The Making of A Dramatist

A long time ago, Odudeyi of Ile Obala, Oke Oja, the woman who happened to be the first ‘Iyalode’ (head of the womenfolk) in Igbajo got married to a young farmer named Abraham and the union produced their only daughter, Kanyinsola Alake. Kanyinsola Alake got married and gave birth to Samuel Adeosun Ogunyemi. Samuel Adeosun grew up and became a very successful farmer. He got married to Mary Ajayi and the union produced Olawale Ezekiel Adisa Ogunyemi. Wale Ogunyemi was born in Igbajo, Osun State, Nigeria, on the 12th day of August 1939 on a cool evening. Interestingly Abraham, Wale’s great grandfather, was conscripted into the Army by the British Colonial government during World War I. Wale’s father; Samuel Adeosun also served in the British Colonial Army during World War II.

Wale Ogunyemi started schooling in 1947 at the Baptist Day School, Igbajo. He left in 1949 and went to Agurodo via Ejigbo and later came to Ibadan in 1950 and left school in 1954. He later went to the Commercial Academy, Oke-Ado in Ibadan, Oyo State. Thereafter he worked as a typist at the Baptist Mission. He then went to the Nigerian Television Service (N.T.S) in Lagos. He worked there, first as a secretary to the Production Manager, after which he was posted to the Film Section as a secretary. This was where he learnt film making, film editing, film projector operations and how to preview and log both feature and commercial films.  Because of his artistic talent in the field of drama and creative writing, he was posted to the Drama section where he started writing continuity scripts for Television.

Wale Ogunyemi belonged to a family where tradition is held in high esteem. His great grandmother, Iyalode Odudeyi, loved him so much that he was always with her each time she was officiating at important festivals, ritual dramas and masquerades. The Iyalode (Wale’s great grandmother) was also very close to the king and he was with her each time she went to see the king. Wale was always a constant observer of sundry rituals performed in the palace. By virtue of his position as her grandchild, he was allowed into groves and shrines without molestation or without being driven back as they would any other child.

Apart from his adventures with his family (and the family was also in charge of the biggest masquerade in Igbajo town) he used to go to the groves whenever Ogun or Sango was being brought from the grove to the shrine in the house.

In Ibadan, Wale was very rascally, he carried over his love for masquerades from his town to Ibadan and he was always following masquerades all over Ibadan.

Wale Ogunyemi As An Actor
Wale Ogunyemi started acting plays when he was in Standard One in Agurodo. He played the part of a chorus in the play “Adam and Eve.”

In Ibadan, he joined the Gang called the “Cowboys” and on Easter Mondays they would dress likes Texan cowboys and go to picnics and do all sorts of things that would attract people. They danced and re-enacted scenes they saw in the cinemas. Each time Wale went to see a movie, he would say to himself, “One day I too will become an actor”.

Apart from his activities as a youth and the kind of life he was exposed to by his family, which showed that he had always been involved in everything dramatic in one form or the other; he came into the theatre by accident.

In 1959, there had been a newspaper advertisement calling for actors to join the Western Nigerian Television Theatre Company. Before he saw the advertisement, the theatre company had been formed and was, in fact, rehearsing a play, a Yoruba play titled “Abogunrin.” Because it was too late for him to take part in the audition, he started sitting in on the production. As fate would reveal itself, one day, the actor playing the title role was absent and Wale Ogunyemi, who had been consistent at rehearsals and who had unconsciously been under-studying everybody was asked to stand in for the absent actor. Wale Ogunyemi performed better than the actor he merely stood in for. Thus he won the lead role, to start his career an artist in Africa’s first television drama, Abogunrin, written and directed by Remi Sokefun.

Thus Wale Ogunyemi started his career as an artist and since the success of his first Yoruba play he wrote in the early sixties for Taye Ayorinde’s theatre group—the Nigerian Theatre group—of which he was a member.

In 1960 Wale joined the 1960 Masks and at the same time, he was working with the Nigerian Theatre Group. In 1962, Wole Soyinka asked Wale to bring his boys from the Nigerian Theatre group to the Orisun Theatre which he was forming as a nucleus of the 1960 Masks.

This was how Wale Ogunyemi joined the Orisun acting company under the leadership of Professor Wole Soyinka.

As a renowned  actor, wale Ogunyemi has represented Nigeria in many international arts festivals. His first outing was in 1966 at the First World black Arts festival in Darkar, Senegal as an actor in Wole Soyinka’s “Kongi’s Harvest” and Nkem Nwankwo’s Danda and he was considered a great success. In 1967 he was at the University World Festival in Nancy, France and in 1969 he was at the Organization of African Unity (O.A.U now AU) Festival of the Arts in Algiers.

Between April and May 1981, Wale attended a two-month Drama Workshop at the Eugene O’Neil memorial Theater in the United States; then the Westchester Community College International Arts festival at Valhalla, New York. In 1982 he was in Philadelphia, USA, as a member of the Nigerian Showcase ensemble. He also toured Holland, Japan and Germany in 1983 with the same production. The production was also taken in around Los Angeles in 1984.

At home, he acted in several plays. He played the lead role in “Hassan” by Elroy Flecker in 1972 at the Arts Theatre of the University of Ibadan. He was also in the “Golden Curse” by Kole Omotosho at the University of Ibadan Arts Theatre. He played the role of Dende in Wole Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest. He acted in a film The Eye of Life which was written and produced by Francis Oladele.

Wale Ogunyemi as a Playwright
Wale’s first attempt at playwriting started when he saw am Indian film titled “Bahudian Hunay” and he wrote a short story of the film the way he understood it when he watched it, even without the English subtitles. He later dramatized it and gave the characters name. He started writing fully when he joined Taye Ayorinde’s theatre group in the early 1960s. He wrote a Yoruba play which was the group’s major attraction when Taye Ayorinde traveled overseas, leaving Wale to hold fort for him. It was during this period in 1962 that he wrote his first full length play in English, The Vow, which was performed by this theatre group. When Wale was at the Orisun Theatre Company, he wrote many plays for the acting company when Wole Soyinka was in government detention before the acting company was later dissolved.

In the 1973/74 session, Ogunyemi was on a study attachment to the Workshop Theatre of the University of Leeds, England, under the British Council Scholarship scheme. There he had the opportunity ti work closely with Martin Banham, whom he had been close to during the Workshop of the 1960’s. Chief Ogunyemi was part of the graduate programme on Drama and Theatre Arts at the University of Leeds and he studied aspects of Play Directing, Technical Theatre, Design, Radio and Television Production and Playwriting both from the theoretical and practical points of view. He spent part of the 1973/74 session working at the Sherman Theatre of the University of Cardiff with one of his earlier mentors, the late Geoffrey Axworthy who had become the Director of the Sherman Theatre. Chief Ogunyemi also toured extensively around British regional theatres in order to study the nature and manner of its operation

After Wale left Orisun Theatre Company, he has written over one hundred scripts. Among his published works are The Scheme (1967), Esu Elegbara (1970), Ijaiye War(1970), Obaluaye (a bi-lingual music drama) (1972), Aare Akogun (1969) which is a Nigerian adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth written in collaboration with Dexter Lyndersay.

His plays have won many awards at home and abroad. Sign of the Rainbow won a B.B.C African Theatre Award. Within ten months, two of his plays attracted attention: We can Always Create, which won a second prize at the National Day Playwriting Competition organized by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, while the film script of The Vow won African Arts Special Award of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Apart from these awards, several of his scripts have been published. Among them are the much talked about Langbodo (1980 Thomas Nelson), The Divorce (1978 Onibonoje), Kiriji (African University Press), The Vow (Macmillan Publishers). Both Langbodo and The Divorce were written while Wale was on attachment to the Workshop Theatre of the University of Leeds during the 1974/74 academic session. Three of his plays were also presented during the 1971 All Nigerian Festival of the Arts. These are Kiriji, an historical play on the Ekiti parapo was in the 19th century. This was presented by the University of Ibadan and The Sign of the Rainbow, presented by the River State Arts Council.

Wale Ogunyemi’s sojourn at Leeds during the 173/74 session has helped tremendously in developing his talent, particularly in television production. In addition, it was there that he first tried his hands on domestic drama coming out with We Can Always Create and The Divorce. It was also at Leeds that he wrote Langbodo which he adapted from Wole Soyinka’s translation of D.O. Fagunwa’s Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale to The Forest of a Thousand Daemons. It was given a different title; when it was written originally, it was “The Ballad of a Seasoned Hunter” but Wale later changed the title to Langbodo when he got to Nigeria. His Partners in Business won the Association of Nigerian Author’s (ANA) award for drama in 1988. He re-wrote Langbodo to reflect Nigerian’s diverse culture so that the hunters will be on an expedition in search of cultural identity. Also he thought of making the hunters make a tour of the country. In the original novel, the hunters got to mount Langbodo, the king gave a letter, which they brought back. But in Langbodo, Wale gave another ending to his own play that the hunters did not go anywhere and he made the king and his people reject him in the end.

From January to March 1989, Chief Wale Ogunyemi had the opportunity to return to the University of Leeds Workshop Theatre as guest Lecturer under the British Council Fellowship. Other workshops in which Ogunyemi participated are the National Copyright Council in Ota, Ogun State Nigeria from 21st to 23rd November 1990, The creative Writers’ Workshop of May 31st to 5th June 1991 organized in Kaduna, Nigeria, by the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), the Sisi Clara theatre Workshop of August 15 to October 30, 1991, organized by the Nigeria Centre of International theatre Institute (ITI) and Ogun State Government of Nigeria, and the International Workshop on Theatre in urban Areas in the Third World Countries from August 26 to October 13, 1996. The last named workshops took place in Switzerland, Berlin and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lafayette, New York. As part of the Workshop there were performances of Wole Soyinka’s Beautification of Area Boy in these places and also in Leeds and other places in the United Kingdom

In January 1988 Wale was invited by the Workshop Theatre of the University of Leeds to conduct a workshop production of his play, The Vow with the post graduate students of the University.

Wale Ogunyemi like earlier theorist in drama in drama, Horace, believed the way to playwriting is to start with what you know. Wale has no doubt made use of this statement in his writings. His family background and his early life have influenced him tremendously in his writing. For instance, The Scheme came out of Wale’s childhood experience. He recalled a 1947 experience of a heavy rainfall in his hometown when he said:
“There was a heavy downpour, thunder and lightning. The Iyalode of Igbajo was praying, saying all sorts of things, and chanting incantations. I asked her what was happening and she told me that the priests of all the gods in Igbajo, who was cross with one of the chiefs had to take an effigy, a god which should not see the light of day, to that chief and that brought about the wrath of the gods on her and the king had to mediate.”

But it was in 1965 that this came back to his memory and he went home again and conducted a research into it. The product of Wale’s research gave birth to The Scheme.

Also when he wrote Esu Elegbara, he heard a story from his friend’s father-in-law at Iwo who told him about that mythology. He saw that it was dramatic so he went back to him on his own to implore him to repeat the mythology on the coming to the world of the Deities. He repeated the mythology but left out certain details which Wale did not forget and called him back upon. He made use of this story and started writing when he went to the Nigerian television service to work. He finished writing in 1966 and the play was published by the Orisun Editions in 1966.

Wale Ogunyemi as a Director
Since Wale started his career as an artist he tried his hands on directing plays. He directed the Nigerian Theatre Group. He led the group in doing so many plays, most especially earlier plays he wrote in the Yoruba language—“Abogunrin”, “Jagunlabi”, Ehinkule Lota Wa”

Since his return from the University of Leeds, he has been much involved in television drama productions, principally as a director, and his plays directed for television by himself are very successful. These include Sign of the RainbowThe Night of Oro Cult in August 1980 and Dear Telephone Operator in May 1981 to mention just a few pertinent ones.

Also at the Institute of African Studies, he has directed some of his plays for the Ibadan/Pennsylvania Link Summer Programme. Such plays included Poor Little Bird, Be Mighty Be Mine, Obatala and OjiyaFrom Time Immemorial and The Night of Oro Cult. And these plays were quite successful.

Chief Wale Ogunyemi established himself as a household name on account of his many roles for stage, radio, television, video and film. He wrote series and serials for the media. Up till the very end of his life, he proudly staged with the professions of performing, directing and writing.

Wale won large number of prizes. He was appointed Commander of the Nigerian Theatre (CNT) at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife in 1995. In 1998 he was given a ‘Special Recognition’ award by the academy of Creative Arts. In 2000, he was recognized as the Playwright Wizard of the Century by the Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners in association with UNESCO

Wale’s career spanned the areas of acting directing, dance, playwriting an d writing for other genres and media. He wrote over a hundred plays, many of which remain unpublished. At his death, he left behind nineteen publications in the medium print and twenty film scripts—a total of forty works. A good number are yet to be published. The twenty filmscripts are:

  1. Business Headache,
  2. The Scheme,
  3. Be Mighty Be Mine,
  4. Aare Akogun,
  5. Esu Elegbara,
  6. Ijaye War,
  7. Poor Little Bird,
  8. Obaluaye,
  9. Sign of the Rainbow,
  10. Kiriji,
  11. The Divorce
  12. Langbodo
  13. The Vow
  14. Eniyan (an adaptation of the Medieval Everyman)
  15. Partners in Business
  16. We can Always Create,
  17. The Fish Bone
  18. Queen Amina of Zauzau
  19. Igbesi Aye Okonkwo (A Yoruba translation of Chinua Achebe’s Things fall Apart)

Chief Ogunyemi’s filmscript came in this order:

  1. The Vow (1970)
  2. The Divorce (1977)
  3. Ipade (1977)
  4. Ida Ahun (1982)
  5. Eni A Wifun (1984)
  6. Langbodo (1986)
  7. Cult of the Buffalo (1992)
  8. Teni N Teni (1994)
  9. The Ultimate (1995)
  10. Ire Olokun (1996)
  11. Simia (1996)
  12. Darker Night (1996)
  13. Ayo Ni Mofe (1996)
  14. Imputation (1996)
  15. Ebenezer (1997)
  16. Sango (1997)
  17. Aramotu (1997)
  18. Queen Amina of Zauzau (1998)
  19. Ko Saaye (1998)
  20. Alagba Benjamin (1999)

Wale Ogunyemi as a Family Man
Wale met beautiful Margaret Folashade Keyede in 1963 and they got married in1964
They gave birth to a daughter, Mofoluwake Yetunde in November 1964, and a son, Abiodun Oluwayomi in 1968. After a short break, three more boys followed namely Oluwagbemiga Oyewole (1972), Kolawole Olufemi (1974) and Kayode Olumuyiwa (1977). Wale was a caring father, a devoted Christian, a fastidious workaholic and a mischievously humorous individual. His daughter, Foluke, a graduate of Theatre Arts, described wale as “A doting father who placed his family’s interest first in all he had to do. He is a morally forthright person who believes in hard work and the principles of justice, integrity and fairness. His life and good works inspires me a great deal”

According to Biodun, Wale’s first son, “I watched Wale Ogunyemi grew from being the daddy that we (my siblings and I) all knew to being a household name, to a mentor to several playwrights and theatre artist, an inspiration to the nation and a theatre legend to many. He was a caring father and a no-nonsense man. I learnt from him the value of hardwork and most importantly he taught us, his children, the principle of integrity and forthrightness. For instance, everywhere I go, doors open to me simply because of the name ‘Wale Ogunyemi’. This has made me realize that the best legacy a parent can bequeath to his children is not money, cars or houses but a good name.”

Though a Christian, Wale’s involvement with tradition and traditional rituals helped in bringing out his potentials as a dramatist. He died on the 17th of December 2001 due to malignancy.

Wale is survived by a daughter and four sons all of whom are actively involved in drama. Some of his grandchildren are also showing keen interests and great ability in drama even as they have represented their various schools in stage plays, music competitions, dance dramas, mimes, and a host of other artistic activities. Wale’s widow, Margaret Folashade Ogunyemi, lives in Ibadan, Nigeria, overseeing the late drama legend’s estate.