Using free productions as tools, US-based Benin prince hopes to rewrite the Nigerian narrative
By Tope Adeboboye
His name is Osamwonyi Oluwatoyin Ologbosere, and he resides in Atlanta, Georgia. A prince of Benin Kingdom, Ologbosere is the founder of Performing Arts Initiatives, a group of artists working to bring succour to people with social, economic and psychological trauma across the world through free stage performances.
With the troupe, the University of Ibadan-trained thespian and businessman has, for over two decades, traversed different parts of North America and the Middle East, sharing messages of hope and renewal to distressed peoples through short drama sketches and solo performances. This Friday, Performing Arts Initiatives would be visiting Nigeria for the first time. The group would be performing The Roadblock, a play written by its founder, at the Arts Theatre, University of Ibadan. And the show, like every other production of Performing Arts Initiatives, would be free.
A free show, you wondered, and Osa replied in the affirmative. “Why not,” he thundered. “Arts should be free. Arts, in their purest forms, are totally free. The stories we listened to from our grandmothers, the masquerade festivals, the aesthetics we experience during New Yam festivals, these are art forms that are pure. And they are totally free. Arts should be free, relevant and accessible. Everyone should benefit from the nation-building lessons we’re trying to teach.”
Osa’s troupe has made an international name for itself as a travelling theatre with a passion for performing in hostile environments. The group has been in several cities in crisis-prone places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and other less serene addresses in the Middle East.
Ologbosere said his initial plan was to take the performance to Maiduguri, the Borno State capital where residents are still recovering from the pangs of the Boko Haram insurgency. Though the logistics could not be perfected at this time, he assured that the hotbed of insurgency would be hosting the troupe in the future.
The Roadblock, the particular play that would be staged in Ibadan on Friday is a social-political drama bordering on societal reforms, a play that teaches that changes in many aspects of our national life are inevitable. The lessons in the play, which he wrote in 1990, seem to be even more relevant today.
“I wrote that play as a young undergraduate at the University of Ibadan,” he told the reporter. “But, regrettably, the situation has remained the same today. All the things we complained about then, we’re still complaining about them now. Lack of electricity, water, corruption in high and low places, collapse of public infrastructure, even unanswered questions about our nationhood. Nothing has changed.
“But I believe that arts can change a people’s way of life. We have done this in other parts of the world with great results. No one should be denied access to good arts because the fellow can’t pay. Arts should be free. We have done countless successful productions in Atlanta with no one paying a dime. Everything is totally free. That is what we’re planning for Nigeria.”
But if arts were to be totally free, how would artists survive?
“I’m an artist, and everyone should have access to the good things of life,” he responded. “They should be able to live comfortable lives. What we do in the United States is to get sponsorship for our programmes, and then we do them for free. We pay all artists. For instance, I convinced the City of Atlanta to sponsor our productions. And since they know we’re sincere and committed, they obliged us.
“On this outing, which is our first in Nigeria, it is self-sponsored. I’m committing a couple of millions of naira to it. It is a project that I believe in. No one will pay a dime to watch the production at 1pm and at 7pm. We will even be distributing free copies of the published play to members of the audience.
“Subsequently, we will be reaching out to organisations that believe in our mission. Embassies, banks, multi-national companies, international and local organisations with interest in the promotion of societal ethics and values that will join us in this nation-building campaign will be contacted, and since they know we have genuine intentions, they will give us a positive response.”
How relevant is this particular play? He explained: “The title is, The Roadblock. At the time the play was written, the road was blocked. Right now, it seems the blocked road is partially or totally damaged. So what do we do? Do we keep blaming the government or we take responsibility, since it seems successive governments have no answer? Are we going to stop being Nigerians or stop being human beings because our leaders are failing us? Absolutely no. The intention is that people will watch the play and be galvanised into engaging in positive thinking. Let’s stop blaming a particular set of people, tribe or faith. We need to rescue ourselves as individuals first before we can think of rescuing the nation.”
Having lived abroad for over two decades, Ologbosere plans to build an artistic centre in Nigeria where people could watch shows for free whenever they want. He confessed that many have expressed cynicism over his plans, but he remains undaunted. He expressed confidence that he would muster the needed financial and psychological support to enable him achieve his aims.
Ologbosere’s passion started at the University of Ibadan where he established the Dromenon Repertory in 1989. He expressed gratitude to his wife, Oluwatoyin, a childhood friend who has been with him through thick and thin, as well as his children for their understanding and support.
He told the reporter that through arts, Nigerians could start a gradual process of rebirth for their country. And he believes The Roadblock could be just a refreshing starting point.