By Henry Akubuiro
Three dogs growled the moment the gate of Artists’ Hostel, located behind the popular Abe Igi joint, opposite the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, creaked open. The anxious dogs were instantly shushed by a minder. In a little while, something caught the attention of the dogs: a rat racing in the direction of an abandoned building by the right, immediately you entered the hostel. The dogs went after it, but, after a futile chase, the visibly famished animals went back to their position under a tree shade, breathing hard and looking askance at everybody around.
The three dogs weren’t the only things not enjoying the best of times at the Artists’ Hostel. The four buildings inside and the environment looked like the ruins of Aleppo. Built by the Federal Government to house performing artists of the National Troupe of Nigeria, the Artists’ Hostel lacked lustre of late. The painting had long washed off, two big generating sets had gone bad, and seven vehicles, comprising Coaster buses, open vans and a truck used by the artists to travel, had been abandoned, their tyres flat.
The sorry state of the vehicles reflected the state of the artists themselves. For four years, they haven’t performed at the biggest stage, as they used to do in the past, travelling round the country and the world at large to perform to audiences. During the tenure of Akin Adejumo, who was succeeded by Ter Ukoh as the artistic director of the National Troupe in 2017, the troupe toured the country with its innovative guerilla theatre meant to take performance to the community and organised shows during Children’s Day yearly. In one of its outings, this reporter accompanied the troupe to Osasa, near Ijebu Ode, Ogun State, the hometown of Hubert Ogunde, the first artistic director of the National Troupe, to perform. They didn’t stop at that: they performed at different geo-political zones and festivals, taking with them a rich repertoire of Nigerian culture. Of course, they were the cultural ambassadors of Nigeria, called upon to perform whenever important dignitaries were visiting the country.
All of a sudden, the drums went silent and the voices of the artists stiffened. The men among them developed potbellies and the women gained weight, for there weren’t many rehearsals and performances anymore to keep them busy as before. What happened? The artists in Lagos have blamed the immediate past artistic director of the National Troupe for making them redundant by not engaging them in routine activities.
Monday, April 11, 2021, the artists of the National Troupe gathered under a tree at the inelegant Artists’ Hostel to relive memories of the good old days, recount their woes and set an agenda for the yet-to-be appointed new artistic director, following the expiration of Ukoh’s tenure after four years in the saddle. They went on a binge, hoping for the best. They would like to go back to the stage soon to do what they know how best to do.
Comrade Israel Adedapo Olubade, chairman of Radio, Television and Theatre Arts Workers Union (RATTAWU), National Troupe of Nigeria chapter, said the National Troupe, as an essential service, used to work round the clock. Even during festive seasons and on public holidays, they would be entertaining Nigerians and the world, but things have taken a turn for the worse.
“You can then imagine, for four years, we were on vacation. For four years, the National Troupe of Nigeria was in the dark. For four years, the National Troupe of Nigeria has been sent on exile. We hope to return in peace, and our lost glory shall be restored. We appeal to the Federal Government not to appoint a career politician to head the National Troupe of Nigeria.
“The rebuilding process can only be done effectively by looking inward, choosing from directors here who already know the history and vision of the National Troupe, and move it higher,” he said.
Miss Goodness Ejuga, popularly known as Whoknowstomorrow in the National Troupe, recounted the glory days at the National Troupe with glee, and regretted how things had fallen apart: “There was a time the National Troupe was big. Anywhere we stepped out to perform in the world, people would be captivated by our performances. Today, when I look at the National Troupe, I weep. Nothing is happening anymore. There used to be performances here and there. Since Goodluck Jonathan was replaced, we haven’t been to Aso Rock anymore to perform. We want our National Troupe back.”
Emmanuel Adejumo has also performed in different parts of the world with the troupe, hence, he bemoaned the stasis pervading the Troupe.
“A stanza in our National Anthem says, ‘The labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain’. The good work of Hubert Ogunde, Pa Oduneye, Ahmed Yerimah, Martins Adaji, and Akin Adejumo cannot be in vain.
“I came here as an artist, and I know how much we have worked; I know how much we have taken the glory of our culture to the world, and they have always liked our performances. We have performed in Aso Rock and everywhere, representing this nation. But everything suddenly came to a halt. I am appealing to the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, to look inward when appointing the next artistic director of the National Troupe. I know we have good hands as directors, and, if any of them is appointed, you will see what they can do to revive the National Troupe within a year or two.”
Mrs. Adeniyi Monica had the same sad story to tell about redundancy among the artists.
“For four years, we were redundant. I don’t know what the National Troupe is without the artists. Performing is our joy. I came here as an artist to work from Monday to Friday, even up to Sunday. We even worked on Christmas Day, and we were happy doing it. Suddenly, our joy was taken away from us. Even coming to work was hell, because we were not doing anything for four years. We are tired of receiving salaries without performing. We pray that whoever the Federal Government is going to bring to us will reconstruct and make us happy again. We are the cultural ambassadors of this country. They don’t even showcase us on television anymore.”
Idris Adukanya, the stage manager of the National Troupe, who had overseen countless productions, echoed the position that the National Troupe was doing well until recently: “In music, we have experts. We have experts, too, in drama and dance. We are the custodians of Nigerian culture, performing what Nigerian culture represents, doing it from country to country, community to community.”
Unfortunately, he alleged the immediate past artistic director disbanded all artists of the National Troupe and established a personal orchestra that didn’t fly.
“As the stage manager of the National Troupe, if there is no stage, where is the stage to perform? Would a stage manager beat a drum for a stage to move? It can’t work. But, to God be the glory, a new dawn has come. We appeal to the Federal Government to look inward to select a new artistic director of the National Troupe that can bring it back to life.”
Madam Olanike Komolafe also regretted that, though the National Troupe had men and women who could change its fortunes for good, it never happened, because they were never given a chance to bring their expertise to bear. Similarly, Beatrice Ikpa would like the National Troupe to be fixed urgently.
Like others, Soibifaa Dokubo, aka Waka, a founding member of the National Troupe in 1989, said government should look beyond politicians in appointing a new artistic director: “Government should put a technocrat in place, like it has always been, from Hubert Ogunde, Bayo Oduneye, Prof. Ahmed Yerima, up to Martins Adaji. Akin Adejumo also tried his best. But, for the last four years, we have had no single production, and the government did not take a look at its Super Eagles equivalent in culture. The National Troupe has had accolades from Hubert Ogunde till today.
“There was no tour we embarked on that wasn’t a sellout. Huge foreign exchange we would have had like the Ipi Tombes and the Sikulus, we have lost billions of naira because of poor management. The National Troupe is the beacon of artistic excellence in the world’s most populous black nation.”
However, it was not everybody who believed the last dispensation was a write-off. For Samuel Rukayat, the former artistic director brought synergy between Abuja artists and those in Lagos.
She said, “One thing I commend is that the former artistic director brought unity between the artists in Lagos and Abuja. There is this love. We are united.”
Stepping out of the Artists’ Hostel moments later, the three dogs, which had been sleeping all the while, were awake. One of them was lying on its back, akin to a dead fish bobbed up belly-wise in a river, trying so hard to trap flying ants with its yawning jaw for lunch. Apparently, not only the National Troupe and its listless artists are in need of resuscitation. The creatures that walk on all fours here don’t look like they relish the misery of Gethsemane.