Ahmed Yerima is one of Africa’s most esteemed playwrights and has written over a dozen award-winning historical plays set in and around Nigeria. Some of his plays include; The Lottery Ticket; Yemoja; Hard Ground; Attahiru; The Trials of Oba Ovoramwem; Kaffir’s Last Game, and more. In 2006, Yerima was appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian National Theatre, before that he served as director of the National Troupe. He is currently a professor in Nigeria and has served on numerous arts committees around the world.
ABR: What influenced your decision to use historical and mythical figures in your plays?
YERIMA: Historical figures are very dramatic, very interesting…because these historical figures lived a long time ago, history has set up a template for them that they can’t leave: a wicked king remains a wicked king, he killed eight wives he killed eight wives, he killed his son he killed his son. So I have a set structure to work with. Also, most of them are dead so I can add to the stories that already exist about them, I can manipulate them to some extent. The major problem is finding a way to use these characters to say something new to a different generation. So when I use historical figures, I am trying to twist, expand and extend them so that they create meaning, not just as historical figures but as images that contemporary society can relate to.
ABR: Would you cast your work as a form of social realism?
YERIMA: Well I am not conscious of categories, I’m more conscious of writing plays about human characters. My definition of drama is basically “telling stories.” I see myself first and foremost as a storyteller. In playwriting, I tell stories through dialogues and characters and in turn these dialogues and characters assist me in telling my stories. My plays can deal with rituals, they can deal with religion, they can deal with culture. They essentially explore social aspects of society and use realistic portrayals of people, so if you say that’s social, I accept it and if you say because the characters are a reflection of reality, that’s also good for me.
ABR: As a playwright, what is your approach to the blank page and your process for starting a new play?
YERIMA: Ideas motivate my foray into the blank page and I think about these ideas for a long time. For my new play The Wooden Pot, I got a phone call about an uncle of mine, saying that he had cursed his family and that’s why they are poor. So I wanted to juxtapose that belief in curses with my own reality as a lecturer in a Christian university. I was also looking at the issue of faith, where is the faith in this issue? Where is love and the role of family? Where is the logic in saying a man cursed his children. And if he did, then where is his own future? What legacy does he leave? This one phone call got me thinking about a host of issues and influenced the story that became The Wooden Pot. But I am also influenced by everything that happens to me, sometimes by past issues that occurred thirty, forty, fifty years ago and when they come back to me in strands, it’s easy to merge them into a story.
The first scene usually takes me the longest to write, once I write the first few words, I ask myself “what is the conflict of the play? What am I talking about”? In my play Hard Ground for example, a boy has just been brought from Yenogoa into Lagos and he didn’t want to be saved. So what is his conflict? Who saved him? Why? He wants to return home, he’s become a militant. I use these conversations to create the rest of the play in my head.
In the first act of Heart of Stone, I wrote about a woman looking for her son, yet I didn’t know why. I had dreamt of my daughter who died many years ago, her ghost was crying and the tears were so real; why would a ghost be crying? And her son, I couldn’t find her son. This inspired that first act and once I could understand the motivation for the idea, it became easier to tell the story.
ABR: Who are some of your influences?
YERIMA: My major influence is Professor Wole Soyinka who was my teacher. He taught me to take plays seriously. I read his plays, especially the early ones like Swamp Dwellers, Lion and The Jewel, Strong Breed; they motivated me while I was in school. His village plays would transport me from Ife where I schooled, to ilu ijinle. I also love Ola Rotimi’s plays and Wale Ogunyemi’s plays. They influenced my two best plays, Song of a Goat and Wedlock of the gods.
I used to think that storytelling had to be romantic, I believed that tampering with my consciousness to bend reality would be enough to create the play. But by the time I started reading Shakespeare and the rules of Aristotle, I began to understand how to shape characters. My teacher in England was also very good, the late John Linstrum, he was quite good, he made me write my post-graduate play called Not My Responsibility which was very funny and he made me play the role of Vasta Dada, a humongous caricature that I wrote into the play, he found it very interesting and I found semblance in his encouragement. The encouragement I got from Soyinka when I wrote Asylum in my second year in university also spurred me to keep writing plays and to read other people’s plays. I read Noel Coward, JP Presley and Harold Pinter, John Arden, and much more.
By that time I started thinking harder about what I wanted to do, and I realized I had to find my own style.
I didn’t want to write like those people, I wanted to write like Ahmed Yerima, I wanted to make my own mistakes because playwriting is a skill.
It’s like driving; my father used to say for every trip you make in a car as a driver, you are a good driver for that trip. Likewise for every play you write and write well, you are a good playwright and so I had to keep writing.
ABR: Based on your experiences as the director of the National Theatre of Nigeria, how would you characterize the theatre’s role in the society today?
YERIMA: Theatre has always been a part of our cultural character and consciousness. The black man is born to express, to perform and that’s why I love the Yorubas of all our [Nigerian] tribes, they are more expressive; the Hausa’s are more controlled in terms of expression but the Yoruba’s are very expressive, you know when they are happy, you know when they are sad. Theatre has always been with us and performance is part of our lives, especially when we retell stories.
So when the Europeans introduced their concept of theatre which came in the form of a building (because theatre in the European sense refers to the building, while the drama is the text) and we built the National Theatre, the grandeur of the National Theatre was lovely but the practically of what to do with it became a problem after FESTAC [Festival of African Culture]. Our theatre takes place every day; we are not a group of people who’ll say “Ok, no more performances until the fourth of October next year when we have another festival”. Every day for us is a festival, so we neglected the National Theatre because it was not also built within our cultural process of expressing ourselves and it became just a building.
When I took over as director, the building was dead, it had no light, it had no water, it had a leaking roof, it had nothing and we had to re-start the process of explaining that the theatre could serve our purposes, it wouldn’t make us money but would be a celebration of our cultural heritage. I was able to convince the government and some companies to fund its restoration, along with a dedicated staff that helped bring it back to life…I hope that it remains a center of cultural heritage and not just a building, we have to put the building to use, we have to plan and create programs that reflect our spontaneity of performance grounded in the formality of the National Theatre.
ABR: What would you say your goals as a playwright are?
YERIMA: My goal as a playwright is basically to entertain, nothing hurts a playwright more than when he writes a play and you say his play did not entertain you. I want people to like my plays especially when I write historical plays. I’m not a Benin man but I want Benin people to like Trials of Oba Ovonramwen; I’m not from Kogi but I want Kogi people to enjoy Ameh Oboni; I want people from Sokoto to like Attahiru. Even when I write about delicate issues like Osu in Otaelo, which is purely Igbo, I still want them to understand my point of view and that’s why as a playwright one cannot write in isolation from society, the audience has to be able to relate to the play. If they cannot find themselves in the play, then the playwright has not written a successful play. Gradually with Nollywood, people are beginning to take plays seriously and so the time has come for us playwrights to take ourselves seriously…by writing good plays, directing good performances and knowing our immediate audience.
ABR: Are there any challenges to being a modern playwright in Nigeria especially in terms of publishing, distributing and staging one’s work?
YERIMA: Yeah, there are challenges, especially in terms of licensing. Sometimes the play is already being performed before the director calls me to say “Sir listen to your play, thank you very much we are doing a good play of it, God bless you”. I think only once or twice maybe Joke Silver has paid me to perform my play Little Drops but the others just call me to tell me it’s being performed with no mention of fees. Piracy is also an issue, even when plays like mine are used in JAMB, WAEC, IJMB, and the Polytechnic exam [national exams], you still can’t find the money because somebody hears that Attahiru is in JAMB and immediately pirates it.
ABR: One of our editors recently acquired a copy of Soyinka’s Isara on a campus in New York and this lead to a discussion about how best to preserve it for upcoming generations. What efforts do you think can be implemented to ensure this?
YERIMA: There’s quite a lot of ways now to preserve books, to get books to be seen. Somebody is talking to me about making all my plays into e-books. Someone is also making a movie based on Isara, so there are quite a lot of ways. Audiobooks are also a great way. Someone gave me the whole bible on tape for my birthday last year and now I can quote the bible as if I wrote it, because I just drive and listen to it. But the writers must be compensated and not exploited.
ABR: Do you think the e-book or digital media revolution sweeping through the publishing industry will at some point have an influence on publishing in Nigeria?
YERIMA: Yes it will; it’s just that Nigerians like bookshelves rather than little electronic flashes. A long time ago, I had to type my four hundred page PhD thesis in England and since I couldn’t afford to pay a typist, I had to learn to type with two fingers. In the same way, Africa has to position itself to join and excel in the technology race. We need to improve our electricity, learn methods of data storage, create our own servers, and so on.
ABR: What do you ideally want the future of playwriting and publishing in Nigeria to look like?
YERIMA: I want it to look good and I hope I’ll be there because I’m hoping to live forever through my works. I’m hoping there will be a way of preserving these works and that, like Shakespeare who died hundreds of years ago yet people still read his works, my work will be available for years to come. I was looking at my late friend Kofi Awonoor Williams’ work, reading his poems again and now that he’s dead, I started to understand his poems and form deeper meanings than when I first read them in school. Our works must live beyond us because people will keep finding meaning in them for years to come.