Writing for, particularly, theatre, has always been the abiding interest of James Henshaw Jr., the first of eight children by the legendary Nigeria playwright, James Ene Henshaw. Deeply involved in student drama while at university, the younger Henshaw was, in 1986, awarded the Kate Collingwood Bursary for New Writing by Northern Arts (Arts Council GB) on the back of his second play, Today Will Not be Easy Yesterday. That led to setting up a theatre company which performed African plays and toured mainly around the North-East of England. He went on to become a lecturer at South Thames College, and resigned in 2013 to focus on his writing, resulting in Sour Carrots, which won the Lagos Theatre Festival Play-writing Competition in 2017; The Re-education of Gina Obi, Oranges Are Not For Munching, and Bad Business. His first novel, Diblo and the Mystery of Dam-busters, will soon be released.
In 2013, he set up the James Ene Henshaw Foundation, in memory of his late father, James Ene Henshaw. The Foundation engages in developing new writers and a theatre-going culture, while its Open Space Creative Mentoring programme, supported by the British Council, has published new plays new writers under its New African Playwrights Series. HENRY AKUBUIRO chatted with him during the launch of three plays by Tamme Takon and the fifth anniversary of the Foundation in Calabar.
What do you consider the legacies of your father as a writer?
I don’t know if am the best person to answer the question because of sentiments (laughs). But what I will tell you is this: while studying the notes my dad left, I found out that he wrote primarily for young people. He wrote: This play can be staged in the classroom without costumes. That was the level which he was writing. So today that academics are now studying his plays and comparing him with scholarly playwrights, it is surprising. I have read write-ups by scholars, like “The Simple Plays of James Ene Henshaw”. Yes, they are simple, but they that’s what they are meant to be. He wasn’t writing to be at the same level with Wole Soyinka or J.P. Clark or Ola Rotimi. He wrote plays that young people could produce and practice in the classroom. I believe he is one of the most widely read playwrights, even more than the scholarly ones, in Nigeria, because, his plays are used in primary and secondary schools. I am amazed that postgraduate students want to study his plays –that means they must have had multiple dimensions to interest them.
A book is meant to travel. Are you satisfied with the extent your father’s works have travelled since he died?
His works were actually international before I knew he was a writer, because he was originally published by Edward Arnold in the UK –Edward Arnold was later bought by Hodder and Stoughton. So his books were read in the English speaking Commonwealth. In fact, he is more popular in Ghana than in Nigeria. In 2014 and 2015, they produced two of his plays at the National Theatre of Ghana. I was invited and treated like a super star. Jewels of the Shrine, one of the plays in This is Our Chance, has been translated into Zulu by Macmillan, and is being used in schools there. We are, at the moment, negotiating the use of This is Our Chance in Namibia. The thing with books is that, as new ones come in, the older ones give way. What I am doing now is trying to see if I can revive the books again, because, to be honest with you, in terms of drama, compared to other genres, nothing is coming up to replace the older plays. If you listen to me over a period of time, where I had to speak, I don’t believe we should be reading James Ene Henshaw today.
But we still read William Shakespeare till today…
Yes, Shakespeare, as well as other new writers. But there is no point reading James Ene Henshaw and Wole Soyinka, and nothing else you are reading. After my dad died, we tried to sponsor an award for playwrights. For two years, ANA couldn’t award the prize. It was as bad as that.
Schoolboys of my generation read your father’s play, This is Our Chance, among others. Are his plays still in the school curriculum?
It is a long process, because you have to go state by state to get them on the approved list before schools can even consider using them. This is what I have been doing. In Cross River and down south here, I have done a lot. But, then, I know we have limited copies available out there. But the books are being read in different places. Somebody once chatted me up on Facebook from Kano, saying, “I read your book, because we are using it in the school.” He was mistaking me for my father (laughs).
As a child, did you see your dad writing?
By the time we realised what writing was about, he had already published all his major works. But we always saw him, a very quiet man. My mum told us the other day, my dad would leave home, put his file and writing papers under his armpit, and go to African Club here in Calabar, ask for a table, sit down and be writing. My mum never knew what he was doing there until, one day, she sent his driver to find out what he was doing. The driver reported back that he was sitting there writing. My mum went to the African Club and told him, “Darling, other people go to club to dance and enjoy, but you go there to stay by yourself. If you know you are not going to mix with people, why don’t you stay in your house?” The funny thing was that he was a quiet man but a great conservationist. He was well read. In every subject, he would give you an authoritative answer. He was a very sharp mind. He could reduce you to ashes with a few words with his pen. I don’t believe he wanted to study medicine. He even retired from medical practice at the age of 55. So I believe maybe medicine wasn’t his calling.
Last December, the James Ene Henshaw Foundation marked its fifth anniversary. How has the journey been so far?
The cause of the Foundation, so far, has witnessed a lot of highs and lows, to put it mildly. But I think, on balance, we have done very well for five years. Actually, surviving is quite an achievements, considering the climate, both economic and political, in the country, over the period. We have learnt from our mistakes, and we hope we will make fewer mistakes.
What specific projects have the Foundation carried out to actualise its set objectives?
Initially, when we lunched the foundation, we felt we needed to create a profile. So that caused us to engage in a lot of play productions. We began with late Ene Henshaw plays. After that, we started producing more contemporary plays. We have had programmes where we took the plays to secondary schools. We have had workshops. Things we have done so far was trying to create an awareness that the foundation exists. In 2017, we set up a programme called Open Space with the support of the British Council, aimed at nurturing a new cadre of playwrights. I think, in that project, the Foundation has actually found its raison d’etre. Tamme Takon’s play, Two Rows of Three, performed here on December 15, 2019, was a work started in 2016/17. He was one of the writers on that project. Depending on their level of motivation, I hope other writers will be able to complete their books. But that project produced fantastic plays, plays that spoke of the contemporary process of our contemporary society today. There are two other wonderful plays. One was called Eagles without Wings, which focuses on the issues of street children, how they are survive on daily basis, the abuses they receive from the society. The play that actually won that playwriting workshop was a play called Beyond Apocalypse, a one-man play, which is economical to produce.
Looking into the future, what are you projecting?
It is not so much what the Foundation wants to do but what it needs to do, and that is getting sponsors. So far, the Foundation has survived on the goodwill of the family and family friends. But this cannot be relied on as secured sources of income. The other source of funding is renting out of the Foundation’s venue. I won’t say at the moment they are doing very viable returns. So we have to work seriously to secure funding or sponsors. I think we have reached a stage where people recognise we exist, and we don’t need to throw ourselves around so much. In the coming years, the Foundation may cease to do productions and concentrate more on advocacy, programmes, and things like that, because there are other theatre troupes and other people coming to use the venue.
Apart from the advocacy work I hinted earlier and planning programmes, writing workshop has to be a core element, because writing has come to stay now, more so, my dad, who the foundation was named after, was a writer. We want the James Ene Henshaw Foundation to be a place that attracts new writing, using it as a platform for new writers. Writing a play requires a lot of craft, so playwriting tends to be very isolated. So, if you can provide a platform where playwright can come to do their work and share ideas, programmes that enable them learnt their craft, it is great. Also, publishing has been at the back of my mind, because plays are not easy to publish. Many publishers don’t like publishing plays, because, apart from schools, plays are not necessarily what people will go and buy to read. For the Tamme Takon plays we published, there was something that guided me. Their size was compact. Also, I made the writer understand that we could make plays to be easy reads so that somebody can pick them and read within a short time. I am trying to promote plays as readable materials, and only for the stage. In that way, we can get a wider market.
Is there anything missing from the Nigerian arts and culture scene compared to the UK where you have spent most part of your life?
First of all, we, as a society, needs to understand the value of arts and creativity. We need to understand that human beings exist much more than they did and sleep. Many people I met of my dad’s generation –some were medical doctors –had interest in arts. Some were pianists, some were filmmakers, and things like that. So they had fuller lives. But we have been actually pegged back to a society where we have now become existentialist, everybody trying to keep their heads above water. That is one of the things affecting us. Even the artists themselves are not taking time to learn their crafts and produce their works. It is as if they are using the works so that they can eat, and that is the worse condition to actually be an artist.
The other thing is that once we recognise the value that human beings exist more than to just eat and sleep, we need to start funding the arts seriously. The initial spark I had for the foundation was not to perform the plays but to copy the model of the Art Council of Great Britain, which is a statutory organisation that receives funding from the government and, based on that, is able to raise billions of pounds from industries. We don’t have that equivalent in Nigeria. Really, I was hoping I would use the brand name of James Ene Henshaw to attract funding, which would be used to channel to deserving or needy groups. I could resurrect that idea again, because I know government won’t do that. Government wants to run the arts with the Ministry of Arts and Culture. On what ground? Are we going back to the totalitarian state like Russia? You can’t control the mind of an artist. What can a state produce in terms of culture? Nothing. For instance, we have a culture troupe in Calabar; any time a dignitary arrives, they take them to dance. Is that culture?
Be that as it may, the creative industry in Nigeria is probably one of the few sectors that has developed and is prospering in the country, without the aid and intervention of the government. It has grown on the ingenuity of young people with the burning desire to put themselves out there and be heard. Other sectors of the economy could learn a thing or two about how the creative industry has been able to develop. Nigerian youths compete effectively with other young people around the world. However, the perennial problem our young people face are the skills to turn their creativity into viable businesses. Access to sources of funds is a debilitating problem too. Financial institutions need to start to view creative projects as any other businesses too, and not just fun and games.