Ahmed Yerima: An Interview with the Esteemed African Playwright

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?
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