Soyinka’s Theatre bounces back to life

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For about 15 years, the historical Wole Soyinka Theatre at the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan, was an eyesore due to neglect and lack of maintenance. The facility, which has not hosted any major art show all these years, is now wearing a new look. It was refurbished by Chief Deji Osibogun, OYEYINKA OLUDAYISI FABOWALE reports.


Come, let’s go into Paradise and enjoy!” With these words, media mogul Otunba Deji Osibogun invited dignitaries, including his friends, colleagues and members of the University of Ibadan community into the main bowl of the Wole Soyinka Theatre at the  Department of Theatre Arts. It was for an evening of artistic and cultural entertainment as he rounded off his speech at a brief ceremony to unveil the newly-refurbished facility recently.

And no metaphor was more fitting than, perhaps, the businessman’s choice of paradise to describe the new-look historical structure and guests’ experience of spectacular entertainment to which they were treated in celebration of its ‘rebirth’ that evening.

The building, one of the oldest on the campus, having been built in 1955 even before the department took off in 1963, had degenerated physically due to years of neglect and lack of maintenance which worsened in the last 15 years.

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With obsolete stage and studio equipment, torn and damaged gallery seats, hot and stuffy atmosphere due to dysfunctional lighting and cooling systems as well as conveniences in horrible and filthy conditions, the theatre could probably be likened to hell, as it offered anything but conducive environment to enjoy the pleasure of an evening of relaxation. Consequently, it lost its erstwhile attraction to both promoters and lovers of the arts who patronised it. Save for occasional stage productions by students who used it for rehearsals and examination purposes, no serious or big artistic events featured there in a long time. Mr Yemi Bankole, a regular theatre-goer, lamented: “The last time I was there to watch a Yoruba play by some young artistes including the daughter of the late legend, Adebayo Faleti, Doyin, I couldn’t help noting how much dramatic value and effectiveness the poor state of the theatre facilities denied the production in spite of the talents of the actors. Imagine, the artistes having to rent equipment to light the show! And because they were mounted at points not designed for them, the effect was barely seen or felt.”

Even practical training of the students suffered, remarked Dr, Solomon Iguanre, a former student of the department now Associate Professor of Dramatic Literature, Languages and Literary Studies Department, Babcock University.

But courtesy of Osibogun, an old student, who graduated from the department 45 years ago, this heritage that has seen generations of practitioners and experts in the media, creative and culture industry, either train, perform or manage it, has recently been restored to its former pride and glory. Apart from getting the lighting and airconditioning installations working, the basement, toilets and water supply have been renovated with two overhead water tanks installed along with a borehole. The frontage of the building has also been adorned with a new sign name. WOLE SOYINKA THEATRE proudly proclaims its pedigree in carved lettering!

Osibogun, whose intervention coincided  with his 65th birthday, said the waning theatre-going culture in Ibadan and environs ostensibly occasioned by the derelict state of the facility had been of concern to him. According to him, the former Arts Theatre renamed in 2018 after literary icon and Nobel laureate Prof Wole Soyinka, who was the first African head of the university’s Theatre Arts Department, should live up to the billing of a world-class institution and reputation of the icon after which it was named. Also, he said he wanted to give the present generation of students a chance and environment for quality training of yore, which, he said, was missing now.

The initiative by the Chairman, Space Network, a firm dealing in broadcasting and film equipment and media services, drew gratitude and commendations from various stakeholders.

The Vice Chancellor , Prof Idowu Olayinka, thanked Osibogun for rescuing the theatre from decline and disgrace. Aside the funds spent, he lauded the ace broadcaster particularly for sacrificing time to supervise the project to completion.

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An elated Ropo Ewenla, Artistic Director of Ibadan Play House, told The Nation’s Midweek Magazine: “This is beautiful. It’s what we’ve been waiting for, for a long time, because productions staged here before now had been unable to attract the right kind of audience due to the sorry state of the theatre. You see, art has to be sexy, it must be seductive. You don’t get that in a theatre where the toilets are bad, where you get bitten by mosquito, where there are no conveniences. To get people to come watch your productions, you have to make sacrifices – get and pay cleaners to fix a lot of things that should ordinarily be taken as granted. But, now, we can even invite people from Lagos and other places to come stage their plays here.”

Among the first buildings constructed in 1955 with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, it became active at the take-off of the department in 1963 under the late Geoffrey Axworthy, a Briton and pioneer head. It had since either been administered or hosted performances and works of theatre legends and icons in the arts including Profs Soyinka, Osofisan, John Pepper Bekederemo Clarke of the Ozidi fame; Zulu Sofola; Ola Rotimi; Dapo Adelugba; former Artistic Director, National Troupe, Bayo Oduneye; Jimi Solanke; Tunji Oyelana, Laolu Ogunniyi and late Chief Wale Ogunyemi.  It has also produced several generations of impressive thespians including Kunle Bamtefa, Yomi Obileye, Ben Tomoloju, Jahman Anikulapo, Kunle Afolayan, Bimbo Akintola and others in Nigeria’s film industry.

Last week’s celebration of its re-launch evoked memories of the theatre’s popular days and suggested a promise of immense possibilities, with a large cast of veteran and young entertainers – actors, musicians, dancers, comedians and a crew of media technologists, putting up most thrilling performances. They included popular folk singer, Jimi Solanke; saxophonist, Anjola Aboderin; Bisi Ogunbadejo (The Guardian cartoonist); Tunde Fagbenle; Howard University- trained Gboyega Adelaja; Tunde Adegbola; who together re-enacted the entertainment scene of their time, performing evergreen works of music raves such as Que Sera, Sera (What will be, will be), Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s Palaver and Nigeria’s operatic grandmaster, Hubert Ogunde’s Awolowo Ajagunmale, Yoruba Ronu, among others.

Solanke had an appreciative audience, comprising the Olayinka, Osofisan, Oduneye, Ogunniyi of the Wind Against My Soul fame; Chief Mrs. Adeola Osibogun, wife of the donor; members of the academic community and other dignitaries, almost bring down the with his special rendition of Baba Eni Joye from his arcane repertoire as well as Tunji Oyelana’s Eniyan Bi Aparo Lomo Araye n Fe o.

A crew of younger talents from Space Network, Osibogun’s firm, led by its General Manager and award-winning film maker, Feyisayo Ilori, showcased marvelous effects of what a blend of creative genius and modern technology savvy could achieve with digitalised video presentations, a slide show, choreography, drama, lively red carpet interviews and other side attractions that enlivened the evening even more.

The acts were interspersed with special performances by a traditional Bata dance troupe, Karaoke and a live band which intermittently dished out ‘old school’ tunes and revolutionary reggae beats of Lucky Dube and Bob Marley that hinted at Osibogun’s other signature – a passion and drive for social justice activism!

The evening was rounded off with exhortation by National Merit Award winner and Emeritus Professor of Drama, Femi Osofisan, to the management of the department to ensure sustainable maintenance and care of the theatre, the lack of which, in the past, he blamed for its decadence.

Other stakeholders including the VC and the Head of Department, Dr. Alphonso Orisemi, harped on the need for other alumni and arts patrons to assist in further upgrading of the theatre, which could do with other modern gadgetry such as automated stage curtains, backdrop among others to bring it at par with the state-of-the-art in the global industry.