Biography By Martin Banham

Wale Ogunyemi, was a major figure in Nigerian theatre: a charismatic actor for film and television, a prolific playwright and a scholar of the Yoruba world, who brought its history, myths and lore into his writing. Born in Igbajo in the west of Nigeria, his upbringing, as with so many of his generation, mixed Christian and Yoruba religious influences, and Yoruba culture inspired him throughout his creative life. His formal education was modest – a government middle II certificate and subsequent secretarial studies – but his instinctive scholarship was a driving force. 

In 1967 he became a drama student at Ibadan University, on a one-year professional course. At the same time he was appointed to Ibadan’s Institute of African Studies as a research assistant and transcriber, and he stayed with the institute throughout his career, increasingly devoting himself to Yoruba studies. Ogunyemi began working occasionally as an actor with the new western Nigerian television service in the early 1960s, having been employed up to 1964 as a secretary with the Ibadan Baptist Mission. He had already begun writing plays – initially in Yoruba. 

A crucial step in his development as a performer was what became his lifelong association with the playwright and director Wole Soyinka, and Ogunyemi became a founder member of Soyinka’s Orisun Theatre. His wonderful mixture of mischievousness and solemnity made him a natural choice for such comic/serious roles as Dende in Kongi’s Harvest – a role he played in the film of that play – the Bale in The Lion And The Jewel, Barber in The Beatification Of Area Boy (premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1995) and Rent in Soyinka’s new satire King Baabu, in which Ogunyemi was performing before his death. 

Writing plays was his passion, and the Yoruba world his main inspiration. In the middle and late 1960s, much of his output was for television, but from the 1970s onwards he concentrated on the stage. His writing is sometimes thought conservative, and he certainly respected the order and logic of the traditional Yoruba world. The negligent or deliberate disruption of this order chronicled in his historical dramas, for instance in The Ijaye War (1970) and Kiriji (1976) – which draw on internecine 19th century Yoruba wars – is nevertheless sensitively portrayed in a way that makes apparent contemporary parallels with the breakdown of law and order in western Nigeria and the eventual Biafran war. As a playwright, he embraced all kinds of theatre language, including dance and music, reflected indigenous cultural and performance traditions, and ranged from history to myth, social drama to domestic comedy. 

Langbodo, a richly metaphorical tale adapted from DO Fagunwa’s novel, became one of Ogunyemi’s most successful plays in its production by Dapo Adelugba. Originating at Ibadan University’s arts theatre in 1974, the play represented Nigeria at the Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in 1977, and was staged at the Commonwealth Institute in London in 1984. 

Ogunyemi’s most popular play was probably The Divorce (1975), a farcical, shrewd domestic comedy that he wrote during one of the two periods he spent at Leeds University’s Workshop Theatre, studying, teaching and acting. Two of his adaptations – of Macbeth (Aare Akogun, 1968) and Everyman (Eniyan, published in 1987) – also draw attention to Ogunyemi’s fascination with all kinds of theatre, witnessed by his acting in plays by Brecht, Beckett, Chekhov, Pirandello, Peter Shaffer, Giraudoux and Shakespeare – Ogunyemi as Bottom in 1973 was a performance to be relished – as well as those of his fellow Nigerian playwrights. 

His last work was a collaboration with advisers from Manchester education authority, devising a Yoruba version of Macbeth for performance in Manchester and Ibadan schools as part of the Commonwealth Games cultural programme. The project will be dedicated to his memory. 

Wale Ogunyemi was honoured with the chieftaincy title of Majeobaje of Okuku in 1982, in the same year that he was made a member of the Order of the Niger. He is survived by his wife, four sons and a daughter. 

Olawale Ogunyemi, playwright, actor, scholar, born August 12 1939; died December 17 2001.

Martin Banham