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Bayo Oduneye: Man Behind National Troupe

Bayo Oduneye caricature

November 14, (THEWILL) – Before his appointment as Artistic Director of the National Troupe of Nigeria in 1991, most of the productions focused mainly on dance and music. There was no intellectual heft to them. Serious drama was out of the billings. But once Professor Bayo Oduneye took charge as AD, the whole scenario changed, or he changed the game.

All through his tenure, Uncle B, as he is called by younger colleagues who chanced on him is hallways at the National Theatre or even under Abegi – the sylvan awning where actors, actresses met, discussed, gossiped, ate and quaffed drinks – there was never a dull moment as per stage productions of plays, musical dramas and even dance.

“Bayo Oduneye should rightly take the credit for laying the foundation for the smooth take off of the National Troupe of Nigeria after the demise of the pioneer consultant and Artistic Director Hubert Ogunde,” Dr. Shuaibu Hussein, Deputy Director Media/ PR and Acting Head of Dance Department of NTN told THEWILL weekend.

“Before he took over in 1991, the troupe had just a crop of core artistes who were majorly dancers and an Artistic Officer, Philips Igetie who worked closely with Ogunde.

With the formal establishment of NTN via decree 47 and the appointment of Uncle B as AD, he ran a troupe with a formal administrative accounts and production support structure. So, outside the Deputy Artistic Director, and the directors in charge of dance, drama and music that were appointed with him, he recruited all the pioneer artistic, administrative and account staff of the troupe. The troupe formally took off with him and those structures he put in place have been what the troupe has operated with till date.”

The key to the continuing success of parastatals like NTN depends squarely on the pioneer heads. For instance, the success story of agencies like FRSC has a lot to do with the leadership qualities and organizational savvy of Wole Soyinka while he was chairman. So it was with Oduneye when he became AD of NTN.

Such men often don’t compromise on standards, are core professionals who know their game inside out and forever devoted to what they do.

Continuing in his interview with THEWILL, Hussein said: “Uncle B led a troupe that was known for high standard and quality productions. Under him, we serviced both local and international invitations and we staged productions regularly and even went on tour with productions: America, Europe, China, Germany, Japan, Portugal, UK. There was no lull in in productions whether dance, music or drama under Oduneye. He also personally directed our major productions.”

Some of the dramas were already popular/ familiar with audiences. There was the stage dramatization of Things Fall Apart in 1991, for instance. Fred Agbeyegbe’s The King Must Dance Naked ran for seven months at the National Theatre. There were other hits: Trials of Oba Ovanramwen stageed both at the National Theatre and in Benin during the ancient’s city’s centenary celebrations. Kaffirs Last Chance, Wale Ogunyemi’s The Divorce, Ahmed Yerima’s Attahiru, staged in Abuja and Sokoto during the centenary celebration of the Sokoto Caliphate.

Born Bayo Adisa Oduneye on November 4, Nineteen Thirty-six, he attended Ijebu Ode Grammar School, then Holy Trinity Parish School, Ebute Ero, CMS Grammar School, both in Lagos. Between 1957 and Sixty-four, Oduneye was at OpenShaw Grammar School, Manchester, Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, London and Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Theatre directors all over the world have a special place in the hearts of those they put on stage, the actors and actresses they coax to retake an action or gesture one more time. Thus, Constantin Stanislavsky had his loyalists in the then Soviet Union. Elia Kazan had his in America. Likewise, Odunye had his teeming admirers and followers in Nigeria.

As a mark of respect, it was Israel Eboh, president of National Association of Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) who made the announcement after the great theatre director died early last week. Even after his retirement and in his dotage, members of NTN didn’t quite forget their man. In March 2015, for example, a delegation of NTN paid the ageing Thespian a visit right in his country home in Ijebu Ode.

Of the visit, a reporter with Vanguard newspaper Japhet Alakam wrote glowingly of the retired director’s traffic on stage, his undying affection for drama. “He studied it, practised it and trained many in the field. In fact it was on the basis of his exploits in the theatre industry that he was appointed the first Artistic Director of the National Troupes of Nigeria,” Alakam noted.

At the time, Oduneye was 80 but happily declared that “Theatre is my life, I will live and die with it.”

His younger colleagues cannot fault that claim. In fact, it was on account of his devotion to theatre that the visit became necessary. Led by Akin Adejuwon who was AD of NTN at the time, the delegation included high profile staff and management of NTN.

For his selfless service and legacy at NTN, Adejuwon praised the theatre legend: “We also thank God for the wonderful work you left at the National Troupe, which I found and which inspired me when I got there. If I didn’t build on that I would be lying. I thank you for your selfless service.”

Odunye was AD of NTN for nine years from 1991. Even after his retirement, theatre still ran in his blood. He was abreast with the goings on in the Nigerian theatre world. Only one so knowledgeable could tell Adejuwon and his visitors that “the theatre is dead in Nigeria.”

Eboh noted the indelible footprints of the distinguished scholar in the evolution and blossoming of the creative industry in Nigeria, which has transformed into an avenue for fulfilling potentials, becoming a source of inspiration to many.

He was right on the beam. As he put it, “Theatre was alive in the 1970s, part of the ‘80s and gradually in ‘90s. But funds was a very big problem, unless we get funds, we can’t match theatre in those days. Theatre, generally, in Nigeria, is dead for lack of funds. Also, the actors have turned it into something else. However, the federal government needs to come in and do something that will enhance everything about the theatre.”

It is not clear if the Federal Government got the message at the time. President Muhammadu Buhari had just won the presidential election that year but had yet to assume office. But of course, Oduneye’s passing got to presidential ears.

Last week, his media spokesman, Femi Adesina, sent a condolence to the late Thespian’s biological and professional families. PMB, Adesina said, “sympathizes with the creative industry on the loss of Professor Oduneye, who lived for the industry in various capacities as an administrator, scholar and theatre practitioner, nurturing the National Troupe of Nigeria at inception.”