Olawale Gladstone Emmanuel Rotimi, best known as Ola Rotimi, was one of Nigeria’s leading playwrights and theatre directors. He was the son of Samuel Gladstone Enitan Rotimi a Yoruba steam-launch engineer (a successful director and producer of amateur theatricals) and Dorcas Adolae Oruene Addo an Ijaw drama enthusiast. He was born on the 13th of April 1938 in Sapele, Nigeria.
He attended St. Cyprian’s School in Port Harcourt from 1945 to 1949, St Jude’s School, Lagos, from 1951 to 1952 and the Methodist Boys High School in Lagos, before travelling to the United States in 1959 to study at Boston University, where he obtained a BA in fine arts. In 1965, he married Hazel Mae Guadreau, originally from Gloucester; Hazel also studied at Boston University, where she majored in opera, voice and music education.
In 1966 he obtained an MA from Yale School of Drama, where he earned the distinction of being a Rockefeller Foundation scholar in playwriting and dramatic literature. Rotimi often examined Nigeria’s history and local traditions in his works. His first plays, To Stir the God of Iron (produced 1963) and Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again (produced 1966; published 1977), were staged at the drama schools of Boston University and Yale, respectively.
Upon returning to Nigeria in the 1960s, Rotimi taught at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), where he founded the Ori Olokun Acting Company, and Port Harcourt. Owing, in part, to political conditions in Nigeria, Rotimi spent much of the 1990s living in the Caribbean and the United States, where he taught at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 2000 he returned to Ile-Ife where he lectured in Obafemi Awolowo University till his demise in 18th of August 2000. Hazel (his wife) died in May 2000, only a couple of months before Rotimi’s death.
His dramas include The Gods Are Not to Blame (produced 1968; published 1971), a retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in imaginative verse; Kurunmi and the Prodigal (produced 1969; published as Kurunmi, 1971), written for the second Ife Festival of Arts; Ovonramwen Nogbaisi (produced 1971; published 1974), about the last ruler of the Benin empire; and Holding Talks (1979).
Later plays, such as If: A Tragedy of the Ruled (1983) and Hopes of the Living Dead (1988), premiered at the University of Port Harcourt and was a common play in OAU Drama Department. The radio play Everyone His/Her Own Problem, was broadcast in 1987. His book African Dramatic Literature: To Be or to Become? was published in 1991.
Rotimi, a patriot who shunned the attraction of the West and Europe and returned home to contribute his own quota to nation building, was a rare breed. Diminutive in size but a giant in drama in Africa, he was one of the best things that could have happened to the literary community.
His dream of directing a play of 5000 cast members materialised at the Amphi Africa Theater when he was being put to rest as the crowd was drawn to a manuscript of the day’s program outline. People made dramatic entry and exit to the stage around his casket with the man turning his casket.
Rotimi spent the second half of his last creative decade reworking two of his plays – Man Talk, Woman Talk and also Tororo, Tororo, Roro – and the result, unpublished at the time of his death in 2002, have now been published under the title The Epilogue. The two plays were probably meant as an epilogue to both Rotimi’s theatrical and comic careers, which span the entire spectrum of his career.
The works are also a social satire and this publication will spur renewed interest in his satires. Rotimi is sure to be remembered as a model in the literary genre whose views have shaped the conduct of the theatre and whose plays have demonstrated the power of drama to shape the thinking of the society and attempted to solve some of the problems encountered in everyday living.
- (1963) To Stir the God of Iron
- (1966) Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again—depicts the cocoa farmer and businessman Lejoka-Brown as a self-seeking, opportunistic leader who could make better contributions to his country outside of the political arena.
- (1968) The Gods Are Not To Blame—an adaptation of the Greek classic Oedipus Rex; the main character gets trapped by pride, ignorance and the caprices of the divinities.
- (1969) Kurunmi
- (1970) Holding Talks
- (1971) Ovonramven 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.
- (1973) Grip Am
- (1973) Invitation into Madness
- (1977) Akassa Youmi*
- (1979) If: A Tragedy of the Ruled—in If, the young firebrand Hamidu is nowhere to be found when a real commitment is required.
- (1985) Hopes of The Living Dead—Rotimi here depicts a different kind of leader: a selfless, result-oriented, committed leadership complemented 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.
- When the Criminals Become Judges
The Epilogue: Two unpublished plays of Ola Rotimi
- Man Talk, Woman Talk
Man Talk, Woman Talk is humorous, as quintessential comedies from the author can be. He makes use of wry humour to seek a level playing ground for resolution of the biases men and women nurse about one another and which affect mutual co-existence of the two. The scene is a court though devoid of the usual technicalities of court rooms. Instead of legal jargon, there is humour, arguments and counter arguments. What the author arrives at is not to prove which gender is superior but to show the complementary roles of men and women. There is a great deal of wit in the work and the setting here is the university environment where the youthful contenders are idealistic.
- Tororo, Tororo, Roro
Tororo, Tororo, Roro is a coincidental meeting of two fellows from Man Talk, Woman Talk, Tunji Oginni and Philomena James. Both run Hotel Kilimanjaro with different motives and a chance meeting between them elicits lessons as both share each other’s problems.
First performed in Nigeria in 1968, The Gods Are Not To Blame was produced at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney, London, in 2005. Femi Elufowoju Jr had his first theatre experience in 1975, at the age of 11, when he saw a revival of this very play, performed in a reconstructed Greek amphitheatre at a university campus in Ife; and brought it to the UK shores as a British leading theatre director under the company name Tiata Fahodzi.
His last production was a staging of Man Talk, Woman Talk at the French Institute in Lagos, Nigeria. He also produced Tororo Tororo roro, a play of the Absurd, as a convocation play. During his lifetime, he was awarded two Fulbright Scholarships.