird; you find that his fingers twitch, the smiling face and tricky eyes roam, gazing at the horizon, like all visionaries’ are wont to do, then you will come to know that there is still so much creative water to fetch from his endless spring of knowledge. Happy Birthday then, our emerged literary patriarch and icon of the humanities. Welcome to more industry in your restless search for answers and solutions to our world of chaos and incoherence.
So much has been said already of your many exploits as a teacher, public intellectual, creative and theatre artist, translator, biographer and humanist. This little tribute is to your rare engagements as an unacknowledged transcultural ambassador of our nation and a critical creator in the domain of meta-inter-textual aesthetics, through which you have traversed the globe with your stage scripts and, reinterpreting the world’s drama classics from the lens of the Yoruba cosmogony and Africa’s world view. That, dear friend, is the area in which you have transferred and renewed cultures to inform the world about us and inform us about the world. This is a rare role for which you must be hurray-ed. Unfortunately, nobody has sent you, or those before you, on such a noble journey. And so, that task is unacknowledged, as I began to say, by the state, mainly of course, because if you asked them, right from the beginning, they will not confess it, but they seldom appointed our men of culture to be their image- makers outside of our shores. So if our cultural creators and practitioners have, as many of them have —Hubert Ogunde and his troupes across West Africa, Duro Ladipo, with the help, guide and support of that cultural boundary-smasher, Ulli Beier– played the role of our cultural ambassador in Germany. And of course since the mid- fifties, as a student and fresh graduate till he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first one by Blackman, Wole Soyinka has carried the image of Nigeria across the world even at moments when the notion was at its most abjured and contemned during the Abacha Gulag days. Ditto, Achebe and the very many humanists and writers of Nigerian origin who have burnished and elevated the name and stature of Nigeria abroad when the politicians have wrecked and rubbished it—Professors Echeruo, Irele, Obiechina, the late Owomoyela and Nwoga, Egudu, Emenyonu, Jeyifo, Dare, Osundare, Falola, Olupona, Omofolabo Ajayi–Soyinka, Ojaide and their many successors— Olaniyan, Adesanmi, Adebanwi, Adeeko, Otiono, Garuba, Habila, Adichie, Adesanmi, Ifowodo, and so on —have carried their Nigerian identities on their foreheads as they make a living abroad and building Nigeria’s exile literary and humanistic culture for the nation, out there.
Femi Osofisan’s role as a trans-cultural ambassador, is both unique and inimitable. He stays here and goes there to build in both ways. In the last four decades, he has traversed the world stage, almost like the modern Alarinjo, with his plays, poems and essays. He has directed, acted and taught in several countries and universities of the world; in the United States, he has been on the acting and performance spaces at Evanston in Northwestern, Indiana’s Bloomington, Emory in Atlanta, Cornell at Ithaca, Iowa, Philadelphia. His plays, my of the more than 50 of them published, went up on stage at the Guthrie theatre in Minneapolis, Madison, DePau, of Indiana, Stanford, and NYU, the Chipping Norton, and Tricycle In the United Kingdom where he has played and/or talked in Leeds, Edinburgh, and Southampton. In the Caribbean he has mounted the stage in Trinidad. He has mounted the stage in Sri Lanka, Sierra-Leone, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, and South Africa. In Canada at York. in Ghana’s Legon doing plays, as well as accrediting theatre courses (along with me) in all Ghanaian universities.
Now, in the past 10 years, until Covid-19 rudely / callously interrupted and disrupted his movements in and out, he had been spending a minimum of three months each in China and Germany. In China, he has been teaching, researching, developing curriculum, and opening minds to African modern theatre. With his primal soul-mate, Biodun Jeyifo, he had started a course in African theatre and drama at the Peking University in China to the delight and enthusiasm of Chinese students—helping to develop postgraduate programmes and getting some Nigerian academics to do sabbatical there. He has been engaged across the country in conferences ‘talking about the developments in African literature,’ arranging translations with publishers, including doing adaptations and staging the Chinese playwright’s Cao Yu’s Thunderstorm (‘All for Catherine’). Through these, he has, in his words, ‘ increased Nigeria’s profile in the country (China)through our courses and through the students’
In Germany, the pathway has been equally fascinating. First, he was a Fellow (for 12 months, split-able to four months every year) at the International Research Centre at the Freie University in Berlin, founded to investigate ‘Interweaving Performance Cultures (the equivalent of intercultural and multicultural performances, in sync with his now famous ‘international adaptations and the search for truly African modern theatre.’ He was deservedly promoted to the Board of the Centre, which is ‘available, with good stipend to do one’s work’, and write one’s plays, poems, after paying diligent attention to the regular seminars and workshops, visit productions and exhibitions. This is where he has written some of his more recent scripts and laundering the image of Nigeria, largely un-appointed, thanklessly, long after he was awarded the Nigerian National Order of Merit!
Given his kind of global engagements, it is to be expected that he would engage in reading and re-interpreting literary texts and works –from the classics to the contemporary- imbuing them with new meanings, new philosophies, new aesthetics and new ideologies in a way that brings the world closer together, not in the strict sense of globalization, or even Glocalization, but for narrowing differences in cultures, expounding mutual understanding of inter-cosmic essences, and in the humanizing process of the universe. In a sense, this dramatist has, quite wittingly I suppose, benefited from the poststructuralist theory which contends that interpretation is dependent, largely, on an individual reader of any given text, in accordance with the ideological persuasion of the reader/writer. Beginning from textual oral history and mythology of African texts, Osofisan has made dialectical re-interpretation of the works of the First Generation of Nigerian writers—especially, Wole Soyinka and Clark Bekederemo. He has relieved the tragic notion of the scape-goat in Soyinka’s The Strong Breed and sewed into a positive vision through No More the Wasted Breed. Similarly, Clark’s The Raft is no longer caught, tragically, in the whir-pool of Osikaboro in Another Raft to explore the dialectics of unifiable diversity of the Nigerian nation. For the classics, Osofisan has turned Sophocle’s Antigone into Tegonni: An African Antigone, where Antigone had been catapulted from the past to combine forces with Tegonni in her revolt against British imperialism in colonial Nigeria. He reinterprets Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector which castigates some of the decadent social norms and malaise in the Russian society to expose and satirize the endemic corruption in the Local Government system in Nigeria in Who is Afraid of Solarin? Shakespeare’s Hamlet was transformed into Wesoo Hamlet in his recreation, and so on…
Now, at 75, and in the cold morning breeze of the Winter Season, it has been fascinating pathways for one of Africa’s most prolific and important writers—playwright, poet, novelist, translator, inter-textual aesthete, radical artist and activist intellectual who has published numerous works in all known genres in the humanities.
If it were in the mundane world of power and politics, it would have been a rousing boom of 75 Gun Salutes! But for the oracle of words, and the Alchemist of Cognition, Femi Osofisan, let a thousand flowers bloom and 75 songs fill the stage. Happy Birthday, brother and friend, Okinba Launko, Elereko!
Professor Obafemi is a playwright and poet
First published in ThisDay newspaper