Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 6-23
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From Ghetto to Garrison:
A Chronic Case of Orisunitis
© Wole Soyinka
There is no question about it, it could only have been four years of exile, traipsing through the United States, Europe, and the more fortunate parts of Africa, and becoming newly aware of the theater scene in such politically stable zones, that forcefully brought home to my mind what a contrast exists between theater life in a number of countries like Nigeria, and others, especially Europe and America. That is, what we have learnt to accept as "normal" suddenly struck me, for the first time, as being inconceivable in many of these other artistic worlds. That took me back to what we may reasonably catalogue as the birth pangs of post-Independence theater in Nigeria, especially its survival strategies. Such strategies remain an aspect of theater sociology to which not much attention is given. The mundane aspects of scrounging for funds, feed, and shelter, dodging the violence of politics and bigotry and somehow keeping afloat—or sinking—tend to fade into the realms of the superfluous once the finished product triumphantly straddles the boards—just as if they were no more than the processes of rehearsals. Then, a rather mixed experience in Kingston, Jamaica, made me begin to wonder if, once given the Nigerian-type formative experience, one does not develop a form of creative masochism . . . but now I have got ahead of my story. Suffice it to reveal at this stage that I identified this perverse sensation, a niggling nostalgia—right in the midst of secure, opulent theater—for the taste of marginalized existence, as some kind of virus that, once absorbed, never completely leaves the bloodstream. I call it orisunitis, and may the Yoruba deity of Efe help all those who fall its victim!
The Nigerian strain of orisunitis, a spore from that universal and near incurable virus that lurks in theater as a social agent provocateur, was successfully isolated some time during 1962 in Ibadan. It was incubated in a theatrical company that was founded in 1960 and named, for that year of Nigerian independence, the 1960 Masks. That was a group made up largely of highly skilled, middle-class "establishment" artistes who held down a mind-boggling assortment of highly placed jobs—teaching, engineering, broadcasting, business, industry, etc.—plus unsalaried housewives. Motivation was so high that they would sacrifice a succession of evenings and weekends, travel the hundred miles between Ibadan and Lagos—weekend rehearsals alternated between the two cities—for the strange pleasure of submitting to a demanding regimen, aim for seemingly impossibly standards, work on costumes, saw wood and hammer nails, splash paint on canvas, etc. They competed for the additional chore of offering hospitality for the weekend invasion of their counterparts from the twin-city, and undertook the burden of those innumerable expenditures that go with preparing, mounting, advertising shows and even soliciting funds from [End Page 6] their individual and business contacts. They raided their homes, stores, and businesses to borrow furniture and props and obtain advertisements for the program. One borrowed, and lost a family heirloom to a production—a crystal decanter—and was obliged to endure the baleful glare of the family matriarch for years—with a theatrical appropriateness, since that play was Sarif Easmon's Dear Parent and Ogre. 1960 Masks was, very simply put, a performance family, with all its intensity of bonding, mild personality clashes, mild intrigues, and, of course, the occasional family quarrels, peacefully resolved.
Orisunitis was, however, lurking within the body. Orisun Theatre was a kind of Oedipal shift, since it proved a case of matricide. 1960 Masks began to involve younger recruits who mainly understudied the parent body and performed minor chores, but also received a special training all their own. I fulfilled the function of artistic director for the Masks from the beginning, although we never once thought of a need for any functional title—except perhaps that of Treasurer at some later stage. The operational method for building up...