Nature and Nurture: Women-Centred Drama, Theatre and Performance in Nigeria
Professor Sunday Enessi Ododo
Department of Theatre Arts
University of Maiduguri, Maiduguri
Borno State, Nigeria
Nature and nurture are twin words essentially associated with the developmental process of human beings. While nature emphasises the innate and inherited qualities of the individual, nurture engages the human behaviour as determined by the environment and other acquired personal experiences. The notion that humans acquire all or almost all their behavioural traits from "nurture" was termed tabula rasa ("blank slate") by John Locke in 1690. Nature and nurture have been open to intensive debate on their roles in human development but in recent time, both are now factors found to contribute substantially, often in an extricable manner, to human development. In their 2014 survey of scientists, Alison Gopnik and Edge submit that many respondents wrote that the dichotomy of nature versus nurture has outlived its usefulness, and should be retired. The reason is that in many fields of research, close feedback loops have been found in which "nature" and "nurture" influence one another constantly (as in self-domestication), while in other fields, the dividing line between an inherited and an acquired trait becomes unclear (as in the field of epigenetics or in fetal development). (Edge.org and Gopnik).
It is now being realized that nature is every bit as important as nurture. Genetic influences, brain chemistry, and neurological development contribute strongly to who we are as children and what we become as adults. While each child is born with his or her own distinct genetic potential for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development, the possibilities for reaching that potential remain tied to early life experiences and the parent-child relationship within the family. The route through childhood is shaped by many forces, and it differs for each of us. Our biological inheritance, the temperament with which we are born, the care we receive, our family relationships, the place where we grow up, the schools we attend, the culture in which we participate, and the historical period in which we live; all these affect the paths we take through childhood and condition the remainder of our lives. Genes and family may determine the foundation of the house, but time and place determine its form. We are all therefore what nature and nurture have made us.
The Nigerian theatre has its evolutionary history located in our innate culture and has grown acquiring values of entertainment forms of other world cultures to sustain and reinvent itself. Like a plant, with its distinct nature, it has enjoyed the nurturing of many hands, values, ideas, experimentations, traditions, and the constantly changing socio-historical realities of our existence. Women-centred drama, theatre and performance are part of the nature of Nigerian theatre. It is from this larger context one can appreciates the unique contributions of women in the nurturing of Nigerian theatre, the growth of women-centred drama, theatre and performance, as well as the role of men at the centre of that creative development.
Nature and Nurturing of Women-Centred Drama, Theatre and Performance
In Nigeria Women-centred Drama can be broadly categorized into two: One, Male dramatists on women and Two, Women dramatists on women. The first category subsumes the creative output of male dramatists on women and issues that concern them, while the second category similarly deals with the drama by women dramatists on women and women-centred matters. The first category expectedly constitute early Nigerian dramatists who are mainly male (D.O. Oyedele, Hubert Ogunde, James Ene Henshaw, Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, Ola Rotimi, Wale Ogunyemi, etc.) before the appearance of Zulu Sofola as the first female Nigerian published playwright in 1972 with her Wedlock of the Gods. The content of the drama of this phase of Nigerian theatre on women are hitherto ordinarily interpreted as creative works meant to capture the reality of that historical period and the Nigeria cultural values. Themes were ostensibly raised to address disturbing social issues like prostitution, divorce, marital deceit, erosion of cultural values, ills of western civilization, adultery, corruption, etc. Even the early plays of Zulu Sofola fall into this category too. However, the second category is essentially an offshoot of recent feminist reading of the works of these male dramatists, which has come to the conclusion that the imaging of women in their works is unfair and uncomplimentary (Harrow 170, Palmer 38, Salami 43). This notion of female misrepresentation in male-written drama probably accounts for the sharp division that has come to underline the vigour and tenacity with which the Nigerian female dramatists also now try to address men and men-centred issues with uncomplimentary remarks, while projecting positive image of women. In Jeremiah Methuselah’s contention, women dramatists have overreacted by portraying men as sexist; they completely obliterate anything good in their male characters; choosing to make more of caricatures of them whereas,
a critical consideration of these plays put up to ‘combat’ these false images of women are themselves questionable given their exaggerated content of the brutish, intolerant, insensitive and uncaring male and the overemphasis of the woman as a super perfect person.
In his view,
Apart from the plays of Zulu Sofola and Tess Onwueme, most of the later female playwrights like Stella Oyedepo, Julie Okoh, Irene Salami, Tracie Chimah Utoh-Ezeajugh and so on have in one way or the other portrayed an exaggerated image of the woman in most of their plays.
He concludes that
The implications of this, in our opinion, is that women playwrights, in their attempt at subverting patriarchy, have ended up worse purveyors of this ‘crime’ than men in this gender ‘war’ within the literary intellectual ferment (Methuselah).
My take on these arguments is that these creative products by our men and women are propelled by the issues they set out to address and not necessarily to deliberately deride women or men as the case may be. If our women are perceived to have over projected womanhood, I ask, what is seriously wrong with that? Absolutely nothing in my own view. It only further confirms that women are the master artist is the art of cosmetic applications; it is a call for attention and I think they are getting it.
What is missing however beyond the dramatic texts is principled cooperation amongst the women. From Aikin Mata (by Harrison and Simeons) to Mulkin Mata (by Harry Hagher) we see and feel the tremendous power women wield over men. In Aikin Mata for instance, a truce is found for raging war because the warriors are starved of sex by their wives and women. This truce was possible because of the strong resolve of the women not to yield to the amorous advances of the men – the warriors. But when it comes to real political arena this kind of resolve dissolves due to a plethora of factors but mainly cultural and our social value system that tend to subjugate the will and desire of a woman when it comes in conflict or contest with that of the man. The tender heart of the woman to love and care often weakens their resolve to stand and fight. Men exploit this weakness often, unfortunately it is the women’s nature and it is doubtful if they can ever overcome this weakness. A woman would rather support her husband to become a Governor than to support a fellow woman (say her sister) to become a Governor. It is also this same nature of support that the mothers, sisters and daughters would give. With this kind of primordial sentiment, ideological standpoint can hardly stand which is the core of feminist struggle that emphases internal group cohesion and individual self assertion; alliance and effective coordination for mass movement for the desired change. This feminist philosophy is demonstrated in The Wives' Revolt by JP Clark; Our Husband has Gone Mad Again by Ola Rotimi, Mulkin Matta by Harry Hagher, Rebellion of the Bumpy Chested by Stella Oyedepo, Sweet Revenge by Irene Salami-Agunloye, Dance on his Grave by Barclays Ayakoroma and Beyond Nightmare by Ben Binebai.
Sweet Revenge by Salami-Agunloye offers us a very potent example of how women can organize themselves against patriarchy. Aisosa suffers humiliation and neglect in the hands of her husband for whom she galvanized women’s support for to win election into the Senate of the Federal Republic. As a trained medical doctor she picks up her pieces together and works hard to excel in her profession and still brings up her children. Her resilience and determination to use her intellect and drive to surmount the challenges around her endeared her to her people. The women in her senatorial district plot the recall of her husband and she is voted to replace him. She rises to become the Senate President. The support Aisosa got from her female fold is not essentially a protest against the neglect Aisosa suffers in the hands of her husband but recognition of her proven capacity and dedication in her medical practice, which suggests she may perform better than her husband who has shot his gate to those he represents in Senate. We admire Aisosa more because her decent pragmatic response to her situation and her ability to balance up both family and professional responsibility.
Clearly, in women-centred drama in Nigeria, male and female dramatists have made useful contributions. If some male scripts are perceived by women as repressive on the image of women, many scripts by male dramatists also exist that extol the virtues of womanhood. Apart from the examples already given in the course of this presentation, other examples abound. Femi Osofisan for instance wrote an all female cast play, Yungba Youngba and the Dance Contest to eulogize the organizational capacity of womanhood; Women of Owu to empathise with the fall of Owu city and the captivity to which the women of Owu were subjected. Some playwrights have formidable heroines as the protagonists of their drama as can be found in Aina of Naira has no Gender by Olu Obafemi; Enekole of James Alachi’s Enekole; Titubi of Morountodun by Femi Osofisan, Aishatu in Hagher’s Aishatu; Ifeoma of Jonathan Mbachaga’s Widows’ Might, and my own Princess Azingae of my award winning play, Hard Choice, who offers herself as sacrificial lamb to save her Emipiri community from the superior warriors of the Igedu kingdom. The list can go on.
Theatre and Performance Nurturing
The foundation of modern Nigerian theatre is ascribed to the late Chief Hubert Ogunde who in 1944 went into full professional theatre practice. Early in his theatre career, Ogunde solved the problem of the frequent resignation and departure of his actresses, especially as soon as they got married and their husbands objected to their wives continuing as actresses because of the stigma attached. Ogunde then solved this problem in a practical way by marrying virtually all his actresses. This stabilized his performing company such that he often had too many actresses and sometimes made some of the women to perform male roles. By this act, women can be said to be part and parcel of the starting point of modern Nigerian theatre. What Ogunde did is a master stroke in theatre management and a business stabilizing example that succeeding theatre group leaders emulated. It would definitely be contentious to propose this option as a viable strategy to consider in the ongoing effort to revive live theatre in Nigeria. The reasons are quite obvious.
Indeed many women have contributed and continue to nurture theatre practice in Nigeria. Beyond the family theatre business configuration, women have individually held their own and continue to do so to shape the content and form of Nigerian theatre. I can recall Lady Ranco with her manlike physiognomy playing lead role as a male character in love scenes; Duro Ladipo’s first wife as Oya in Oba Koso; Ebun Clark, the theatre scholar who documented the formative era of Hubert Ogunde’s theatre; Zulu Sofola the matriarch of Nigerian literary theatre; Taiwo Ajayi-lycett and Joke Silva as active actresses till date; Tess Onwueme who introduced fresh consciousness to women-centred drama and theatre in Nigeria; the prolific Stella Oyedepo who effectively combines playwriting and play staging; Flora Nwapa who declined the feminist tag but gave considerable attention to the Igbo tradition and the challenges of womanhood; our scholar dramatists: Julie Okoh, Chinyere Okafor, Irene Salami-Agunloye, Tracie Utoh-Ezeajugh, Osita Ezenwanebe, Akachi Ezeigbo, Foluke Ogunleye, Yetunde Akorede, Adenike Akinjobi, etc. have become the ardent trumpeters of the feminist ensemble in Nigeria. Whatever consciousness that have been created in Nigeria today about feminist drama, theatre and performance, these are the acolytes of that gain.
The Celebrated ‘Genderist’ – Mabel Evwierhoma
The twin sister of literary creativity is criticism. It is in critical discourses that we find answers to many questions that creative works present before us; that which is not even within the frame of thought of the creator at creation time is dusted up and revealed for our lucid understanding. In Nigeria, in the last two decades or so, Professor Mabel Evwierhoma has undoubtedly become one of the leading lights in gender studies with heavy reliance on drama, theatre and performance to project her critical thoughts on women and feminist discourse.
As a ‘genderist; (drawing inspiration from Matthew Umukoro’s ‘genderism’) Evwierhoma’s core concern is female empowerment. She envisions female freedom from male dominance in a society that is culturally patriarchal. Her critical tools of navigation are anchored on feminism and womanism with genderism as the arrowhead. Feminism is Eurocentric with radical arsenals to uproot patriarchy; womanism is Afrocentric with compromising attributes that extols womanly dignity and social responsibility; while genderism “offers a feasible compromise between the ideological extremism of masculinity and femininity, advocating emphasis on the human rather than the sexual” (in Female Empowerment… xiii). This is why like Zulu Sofola, Evwierhoma, though more poignant, insists on “Women’s visibility, audibility, and participation through complementarities”. For her
The performance of gender, development and positive strategies for social advancement becomes a veritable watchword as the space for such activism is deemed shared by all genders and sexes. With this mutuality, the dialectics of the self, and other members of the society (on the fringe or not) help to forge better prospects for dramatic and theatre creativity and performance and the receiver of their products. (Nigerian Feminist Theatre… xii).
For Zulu Sofola, “a parcel is like a wife, while the cord used to tie the parcel is like a husband. If the cord breaks, the parcel falls into pieces” (King Emene, 34). It is another way of saying that whatever affects the nose also affects eyes; therefore there is no basis for the war of sexes rather we should complement the efforts of one another for the advancement of our environment. Indeed, it is our surrounding environment that can best teach us the fundamental laws of nature and the basics of living in life. Many people love the sun, and complain about the rain. But you can't make a rainbow without the two together.
Even though Evwierhoma advocates for militant female characters with radical ideological bent capable of wielding power in female written drama to counteract the imagistic distortion perceivably created by men, this order may not augur well for plausible creativity. It is not enough to have larger than life characters in our drama but the foundation for their creation must be authentic, concrete and acceptable within human logic and cultural boundaries, otherwise they become caricatures of the desired characters. In our present age, militancy has lost its potency, even with militancy the female militants may not go far when they come face to face with the might of men. The way to go in my view is dialogic, that is dialogue and the application of logic. The positive testimonies of the Niger Delta militants who laid down arms to engage in meaningful dialogue with the Federal Government should be persuasive enough.
However, it must be acknowledged that Evwierhoma’s feminist theatre advocacy is genuine and developmental oriented and her call for gender-equity is not out of place because of the unique role of women in character moulding at the family level. A reflection of this value in feminist theatre would certainly promote stable communities and ethical reorientation. Male dramatists have roles to play here too and that is effective collaboration to address female-centred concerns; engage in inter-gender issues to engender gender dynamics in Nigerian theatre.
To conclude this keynote address, I want to recognize that it is what Prof Mabel Evwierhoma stands for in our different perception that has pulled together her mentors, teachers, colleagues, friends and the theatre/culture community to celebrate her as she attains the golden age of 50. It is a great idea to do so with a conference in her honour. It is also excitable that the theme of this conference is on “Women-Centred Drama, Theatre and Performance in Nigeria”, a scholarly area that has engaged the vigorous attention of this Dean of Arts, University of Abuja, over the last two decades. The prefix of the theme is ‘Nature and Nurture,’ which we have already contextualised as the universe within which the anatomy and the growth of women-centred drama, theatre and performance can be appreciated. It is my belief that,
It is akin to human nature
To provide reasons to nurture
A veritable and dynamic culture
To sustain human adventure
The ill coordination of
nature, nurture and culture
May amount to failed venture
The Earth does not belong to us; we belong to the Earth and as products of the earth everyone is imbued with the capacity to excel and make a difference, what is rare is the courage to nurture that capacity in solitude and to follow it to the dark places where it leads. If we nurture our mind, body, and spirit, our time will expand; our vision will cascade to embrace new perspective that will allow us to accomplish much more. First we need only look around us to notice and honour the radiance of everything about us and act in that universe. Tend all these shining things around us: The smallest plant, the creatures and objects in our care; but just be gentle and nurture.
In the theatre we cultivate ideas to create new worlds for humanity to learn from but these worlds are often not nurtured to manifest their full potentials for our gains. When we nurture our world it would give birth to new ideas and ventures. There are times of flourishing and abundance, when life feels in full bloom, energized and expanding. And there are times of fruition, when things come to an end. They have reached their climax and must be harvested before they begin to fade. And finally of course, there are times that are cold, and cutting and empty, times when the spring of new beginnings seems like a distant dream. Those rhythms in life are natural events. They weave into one another as day follows night, bringing, not messages of hope and despair, but messages of how things are. It is when we know how things are that we can take a stand to either live with them or change them. The choice is ours. No doubt, women-centred drama, theatre and performance have made considerable gains in Nigeria but mainly at the level of theory and few performances that are largely cocooned to the ivory tower. It is time to share these gains amongst Nigerians by opening up new performance spaces that can attract large audience turnout; we should take our message to the rural dwellers and engage other relevant agencies in this advocacy.
As the conference opens, without pre-empting its outcome, it is therefore my hope and belief that the participants would come up with fresh strategies for addressing women-centred issues in Nigeria and how to get majority of Nigerians to key into feminist theatre advocacy; I especially look forward to seeing how feminist theatre can help in the recovery of the Chibok girls and how the first senate president can emerge as predicted by Irene Salami-Agunloye.
To sum up, I must align Professor Mabel Evwierhoma with her feminist ideology in practical terms. Having been in close professional and family association with her since 1987, I can confidently say that she is an eloquent example of hard work, resilience, honesty, integrity, industry, capacity, resourcefulness; she is God fearing and has genuine commitment to her calling. In all these, she is unassuming, humble and humane. To a large extent she lives by what she advocates and to that extent she is an inspiration to many people and a pride to womanhood. This genderist is also a motherist; this quality manifests clearly in many social works she has been involved in and community services rendered. In our postgraduate class at the University of Ibadan she was the youngest but assumed the motherist role for the class, feeding us occasionally from the kitchen of Princess Theodora Ewemade Tobrise (her mother); God bless her soul in heaven. The reward of motherhood is not essentially in reaping from the proceeds of that effort directly, but the satisfaction of contributing agents of change for a better humanity. Princess Tobrise, even though you are long gone, the agent of change you contributed to humanity is a worthy one who has touched many lives positively. Your charity and industry are replicated in her and for these alone your memory remains evergreen in our hearts.
The life of Mabel Evwierhoma should be the greatest inspiration for female emancipation and not necessarily her writings. At 50 she has recorded modest but loud and engaging achievements; as a Professor, author of books, cultural activist, Dean of Arts, Fellow of SONTA and moulder of character, she has a status that cannot be wished away; a presence that is compelling and commanding; an intellect that is admired and respectable; a heart that is compassionate and accommodating, a husband that is loving, caring and very supportive; children that are responsible and responsive; a home that is peaceful and inviting. All these attributes position Mabel Evwierhoma as a phenomenal success worthy of emulation. She sits comfortably on this high pedestal today out of due sacrifice, self-denial, hard work and determination to reach her goals; and NOT a product of any gender friendly/sensitive legislation in favour of women. If this is the kind of female militancy you preach, you have my support. This is how to earn the gender equity you advocate. It is my submission therefore that no woman (and indeed no man) is subjugated or repressed but our self-imposed repression is the barrier that stands in our way to our lofty destinations. I say to our women, rise and take a stand like Mabel Evwierhoma, and your story will never be the same again.
Ladies and gentlemen, please rise and join me to welcome Prof Mabel Evwierhoma to autumn, her golden jubilee. Happy birthday!
Top of Form
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Gopnik, Alison. Time to Retire: The Simplicity of Nature vs. Nurture, "Mind and Matter", published 01/25/2014, WSJ.
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Ododo, Sunnie. Hard Choice. Ibadan: Kraft Books, 2011.
Palmer, Eustace. “The Feminine Point of View: Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood.” In African Literature Today. Ed.Eldred Durosimi Jones. London: Heinemann, 1983, No.13.
Salami, Irene. “Women in Benin Historical Drama: Emotan of Benin (Ernest Edyang) and Imaguero (Evinma Ogieriax II).”In Theacom Journal. 4:1 (1999).
Salami, Irene. Sweet Revenge.Ibadan: Saniez, 2004.
****Being a Keynote Address Delivered at Mabel @ 50 Conference in Honour of Professor Mabel Evwierhoma on Wednesday, 6th toFriday, 8th May, 2015 at the Pope John Paul Catholic Centre, No. 22, Bangui Street, Wuse II, Abuja-FCT