Nigeria stands out in the continent for the vigour and range of its theatre.The rich cultural heritage of the nation, particularly of the south, made performance the natural means for political debate, social cohesion, celebration, and lament. The Nigerian playwright has grown up in a world where theatre literally takes place on the street, in the performances of such masquerade figures as the Egungun, or the festivals relating to trades, crafts, or seasonal rhythms, marriages and funerals. A vibrant tradition of popular theatre (such as the Yoruba opera) was also a resource that the literary playwright could be inspired by and draw upon.
Popular theatre practitioners such as Hubert Ogunde, writing in Yoruba, created biblical and political dramas that toured the country in trucks, performing in hotel yards or community halls to enthusiastic audiences, with lavish ingredients of song, dance, and spectacle. Two titles of plays by Ogunde indicate the range of his writing: The Garden of Eden and the Throne of God (1944) and Bread and Bullet (1950). Duro Ladipo was also an accomplished Yoruba opera artist, with sophisticated theatrical re-creations of Yoruba history and myth (Oba Koso, 1963, and Oba Waja, 1964) and an extraordinary version of Austrian author Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann (Everyman), called Eda (1970).
In the mid-1960s the Kola Ogunmola company, in conjunction with the Nigerian theatre designer Demas Nwoko, had great success with an adaptation of Amos Tutuola’s novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard. In addition to the troupes led by Ogunde, Ladipo, and Ogunmola, numerous other Yoruba theatre companies enjoyed great success well into the 1980s, though they were gradually overtaken by the popularity of videos for consumption at home, which diminished their audiences. The Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, Africa’s leading playwright, acknowledged the influence of such artists as Ogunde upon his work, and modern Nigerian theatre also owes a debt to James Ene Henshaw, whose well-crafted popular plays (This Is Our Chance, first performed 1948, published 1956; and Medicine for Love, 1964) can be seen as the beginnings of a literary drama.
Soyinka himself was part of a group of young playwrights who established their reputations in the years immediately before and after Nigeria gained its independence in 1960 and who are recognized as the formative creators of modern Nigerian theatre. Others were J.P. Clark (later known as J.P. Clark-Bekedemero), Ola Rotimi, and Zulu Sofola. Soyinka maintained a strong theatrical output from the late 1950s (with two plays, The Lion and the Jewel, first performed 1959, published 1963; and The Swamp Dwellers, 1958, partly developed when he was associated with George Devine’s young writers group at the Royal Court Theatre, London) well into the 21st century (with King Baabu, 2002, and Alápatà Àpáta, 2011). Soyinka’s first major play was his alternative contribution to the independence celebrations, A Dance of the Forests, first performed 1960, staged by the company he formed on his return to Nigeria, the 1960 Masks.
Unlike many of the anodyne celebrations of nationhood, Soyinka’s play brings ancestors to life to comment shrewdly on both the past and the present. In many ways that complex though (literally) fantastic play may be seen as a source for much of his later work. Soyinka’s main weapon was satire, from The Trials of Brother Jero (first performed 1960, published 1963) to King Baabu, which was loosely based on Alfred Jarry’s farcical Ubu Roi. In Opera Wonyosi (first performed 1977) he draws on Bertolt Brecht’s satirical musical drama The Threepenny Opera (1928).
Soyinka’s career—fragmented by imprisonment without trial during the Nigerian civil war and subsequent exile—has produced a range of major plays, some dealing with what he saw as the bizarre antics of African leaders (Kongi’s Harvest, first performed 1966; A Play of Giants, first performed 1984; The Beatification of Area Boy, 1995) and others with the clash between the spiritual and the mortal world (The Strong Breed, first performed 1963; The Road, 1965; Death and the King’s Horseman, 1975—the latter widely regarded as his finest play) and fierce personal assaults on tyranny (Madmen and Specialists, 1971; From Zia, with Love, 1992).
Clark’s first play, Song of a Goat (1964), was staged in the Mbari arts centre in Ibadan in a production directed by Soyinka. One of a group of three plays published together—the others being The Masquerade and The Raft—Song of a Goat explored Clark’s native world of the Rivers area of the Niger River delta. His atmospheric and poetic style and his attraction to family sagas distinguish Clark’s playwriting. The Bikoroa Plays (first performed 1981), a cycle of three full-length plays, follows the fortunes of a Rivers family, and another family-centred drama, All for Oil (2000), combines Clark’s dedication to his family and region with contemporary political commentary. Perhaps the most significant of Clark’s plays is his 1966 version of the epic Ijo saga Ozidi—a seven-day community festival. Later, in 1977, Clark was to record and translate into English an oral version of the saga, but his rich play drawn from this fascinating source is not only a powerful drama in its own terms but also an informative introduction to the imaginative dramaturgy of traditional festivals.