Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 223-226
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Ancient Songs Set Ablaze: The Theatre of Femi Osofisan, by Sandra L. Richards. Washington, DC: Howard UP, 1996. xxvi + 210 pp. ISBN 0-88258-109-0 cloth.
Of those dramatists whose work heralded a new initiative in the Nigerian English-language theater in the mid-1970s—breaking new ground in their choice of subject matter, their dramaturgy, their project to open up a freshly vitalized debate on the components of the Nigerian state—Femi Osofisan is perhaps the most remarkable. Certainly his works are among the most frequently performed and enthusiastically received in Nigeria: productions of plays such as Once upon Four Robbers and Twingle-Twangle have necessitated a re-opening of the debate on the relationship between "popular" theater and "art" theater and their reception (a debate begun in Nigeria in the 1970s, by the Afriscope writers—of whom Osofisan was one—and picked up, a little later, by Biodun Jeyifo in the essays collected in his book The Truthful Lie). With plays like Four Robbers, Esu and the Vagabond Minstrels, and Yungba Yungba, Osofisan has proven a master of stagecraft, or a vibrant and fluid stagecraft that is closely grounded in his dialectical readings of history, intertextuality, and the dynamics of social relations, a theater that avoids rhetoric and yet, in Sandra Richards's words, consistently
champions the power of the common man and woman in an age when late capitalism has apparently caught the entire world in its seductive strangle-hold and an indigenous elite class further strips the nation [Nigeria] of its tremendous physical and moral resources. (vii)
Richards's aim—in what will surely become an indispensable commentary—is to survey Osofisan's work and in so doing "to delineate major constructs of a theory of contemporary African theater" (vii). Her account is written from an insider's perspective: first, in that its critical methodology is [End Page 223] grounded in key ontological and epistemological principles of Yoruba culture out of which both Osofisan and his primary audience operate; second, in that it is sensitized to the realities of the dramatist and his audience's (indissolubly complex) social relations and modes of social insertion; third, in that Richards writes from a director's perspective, a perspective sustained throughout the book before coming into full play in her final chapter, an analysis of her 1987 Stanford University production of Osofisan's Farewell to a Cannibal Rage.
After a concise introductory chapter on the biographical, political, and intellectual factors involved in the shaping of the playwright's perspectives, Richards begins by discussing the "realistic protest plays" that dominate his output up to the early '80s. As throughout the rest of her study, she gives a basic description of each play, discusses its origins (the sociohistorical moment of its composition, its apparent field of concern), then analyzes the ideology of the text in the context of performance aesthetics (which are various and which interlock with and mediate each other) and in respect of how directorial strategy may function on/through the text. There are here some of the most incisive and detailed accounts yet published on individual plays by any African dramatist (only Soyinka has been so well-served): her analysis, for example, of the textual ideology of No More the Wasted Bread, a play that exists as a challenge to/modification of, yet in contiguity with, Soyinka's The Strong Bread.
In the second part of the book Richards traces Osofisan's shift towards a popular theater with comedies such as Who's Afraid of Solarin? and Midnight Hotel—the critical problem here being the question whether the "disposition to broad comedy" in these plays doesn't undercut Osofisan's overtly critical purpose. Production values are crucial here and Richards discusses a range of different possibilities and their ideological implications.
Part three, which takes up more than half the book, discusses plays that seize on hegemonic versions of history (pre- and postcolonial) and subject these to reinterpretation (The Chattering and the Song, Morountodun); plays that invite...