Oral history interview with Edward Olugboyega Ajayi-Bembe

Oral history interview with Edward Olugboyega Ajayi-Bembe
Edward Olugboyega Ajayi-Bembe
Date Created
9 October 2019
Recorded At
Ile-Ife, Osun, Nigeria
Ola Rotimi
Nigerian Theatre
Yoruba Theatre
Writing process
Audience Reception
Imagined vs Real
Creative Team
Permission from RETAGS required for publication or reproduction.


Gboyega Ajayi-Bembe

Olalekan Balogun


Wednesday 09 October 2019

Transcribed by Jayne Batzofin

Balogun Okay so I'm here with one of the most distinguished Nigerian veteran of the stage and television and someone who worked very closely and extensively with the late Ola Rotimi, the writer of The Gods are Not to Blame, the adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. So I'm here with, we usually call him Uncle Gboyega Ajayi, he's a very old man and I have the very rare privilege of working with him, I think about 16 or so years ago. In another tragic play. So good afternoon sir.

Ajayi-Bembe Good afternoon.

Balogun Can you introduce yourself formally?

Ajayi-Bembe I am Edward Olugboyega Ajayi-Bembe.

Balogun Yes I'm here today sir, I'm representing the Centre for Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies, University of Cape Town on the project Reimagining Tragedy in Africa and the Global South – RETAGS. And what we're doing is, we're looking at from the 1960's up until now, we're looking at reimagination, adaptation of Greek Tragedies from their Greek source, Greek origin into several African cultures. And one of the most popular, the most… revered, well performed of those adaptations is Ola Rotimi's The Gods are Not to Blame.

Balogun You worked with Ola Rotimi for many years. Can you tell us a bit about the production company and how you came to meet Ola Rotimi before we go into the play itself and its performance history?

Ajayi-Bembe I happened to meet Prof. Olawale Rotimi… in 1968. In fact before '68 we met in Ibadan. He was introduced to me by late Pa Orlando Martins, an actor, a film star.

Balogun The African-American, yes, actor, Orlando Martins.

Ajayi-Bembe Film star. So… now the man called me when I went to perform at the Television House Theatre, he said Gboyega I have somebody for you because you were there to do a performance at the media house. Then I said I happened to meet the man, they said this is the man who wants to see you, I don't know him because the man was so short and I look at myself, well I'm a little taller than him. Then I said: "yes". He said: "Pele o" which means "how are you?" Then I replied in same mind: "E pele", then I want to go out then he said: "You are the one that this man wants to see". I said: "Alright, yes sir". He said: "Can you work with me?" I said: "work with you? To leave my…" he is from umm… University of Ife. Then not to- is it University of Ife or yes? I think University of Ife. Where is that then? He said: "Well he is here he wants me to come and work with him". I said: "Sorry I'm working with my Uncle", my late Uncle, Oyin Adejobi, because he's very popular and he has been- I've been with him since 1948 performing with him. So I said: "To come and work with you?" He said: "Yes". Even Ibadan has called me to come and work with them, I said: to work with the University Theatre. What is there performance, because- then the English play-

Balogun Was not popular.

Ajayi-Bembe Will not tour. Even the way they stage it, they will stand rigid, talking alone, no action, nothing what-so-ever. And we used to use our body and everything. I said: "Alright I hear you".

Balogun So let us quickly just put some things in context for those who are listening: Oyin Adejobi was one of the pioneers of the modern Yoruba Travelling Theatre of Nigeria. He was in the same rank of Hubert Ogunde, who is regarded as the doyen of Nigerian theatre.

Ajayi-Bembe Ogunde.

Balogun Kola Ogunmola and Duro Ladipo.

Ajayi-Bembe Duro Ladipo…yes and GT Onimole-

Balogun GT Onimole.

Ajayi-Bembe - from Lagos. All these are the people that I worked with.

Balogun You have had your training as a performer of Yoruba Theatre.

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun Before meeting Ola Rotimi in 1968-

Ajayi-Bembe Of course. I have been performing since 1948 with my late Uncle, Oyin Adejobi.

Balogun So uh… Orlando Martin arranged a meeting-

Ajayi-Bembe So then he said he wants me to see him. Then as I left… I want to leave, then Ola Rotimi said, I will take you to a cadre post. What is the meaning of cadre post? What do I care about cadre post? I'm performing, I'm acting. You want me to come and start this rigid… English version play. I said: "Alright I will see you". Then I went out. And then I went from my rehearsal, we do the rehearsal, we did everything at WNB/WNTV then, and that's all. But later I happened to come to Ife to meet one man. That man had to call for me because-

Balogun What was the name?

Ajayi-Bembe Umm… Kayode Olajuyigbe Theatre. The man was a headmaster of a school. He was then performing the whole book, Ògbójú Ode Nínú Igbó Irúnmolè. So the way they performed the play-

Balogun Yoruba version?

Ajayi-Bembe The Yoruba version. They were- he was working on the whole book. And the way it was performed was not good all that, it had no meaning to me. Then when they came, they performed in Osogbo, I called him, I sat him down. I like you sir, you are a big man to me but I… where do you have your training? He said: "training?" He said he grabbed it because Kola Ogunmola was his former teacher. And he's interested in doing- I said look this play is not the way they're putting up a play. If you want to put a play, the most important thing you go in straight to the topic where you want people to learn. Not just… where they were cooking, where they were…all these things disturbed me. We will have to put the performance for about two and a half hours without, no stopping and has nothing. So look if you want me, I will come and help you to direct the play.

Balogun Let's now, after your first encounter with Ola Rotimi…

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun You left. How did you now meet him?

Ajayi-Bembe No.

Balogun No I'm talking about that first introduction.

Ajayi-Bembe The first introduction…

Balogun You left.

Ajayi-Bembe I left him.

Balogun Yes, so when did you meet again?

Ajayi-Bembe No, now in Ife. This man who I said-

Balogun Kayode Olajuyigbe?

Ajayi-Bembe Kayode Olajuyigbe invited me. So I come to help him directing the Ògbójú Ode Nínú Igbó Irúnmolè because I… I told him in a plain language that this is no play. You are just trying to tell us that we should bring our Ògbójú Ode Nínú Igbó Irúnmolè and started reading. So that's nothing. There's an important thing in the play that the people want to see.

Balogun Yes, you need to pick the plot, you need to get the theme, then you weave the story around the theme and stage it.

Ajayi-Bembe I said alright if I can help him because doing a play, performing for two and half hours without stopping, and there's nothing that we can grab from it…it's nothing. He said alright. Then the man said he would like me to come. So I find a way to fight my Uncle. I fight him so when I fight him, the man said uh-huh, I train you from the beginning. I said yes but I don't want to work with you again. And I leave him…Oyin Adejobi. Then the man (Olajuyigbe) heard that Oyin Adejobi and I…

Balogun You had a misunderstanding?

Ajayi-Bembe Misunderstanding. Now he sent a man to me.

Balogun Who is that?

Ajayi-Bembe Uh… they call him Sir James. And the man is a bricklayer but when he put up his- he always dress in a coat- suit. He will be working as if to say he's all-in-all and he knows nothing. The man is a brick layer. Then the man now come to me in Osogbo that they want me to come and lead their group, Kola Olajuyigbe Theatre. Because the day they came to Osogbo to perform… Ògbójú Ode Nínú Igbó Irúnmolè I had called him and told him that the play is wishy-washy. That it should not be, even for one hour, twenty or thirty minutes. That's the minimum time for a play and they will get the story. He said alright then the man, Olajuyigba sent him to me. And he was then the manager of Olajuyigbe Theatre, I called him to. When I get here I arranged a play and when I take the play from the beginning to the end, the man he said "look I know you are a genius. You know what you are doing," then we start. I took the play right round where they are stage it, that people keep grumbling. But immediately-

Balogun They didn't like it.

Ajayi-Bembe - immediately people see- saw me…that I'm the one leading the group they are interested in seeing the play.

Balogun Because they know you are a trained performer.

Ajayi-Bembe (Chortles) So we went to his hometown, Efon-Alaiye, we put up the play and this teachers-training college, Apostolic Teacher Training College, Apostolic Secondary School, we staged at Efon-Alaiye as well. We went to Aramoko. I took the play to part of Ekiti up to Ado Ekiti. When the people saw the play they said no, they have seen somebody who understands so-

Balogun So let's now come back to Ola Rotimi.

Ajayi-Bembe Ola Rotimi.

Balogun How did you now meet Ola Rotimi again?

Ajayi-Bembe Now on that day… when he has come to me in Ibadan, while I said I can't leave my-

Balogun Job?

Ajayi-Bembe - Uncle.

Balogun Your Uncle.

Ajayi-Bembe So Ola Rotimi now, and the wife were driving to Ori Olokun Arobidi.

Balogun So where is this Ori Olokun?

Ajayi-Bembe It's in Ife here.

Balogun Tell us a bit about Ori Olokun because Ola Rotimi was so identified with Ori Olokun.

Ajayi-Bembe Yes, this Ori Olokun was… you know the Institute of African Studies… yeah. With Michael Crowther as the director. And Solomon Wangboje... they are doing art works, why we have Agbo Folarin, Solomon Wangboje as director of Artwork. This… all this-

Balogun Visual craft.

Ajayi-Bembe Visual craft.

Balogun Fine Art.

Ajayi-Bembe Now…Baba Fakeye was then coming and going late Lamidi Fakeye. Almost all of these people are late. So they were- they bring people together at Ori Olokun, they were training them. But I heard it, I don't want to join them, what are they doing. So on that day as I was standing outside, then Mrs Rotimi… Hazel Ola Rotimi saw me outside there where I was standing. Then she called the attention of her husband, Ola Rotimi, that I… she, they say hey hey hey, so I was looking here and there. Then the car-

Balogun They turned the car round?

Ajayi-Bembe No… into reverse. When they reversed, then the woman came down. Even the motor hadn't stopped before the woman come down. Even Ola Rotimi started querying the movement, why we stop, why I said no we have been looking for you. Even the woman didn't listen to the husband, come come come come. And then I saw, yes, I said: "You , are you not the man we were looking for, we came for at Ibadan?" I said: "Yes". "What are you doing here?" I said: "I come to work with somebody here to help him in directing one of his plays, Ògbójú Ode Nínú Igbó Irúnmolè". And Ola Rotimi and that man had known each other.

Balogun Oh they were friends?

Ajayi-Bembe Yeah because they staged the play Ògbójú Ode Nínú Igbó Irúnmolè and some other group. They are like competition.

Balogun Oh okay.

Ajayi-Bembe So Ola Rotimi said that he will find time to come and help him in doing the play and he will tell him the story how he should do it. So immediately they saw me uh-huh how do I come there? I said well I come to work with this man. Ah Ola Rotimi said good good. Will I come to meet him at Ori Olokun? I said… if it's possible, I'll be there. So they went… please come see us and that's all. I met Ola Rotimi, not knowing that I will work with him because-

Balogun For how many years did you work with him?

Ajayi-Bembe Ah, Ola Rotimi, I started since 1968 to… 'til Ola Rotimi died.

Balogun Yeah that's in 2000 or so. I think he died in the year 2000.

Ajayi-Bembe Yeah 2000. Even the very day he died because we were staging one of his plays then… uh… none of his play that he will like to feature me. Even the one they call Holding Talks, with him about well three or four, five people.

Balogun Three-man characters yes.

Ajayi-Bembe Four, five people, they meet. Even they want to travel out of Nigeria. You will see that I'm part of the play.

Balogun Now let's now talk about the main point of The Gods are Not to Blame.

Ajayi-Bembe The Gods are Not to Blame.

Balogun Tell us a bit about the writing process, when Ola Rotimi was writing, what he was having in mind and how the entire play came about as a script before we go into the performance?

Ajayi-Bembe You see… when Ola Rotimi brought this play, he said look I want it to be toned in Yoruba.

Balogun Oh he actually wanted to do it in Yoruba language?

Ajayi-Bembe No… he said he wants it to be toned-

Balogun To be?

Ajayi-Bembe … in Yoruba.

Balogun Okay okay.

Ajayi-Bembe I said Ah, this is a play that is not Nigerian play.

Balogun Okay he showed you Sophocles' version of Oedipus Rex.

Ajayi-Bembe Now he told, he wrote it and the pamphlet, I mean the script itself shows me. I said I don't know much, I don't know-

Balogun About scriptwriting?

Ajayi-Bembe No I don't have interest in English play…so… this is no play. Now he analysed it, that this play… is made… there's a King who wants, who has a… diviner or something.

Balogun There's a prophecy.

Ajayi-Bembe The man- when they gave birth to the baby, the baby will kill…

Balogun His father.

Ajayi-Bembe His father and then marry his mother.

Balogun And that interested you?

Ajayi-Bembe I said yes. So how can we do it? Then I said, is he crazy (laughs)? Kill his father and marry his mother. I said it's not done in Yoruba land. Uh-huh. And they will know that, this is my real mother and then sleep with that woman? I said Oga, what you are saying is not genuine, it's not Nigerian version. He said yes. In fact… it's an inspiration… they want… how could that be? And the play has been staged… uh… Oedipus Rex and old me something about that. I said alright let's see. Then he now write the outline, he gave me one, he gave… the outline- when I told him about my brother that I can't leave my brother to come and perform with any group because I believe I had so much trust in my brother that he's one of the best playwrights..Oyin Adejobi. He said he wants to see Oyin Adejobi. Then I took him to Oyin Adejobi.

Balogun In Osogbo?

Ajayi-Bembe In Osogbo. When we get there I introduced Ola Rotimi to him. Then my brother was annoyed with me that I left even without any thing, well I know that I'm the foot, I'm the hand, I'm the eye, I'm the all-in-all you know. He is working with the local government; I was taking the trip, the group outside going to anywhere to perform. My brother will not follow us. But all of a sudden I just believe, they don't pay me, I don't get kobo from them. When I go and I come back only the money stipend that they used to give, a shilling, as a food allowance that's all I always have. While he paid others like Kareem Adepoju, Akinyanju and others we paid them money. Kola Oyepo.. we'll pay them but they won't pay me. They said later later, even when we travel out, when are owing others. I'm used to representing him, and disburse the money to everybody. But… lastly… he will say when I come back from tour, when I come back from tour alright, "how is it sir…money?" He said "look, what do you mean? Had it been I'm in your own shoe, you have two foot, you have eyes, you have hand you can walk here and there, you will be asking for money from me? What do you mean?

Balogun So sir let's go back to because we are more interested in Ola Rotimi.

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun Now so after introducing Ola Rotimi to Oyin Adejobi, you now came back to Ife for The Gods are Not to Blame.

Ajayi-Bembe No- Ola Rotimi started… he now gave him the…

Balogun The synopsis?

Ajayi-Bembe - the Synopsis, the synopsis that he gave to Oyin Adejobi…he should write his own version. Then he gave one to me to write my own version. So Olajuyigbe… whom I said-

Balogun Kayode Olajuyigbe?

Ajayi-Bembe Kayode Olajuyigbe. He gave him so… he gathered all the idea.

Balogun Did you write something?

Ajayi-Bembe I used to.

Balogun No particularly for The Gods are Not to Blame.

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun You wrote something from what he gave you?

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun Okay so Oyin Adejobi also wrote?

Ajayi-Bembe Wrote.

Balogun Then Kayode Olajuyigbe also wrote?

Ajayi-Bembe Yes, he did.

Balogun So Ola Rotimi now merged everything.

Ajayi-Bembe Everything.

Balogun Everything. So that's actually the way The Gods are Not to Blame was written?

Ajayi-Bembe Yes. So when after we did all this thing, then Ola Rotimi now have to, the man that I was working with Olajuyigbe said I wanted to work with him. The man promised to be paying me because I came purposely because of money. He gave me a house.

Balogun But sir let's go back a bit. That version that you wrote. Was it in Yoruba or English?

Ajayi-Bembe In Yoruba.

Balogun Yoruba.

Ajayi-Bembe Everybody write their own in Yoruba.

Balogun Even Kayode Olajuyigbe.

Ajayi-Bembe Yeah.

Balogun Okay.

Ajayi-Bembe After write the play in Yoruba. Ola Rotimi now take it… uh… and… called me that- then you know I came back to work with Olajuyigbe.

Balogun yes.

Ajayi-Bembe But then there is still this Biafra War.

Balogun Going on?

Ajayi-Bembe Going on in 1967, '67, 60- something. I was… so the group that the man wants me to lead to be going here and there to be performing we can't go.

Balogun Because of the War?

Ajayi-Bembe Because of the War we can't move around. So the man said alright when he can move around we should stay and the money that he promised that he will be paying me he can't pay me! You know I have a wife. Then,he used to give me a stipend, like he gave me one… uh… five shillings. Five shillings, you know five shillings is a lot of money when I got it. I will give it to my wife. So to buy what we can, just to have, just to have something for our stomach.

Balogun Okay Sir. So now let's now go back so after those four versions. You wrote one, Olajuyigbe wrote his own, Oyin Adejobi wrote his own, then those three versions in Yoruba you gave them to Ola Rotimi.

Ajayi-Bembe We gave it to him.

Balogun Then Ola Rotimi now merged-

Ajayi-Bembe Merged everything.

Balogun And wrote his English version?

Ajayi-Bembe Now… now… look at the idea that well, the idea is… the Yoruba way of performing. Then I was working with him when he doesn't understand. When I read and he read interprets then he said alright. Then he took from this, that and merged everything. And then used it to-

Balogun Write his version?

Ajayi-Bembe - his own version.

Balogun Okay.

Balogun Now that first version was performed in 19- what?

Ajayi-Bembe 19…umm… I think 1968 December.

Balogun December of 1968.

Ajayi-Bembe Yeah.

Balogun Where was it? Where was this?

Ajayi-Bembe Here in Ife.

Balogun Which place?

Ajayi-Bembe Ori Olokun.

Balogun Ori Olokun.

Ajayi-Bembe That was the first time the place they called it Ori Olokun Cultural Centre. Because Institute of African Studies got- this place is a hotel.

Balogun Okay. Ori Olokun is a hotel or was a hotel?

Ajayi-Bembe It was a hotel. Owned by one famous, notorious politician, they called him Pedro.

Balogun Pedro.

Ajayi-Bembe Yes, he's an AG, Action Group member.

Balogun Okay.

Ajayi-Bembe So he was working for AG, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. So with the hotel where they lodged… all those radicals.

Balogun Politicians?

Ajayi-Bembe The thugs and everything. Because…Oba Adesoji Aderemi, Pedro, Ife and Oba Adeesoji Aderemi….Pedro they were all one, together, so nobody, nobody can trample on them, what they call it, this man.

Balogun So sir, that venue, the performance venue that hotel was it a hall or the open air outside?

Ajayi-Bembe Open.

Balogun It was an open air performance.

Ajayi-Bembe You see it is like courtyard.

Balogun Okay.

Ajayi-Bembe You see. Now like this place, see this house, how it was built, this is where we call gallery.

Balogun Okay.

Ajayi-Bembe In the play where the art works… they used to hang artwork… and the stuff all these things in there. There are there working. Alright at the same time… we are teaching people how to do Fine Arts, you see. The Fine Art something… everybody who comes here will be learning how to draw, you see. All these things are there. So they grabbed people, they make it town and gown which means part of the University Student uh… and… people from town they are there like a workshop. You see. And it's just like the way my house was built. This is gallery… that's…. we have that place as bar, then here we have it as… hostel for people. Then the outside like this is meant for… what they call it… meant for acting.

Balogun Okay so what you did was that the hotel was practically converted into a theatre.

Ajayi-Bembe A theatre.

Balogun So when you have the opening air where you had the performance, you have the side like wings where the audience sat down to watch.

Ajayi-Bembe Yes they'll sit around.

Balogun Okay it was more like a theatre in the round.

Ajayi-Bembe The theatre in the round.

Balogun The first performance?

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun Okay now sir let's look at it. So what you are saying is that in a way you were the first person that Ola Rotimi will give a role, will cast in that original version of The Gods are Not to Blame.

Ajayi-Bembe He gave me a part but you know the part that was given to me-

Balogun What was the role that was given to you initially?

Ajayi-Bembe It's one of the guards.

Balogun One of the guards mmm.

Ajayi-Bembe But Femi Robinson is the one who acted-

Balogun Odewale?

Ajayi-Bembe Odewale.

Balogun So how did these people coming into the … how did they get the actor?

Ajayi-Bembe Femi Robinson is working with the uh… University, the Agriculture Dept.

Balogun Okay.

Ajayi-Bembe Department. He brought people from Campus. He collect people- there is this flyers.

Balogun Okay he made the flyers that he was looking for actors?

Ajayi-Bembe Yes that we wanted to organise-

Balogun A performance.

Ajayi-Bembe - a performance uh The Gods are Not to Blame.

Balogun Okay so-

Ajayi-Bembe Then at the Ori Olokun Centre, the Centre of acting and everything.

Balogun Where is that Ori Olokun today in Ife?

Ajayi-Bembe It's still in Ife, Arobidi.

Balogun Arobidi?

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun How far away from the University campus?

Ajayi-Bembe Ah… (laughs) it's just… look when we are saying on the way to Ondo.

Balogun Oh.

Ajayi-Bembe You see, it's inside the town. But it's almost outskirts. When… this Ife Grammar School…umm… there is Ife Grammar School, St. Phillips and all these things is like this. Then Ori Olokun is just before getting to all these schools, Ife Grams'.

Balogun So sir you mean that Ola Rotimi actually… printed a notice, gave a notice as a kind of a casting call for-

Ajayi-Bembe For the University.

Balogun - to the University community?

Ajayi-Bembe Even… I… for one… I went around to be announcing it. Even to part of…Efon Alaiye... uh to come, who wants to join-

Balogun For actors who are interested?

Ajayi-Bembe Who are interested...

Balogun Now let's look at it. Eventually what you are saying is that Ola Rotimi used the Yoruba idea that you, Oyin Adejobi and Kayode Olajuyigbe suggested with the writing.

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun Now, so he's able to set the play in a specific Yoruba-

Ajayi-Bembe Yoruba

Balogun - environment.

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun So what are the choices that he made in terms of maybe…chants and so on and so forth?

Ajayi-Bembe You know all these chants was recorded.

Balogun Oh, they actually got people who knew the chants?

Ajayi-Bembe Not really. You know for instance, after the play has been written, now invited people.

Balogun To read it?

Ajayi-Bembe To read. When they were reading, then invite the chanting people.

Balogun The chanters, can you even remember any of them?

Ajayi-Bembe Well…

Balogun Maybe one person?

Ajayi-Bembe I… I… you see it's a long time.

Balogun It's a long time yeah I know.

Ajayi-Bembe Because people from, you know… Gbongan, eh? There is a village, along that area, Gbongan. There is somebody who came from there. Umm… this uh… Baba…uh… what they call him, he's a magician… Baba-

Balogun Peller?

Ajayi-Bembe Not Peller. This is Yoruba magician… Baba… uh…. from Ikirun. Uh… Adeogun… the man in the olden days when you held like this. When he will just drop, when he will drop his hand will pull off.

Balogun Oh.

Ajayi-Bembe Then you said "Heeey, he has killed me o!" Blood will be rushing, the hand will be with the one who held him.

Balogun (Laughs).

Ajayi-Bembe So there will be begging him so he will collect money before putting the… hand back. You will see his teeth come out from his mouth.

Balogun hmm.

Ajayi-Bembe Aladokun…he was one of the chanters. We invited him to take part. They were the dancers.

Balogun For that first performance Ola Rotimi actually got experts in their own right, the chanter was a real-life chanter.

Ajayi-Bembe Of course.

Balogun And then the magicians. Just to give… you know the audience-

Ajayi-Bembe They called it town and gown.

Balogun hmm. Okay so the first performance was done in the mode of a town and gown.

Ajayi-Bembe Even with the students and everything.

Balogun So what was the response of the audience that first performance?

Ajayi-Bembe Ah! They really enjoy it. That this is not common because he used all the avenue that he had. To bring people together, not the University staff or the University students alone. Because when they're chanting, the Adeogun…Aladokun's son will be chanting in Yoruba… (singing in Yoruba and then making percussive sounds to sound like drums beating rhythmically). Then they start the drum by the… bàtákoto. Then we then dance, or you know was mixed.

Balogun So it has a whole lot of traditional flair. The traditional Yoruba performance.

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun So the first Gods are Not to Blame was in the mode of a Yoruba performance? Although it was done in English. But all the elements were in-

Ajayi-Bembe Yoruba.

Balogun Then the choreography. How was it done? I mean the dance step and everything?

Ajayi-Bembe Ola Rotimi you know is very good.

Balogun He choreographed the dance?

Ajayi-Bembe Of course. He has the words, rehearsals or the script…dancing part, the music part. When he do everything, then later he will…

Balogun Okay so he works separately with the dancers.

Ajayi-Bembe Uh-huh.

Balogun Works separately with the musicians.

Ajayi-Bembe Yes

Balogun The chanters-

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun - the chorus.

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun Then he works separately with the actors.

Ajayi-Bembe Actors.

Balogun Then he will fuse everything together.

Ajayi-Bembe First and fore mostly, when he gave you the script, after reading the script.

Balogun That reading, yes.

Ajayi-Bembe Then alright we'll give two people or three…

Balogun The same role?

Ajayi-Bembe Role. The best out of the best.

Balogun He tries them out.

Ajayi-Bembe Then… he too will be doing, rehearse it, the major line. He too will be rehearsing the major line. Because if you want to make… a fool of him… well he has to be… uh… worshipping you. He will tell you that to hell with you. What is it? He will come onstage and start doing his thing. Because when he gave you a major part he knows that well he too have to work on it. So Ola Rotimi is very versatile in all things.

Balogun Now what particular thing can you still remember to tell us about that first performance? Something that was really unique about it?

Ajayi-Bembe What… you see… everybody that watched the play… was very very keen in watching the play. No play that Ola Rotimi will grab… eh? He will try to put all efforts. Even there is one play… we staged this play, it was French Play. The play was so dry… Ola Rotimi turned the play… even the French man who is part of a…the play... let me remember…. the play, I will remember the play before finishing. You know…he turned it to another thing because the man uh… this man… uh… is a doctor, is a Yoruba man but he teaches French because African stories we have French, German and-

Balogun Are you talking about Abiola Irele?

Ajayi-Bembe Abiola Irele. I don't know where the man is now?

Balogun He's late now.

Ajayi-Bembe Oh God.

Balogun He died last year.

Ajayi-Bembe Abiola Irele… really? (whistles in disbelief). Abiola Irele was saying… this Rotimi is no more, not just an ordinary person, he's a play itself. Because when we staged any play… Rotimi do everything to make it possible.

Balogun To really come out well.

Ajayi-Bembe To make it really…

Balogun Really good.

Balogun Sir let's now talk about after that… December 1968 premiere.

Ajayi-Bembe 1968.

Balogun The Gods are Not – 1968. December 1968.

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun That was the first time The Gods are Not to Blame was performed. Now do you recall subsequent performances that happen? Was it still inside that same venue, the Ori Olokun?

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun Or you moved to- because that was more like a make-shift stage.

Ajayi-Bembe Look most of the play that during Ola Rotimi's period, eh…

Balogun Happened at Ori Olokun?

Ajayi-Bembe We always have Festival, Ife Festival at Ori Olokun (Gboyega's phone begins to ring) Sorry.

Balogun turns off the audio recorder

Balogun Okay, it's okay. So Ori Olokun was actually the main… venue of the performances?

Ajayi-Bembe For all our performances.

Balogun Even for the tragedy, another tragedy that Rotimi wrote after The Gods…?

Ajayi-Bembe Ovonramwen Nogbaisi…Kurunmi...

Balogun Grip Am?

Ajayi-Bembe Ah no, I mean Gbe 'Ku De. I am the one they call Gbe 'Ku De. They have to write…I think Kayode Awe was an editor of a…Daily Sketch, Tribune or what- a Sketch or Tribune in Ibadan…said Gbe 'Ku De watching in every village, because of the way it was written… and the way we performed the play, I mean was very very interesting. Everybody… no play that Ola Rotimi will grip like this. He will see that he put all… all… all avenue, all things-

Balogun Okay sir let's now look at it. Ola Rotimi said in one interview that he wrote The Gods are Not to Blame to talk about the Nigerian Civil War. You know the play itself-

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun - was first performed-

Ajayi-Bembe Yes yes during the War.

Balogun - when the Civil War was going on. He said he was trying to look at, how the War was caused by our tribal sentiment.

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun That's why somewhere in the play Odewale says he killed a man because the man called his tribe Bush.

Ajayi-Bembe Bushman.

Balogun So do you believe in that? Did you think that tragedy was actually reflecting the Nigerian society of that time?

Ajayi-Bembe Well you know… as a writer… what you have in mind may not be what I have in mind. Everybody has his own idea. So… Ola Rotimi… his thinking, he used to think deep.

Balogun So you believe what he said by the play being a reflection of the Nigerian…

Ajayi-Bembe Civil War.

Balogun So what was it like at that time? Was it that tribal- because it is even now that people are saying this is Igbo, this is Yoruba. So are you saying that tribal thing that caused the Civil War was really really prominent even at that time?

Ajayi-Bembe Of course. Because what I mean by saying is forming it. Now… what could have been the cause of the War? Alright I could tell you. This War is not supposed to be but what happens then if we should go into the story because I could remember vividly. Now… Aguiyi Ironsi took power after killing Sardauna ….

Balogun Ahmadu Bello.

Ajayi-Bembe Ahmadu Bello.

Balogun Okotie Eboh.

Ajayi-Bembe Okotie Eboh.

Balogun Akintola.

Ajayi-Bembe Akintola…and none of the Igbos was killed …

Balogun Was killed.

Ajayi-Bembe Was killed. And in the North I remember quite alright in Kaduna. They… uh… Igbo, eh? Was all the administrative area, eh? Was in the offices. Igbo was fixed here. In the North. Even in the West too.

Balogun So the military actually-

Ajayi-Bembe Now…

Balogun - were tribalistic…

Ajayi-Bembe Aguiyi Ironsi did it, none of those Igbos was killed. Zik masterminded it.

Balogun mmm.

Ajayi-Bembe So when the thing was to happen Zik travelled out-

Balogun Travelled out.

Ajayi-Bembe Travelled out. Awolowo was in prison. Now the Igbos were singing in… in Hausa language, that "Hausa wa de Yorubawa bawa Igbo" Do you know what that means?

Balogun No, what does it mean?

Ajayi-Bembe (Chuckle) Hausa and Yoruba are slaves to Igbo. Even in the North, singing, dancing. This Korean thing… music (mimics a rhythmical instrument sound) and where they used to take this burukutu.

Balogun In the hotels, in the bar-

Ajayi-Bembe In the bar. They will be singing "Hausa wa de Yorubawa bawa Igbo" Which means Hausa and Yoruba are slaves to Igbo. They'll be dancing, rejoicing. So… and they are doing it in the Western region here. But nobody you know, when you are talking with people will just… they will say "Nworanwon" "Anofia" You this slave. They'll be abusing you.

Balogun So Ola Rotimi was actually looking at all of those things. Then he thought Sophocles' Oedipus Rex would be a very good material to discuss that situation of hatred in Nigeria.

Ajayi-Bembe Hatred.

Balogun That eventually led to the Civil War.

Ajayi-Bembe Of course. So because these Igbo people… they are not, they don't care. What they have in mind is, they are so self-centred. If they have the opport- you will see since they- aside from the military head of States. An Igbo, this is Aguiyi Ironsi.

Balogun Aguiyi Ironsi.

Ajayi-Bembe Have you ever seen any Igbo person to rule us?

Balogun Again?

Ajayi-Bembe No, because the Igbos are so tribalism. When… if this man, let's say…

Balogun In this compound?

Ajayi-Bembe In this compound. When Igbo wants to come in, eh? They'll be begging you just give us a room, eh? They will meet the landlord, give us a room we will abide with it. When he comes in, I and my wife or I and my brother then…he won't bring wife. Later he'll bring, later he will say I'll want to get mally…which means I want to get married. Let me bring- my wife will be coming. When the wife come, you know, he- the man and his brother- is here the wife come. Then he will say we need another room because me and my brother and my wife cannot be sleeping in this… room. The wife will bring another person, her own brother or sister. Then if they are paying 10 naira for a room, the Igbo will increase it. He will say let me put more money, then you give them

Balogun 30.

Ajayi-Bembe 30 Naira. Now he'll be looking for another room. Then there are only three there. Now the wife will go and bring somebody, the brother will go and bring somebody, then… the place is… you see, the place is too small for us…. then you'll give them another room.

Balogun So gradually-

Ajayi-Bembe They will occupy the house.

Balogun - the whole place.

Ajayi-Bembe Then later they won't pay you.

Balogun They will stop paying and then- there will be trouble.

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun So Ola Rotimi was kind of terrified and he thought drama, The Gods are Not to Blame, was a very-

Ajayi-Bembe A message.

Balogun - of talking about it. Now those who saw the play when that performance at Ori Olokun….were they able to get that message?

Ajayi-Bembe Of course some people got it.

Balogun mmm mmm.

Ajayi-Bembe But you know it's very difficult to say.

Balogun mmm. So it's a very difficult thing to acknowledge that this is what he is talking about-

Ajayi-Bembe Yes.

Balogun -or people got the message.

Ajayi-Bembe Of course.

Balogun Why was it difficult?

Ajayi-Bembe Because they know Nigeria. Within that time you know… If you heard about- you'd be hearing about Ore.

Balogun Yes.

Ajayi-Bembe Maybe I don't know-

Balogun Óle kú ìjà òrè.

Ajayi-Bembe You heard about Ore. Do you know what really happened there?

Balogun No.

Ajayi-Bembe Ore… it's a village… it's a village… the people, the Eastern people. Alright, only Awolowo saved us, if not so. The Igbo people knows that the headquarters of Nigeria then was Lagos. Instead of staying… when they want to cross, you know. They want to go straight.

Balogun Through Ore to Lagos?

Ajayi-Bembe To Lagos.

Balogun To take over power.

Ajayi-Bembe To take power. If not Benjamin Adekunle.

Balogun So Benjamin Adekunle led the Federal troop that stopped them at Ore?

Ajayi-Bembe Uh…

Balogun Okay sir, so let's come back to The Gods are Not to Blame. Now look at this what you talk about, you know in The Gods are Not to Blame we have the people of Ikolu.

Ajayi-Bembe Ikolu.

Balogun Ikolu

Ajayi-Bembe Ikolu

Balogun Ikolu

Ajayi-Bembe Ikolu

Balogun and then Kutuje

Ajayi-Bembe Kutuje

Balogun Kutuje

Ajayi-Bembe Ikutuje

Balogun Kutuje

Ajayi-Bembe Kutuje

Balogun Kutuje.

Ajayi-Bembe You know, not… it is just…imagination name.

Balogun Just imaginary names… yes. But (laughs) good that's where I'm going. The play itself is a work of imagination. But Ola Rotimi mentioned specific locations around this place. He mentioned Osogbo, Ede, and then we know of course Ife. And then he mentioned Ilorin, Atakumosa. Why did he have to do that?

Ajayi-Bembe Now… to let the people know that we worked within-

Balogun This environment?

Ajayi-Bembe This environment. That… all these people are… same people.

Balogun So he wanted to bring some kind of reality into the play, so that the people can see okay he's telling our story. The story actually happened in our-

Ajayi-Bembe In our environment.

Balogun Where we know. Okay that's the choice of the setting, the locations?

Ajayi-Bembe Yeah.

Balogun Okay now. All of these people, I know they are all Yorubas. Was it in the performance, did he decide to pick maybe dances that are being done in Ede, the dance of Ondo people, the dance of Ondo people, Ekiti, Ife and Ijebu. Or he just, the dance was just one Yoruba known dance?

Ajayi-Bembe Just… the lady who choreographed-

Balogun Who was that?

Ajayi-Bembe Peggy Harper.

Balogun Peggy Harper.

Ajayi-Bembe You see when they want to form this Ori Olokun, Peggy Harper happens to be… a dancer.

Balogun The dance instructor?

Ajayi-Bembe Instructor. Akin Euba is into music you see.

Balogun mmm.

Ajayi-Bembe And knowing each other for the first time mmm everywhere…

Balogun They came together?

Ajayi-Bembe Uh… Michael Crowther which was a director have to call them together. That they have to work…

Balogun Together?

Ajayi-Bembe Hand in hand. So that- to make things easy.

Balogun Okay, so Ola Rotimi wrote and directed the play. Akin Euba composed the music.

Ajayi-Bembe Uh… no.

Balogun Okay.

Ajayi-Bembe You see. He asked that I want to use this music, please. Everybody is doing his own thing then. Because Ife Festival, they used to call it, that was first Ife, eh, Festival of Arts. So everybody was busy doing his own thing. But you know I can come to you that I want to use- I'm using this music how do this music sound?

Balogun mmm.

Ajayi-Bembe Well when he said yes, it's good. Then- but no-one, he didn't give them chance. Everybody use his- what he has in mind… Because Sam Akpabot...

Balogun Sam Akpabot…yes.

Ajayi-Bembe He's there, he's doing his own thing. Akin Euba was doing his own thing. Uh… Peggy Harper was doing her own thing. Uh… Akinola Lasekan…Baba Akinola Lasekan is doing his own thing, Isaac Delano was doing his own thing. Everybody was busy doing something that… will make the Festival.

Balogun Okay so different music, dance… all of these things.

Ajayi-Bembe Everybody has its own.

Balogun So it means that it's actually the songs and the dances were all done by the crop of performers in the play?

Ajayi-Bembe Ola Rotimi knows what he wants.

Balogun Okay.

Ajayi-Bembe He use what he want. He do it on his own. Sam Akpabot was doing music, now… he's doing… uh… story and music. Then Akin Euba too was doing his own thing. Uh… music and chanting. Umm… Peggy Harper was doing dancing alone… what do they call this dancing… choreograph… dance drama.

Balogun mmm.

Ajayi-Bembe So everybody then do his own thing you know. When they sit down, this wants to lapse they bring-

Balogun Something else into it.

Ajayi-Bembe They bring them… let's join this and this together to make the people happy that we are doing something.

Balogun So, sir the costume. How were they able to get the costume for the performance?

Ajayi-Bembe You see… you know there are research grant.

Balogun Okay, Ola Rotimi got a research grant?

Ajayi-Bembe Akin Euba got research grant. Peggy Harper got research grant. Everybody got his own grant.

Balogun So Rotimi uses his own research grant to produce the play?

Ajayi-Bembe Yeah, even… the money is not enough you see. Have to scout around.

Balogun To get more money?

Ajayi-Bembe To get more money. From the Ford Foundation. You know, I remember that I… I used to… because I used to be Ola Rotimi's errand boy.

Balogun mmm like his PA?

Ajayi-Bembe He would say…alright go to this place, give me letter to Lagos to… USAIS to… I want this, I want that. And being that the people… there is this garlic or what do they call it, the White people who live in Lagos like the race course area. I will go there and give them letter and… they put cheque. They give me cheque in an envelope. So I'll keep it alright, goodbye. I take my- leave. I come back to give him the letter. Then when he… open the letter he said alright. He was using everything to see that-

Balogun To get it done.

Ajayi-Bembe To get it done, yes.

Balogun Now… after that Ori Olokun performance of December 1968, the play was subsequently performed even in the Pit Theatre, Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile Ife-

Ajayi-Bembe Of course at Fajuyi Hall.

Balogun Okay. When it moved inside the University campus-

Ajayi-Bembe Yes after- they come to- from the University. They come to watch the…

Balogun The performance at Ori Olokun.

Ajayi-Bembe At Ori Olokun or because they are doing the performance because of the staff of the University.

Balogun Okay.

Ajayi-Bembe But they want the student too.

Balogun To participate-

Ajayi-Bembe To enjoy it. Then we go to Fajuyi Hall.

Balogun Okay so because they want the student audience to also enjoy the play, they now move it from Ori Olokun-

Ajayi-Bembe Even most of them they will bring buses.

Balogun From the University?

Ajayi-Bembe From the University-

Balogun To Ori Olokun?

Ajayi-Bembe - to Ori Olokun.

Balogun But what I'm saying is that-

Ajayi-Bembe Then after the… Festival then they'll still like to watch the-

Balogun Watch the performance?

Ajayi-Bembe Performance. Then-

Balogun Okay they now requested that you took it into the University?

Ajayi-Bembe Or like the student wants to do their… what they call it… student uh…Union's…

Balogun Week or something?

Ajayi-Bembe - week. They tried to fix a play. Prof Ola Rotimi, we want to watch this your play to be done inside Fajuyi Hall.

Balogun So then Rotimi will move the play from Ori Olokun-

Ajayi-Bembe Of course.

Balogun - to Fajuyi Hall.

Ajayi-Bembe Well yes.

Balogun With the same cast who performed it?

Ajayi-Bembe With the same cast. Both the student and the lecturers.

Balogun So how many times did you do that performance? Before Ola Rotimi went to do another play like you know after that I think he did Kurunmi.

Ajayi-Bembe Look, yearly.

Balogun Oh. So the performance of The Gods are Not to Blame became a yearly occurrence?

Ajayi-Bembe Of course. Uh… Ovonramwen Nogbaisi… yearly. They used to do it for annual something. At time eh, they may request for it at Ibadan. They may request for it at Lagos. We'll go out to perform. You see. Even at times the student will request for it and we perform at Fajuyi or Awolowo Hall.

Balogun Okay sir what was the process of rehearsal like for the performance of The Gods are Not to Blame? How often did you rehearse? Every day? Or once in a week?

Ajayi-Bembe Eh?! Once in a week? (Laughs) we have our rehearsals every day. Now the music we can- will be at the Centre. But we the… uh… regular artists we have to be there in the morning.

Balogun Like what time?

Ajayi-Bembe Now for the first time we have to attend Peggy Harper's rehearsal.

Balogun Dance rehearsal.

Ajayi-Bembe Dance rehearsal by 7-

Balogun AM?

Ajayi-Bembe To 9 in the morning…eh…

Balogun The music?

Ajayi-Bembe The music…

Balogun Would go for his own rehearsals.

Ajayi-Bembe Will go for his own rehearsal from… 11 to 2. Or maybe Sam Akpabot.

Balogun Would be the one that'll take music-

Ajayi-Bembe Who'll take over maybe some…Sam Akpabot his own rehearsal is from 11 to 2. Alright, then…

Balogun Ola Rotimi?

Ajayi-Bembe Umm… what was it… Ola Rotimi rehearsals goes from 4… eh… 4 to 7. Or 4 to 8. You see we always have rehearsals throughout the day.

Balogun Okay. Thank you so very much sir I really appreciate it. I know I've taken your time, you were actually planning to go to the hospital. And I really really really really appreciate the time that you have given for this interview. Thank you so much sir.

Ajayi-Bembe Thank you.

Balogun turns off the audio recorder