THE FOUR YORUBA THEATRE LEGENDS
By Dr Dele Omojuyigbe
Legendary comedian, Moses Olaiya Adejumo alias Baba Sala, died early this month but a handful of Yoruba people showed little sense of loss. When Ola Omonitan aka Ajimajasan died some days after and there were no comets seen, it wasn’t surprising. It is our character. We have a tiny value for people of history. We neglect achiever-professionals but appreciate politicians who feed on us and contribute little to society. Baba Sala’s departure marked the end of an era in the entertainment industry in Nigeria, the last of four pioneer Yoruba actors and playwrights who gave us diverse genres of the Yoruba theatre. The other three were Hubert Ogunde, Kola Ogunmola and Duro Ladipo. It is sad that Baba Sala left as he did, perhaps not as a very happy man because of those who callously pirated his works still, he was fortunate to live till 82. Kola Ogunmola died at 48 in 1973; Duro Ladipo followed in 1978 at 47; while Chief Hubert Ogunde joined in 1990 at 74. Ogunmola and Duro Ladipo’s deaths shook the nation terribly and newspapers reacted with mournful headlines. The actors died at their prime. Ogunmola was regarded by the British as one of the most brilliant thespians in Africa in the 50s and 60s while Duro Ladipo was the first Nigerian artiste to win an international award. He won it in 1965 through his epic drama, “Oba Ko So”, at the Commonwealth Arts festival staged in Britain.
These four contemporaries traversed the length and breadth of Africa, selling Yoruba culture through dance, comedy, folklore and myth. Chief Hubert Ogunde was more or less their ‘father’. He started it all with his unique type of drama which addressed the traditional imagination of the Yoruba in the middle 40s. His works were moralistic and also deeply rooted in politics to the point that they seriously unsettled the colonial government. His “Strike and Hunger” and “Tiger’s Empire” plays had to be banned in Northern Nigeria in 1949. His “Yoruba Ronu” was similarly banned in Western Region in 1964 by the Regional Government of Chief S.L. Akintola. Ironically, the ban made Ogunde more popular and he had to form a dance group with whom he went on a tour of Europe to further market Yoruba culture. “Yoruba Ronu” had criticized the Premier for ditching Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group to form an alliance with the NPC. Ogunde succeeded so much in his trade because he identified with the political struggles and aspirations of the Yoruba. He composed matching songs for his plays and waxed them into records. Among his plays were: Garden of Eden, Kehinsokun, Aye, Jayesinmi, Aropin n’tenia and Ayanmo.
Kola Ogunmola on his part combined Christian themes with traditional Yoruba folklore in his plays to teach his audiences. His performances were so treasured by the University of Ibadan that when the institution founded a school of drama in 1965, he was given a grant to be a resident artiste there. Ogunmola staged “Omuti’, adapted from Amos Tutuola’s Palmwine Drinkard; and “Adiitu”, adapted from D. O. Fagunwa’s Adiitu Olodumare. Both were thrillers. His “Ife Owo” was loved by many also. Ogunmola’s plays were noted to be exceptionally compact and exhilarating, the reason his death struck many like thunder. Duro Ladipo emerged with the dramatization of Yoruba myths and mythologies, using imagery, symbolism and sound. His brand of play gave him a unique mythical aura. Many took him for a god with his uncommon display of ‘African power’ in “Oba Koso” and others. He staged Moremi, Oba Waja, Suru Baba Iwa, Tanimowo Iku and Ogboju Ode (adapted from D. O. Fagunwa’s “Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole” and few others before death seized him. His performances elicited fear in the lily-livered because of his preferred fearsome themes buoyed up by expensive costumes.
Baba Sala came differently as a clown, with a giant hat, table -clock wrist-watch and a king-sized bow-tie draped on an oversized jacket won over agbada. He wrapped his spectacular appearance with a large spectacle frame taken for glasses. His dressing, words and actions were rib-tickling. Thus, Wednesday evenings in Western Nigeria almost suffered vacant streets when Baba Sala was on air at the WNTV, Ibadan, with his Awada Kerkeri sitcom. All actions revolved around him. He was usually the notorious character who suffered all in his plays – radio shows, records and films. Among his popular titles were Tokunbo, Agba Man, Ode Aperin, Orun Mooru, Aare Agbaye, Ana Gomina and Mosebolatan.
Apart from the many actors and actresses who these four giants trained, they also made stage acting attractive with diverse improvisations. There wouldn’t have been Yoruba Nollywood today without them. Although there are other dead Yoruba thespians that are equally respectable; these four blazed a trail. Among the dead are Oyin Adejobi, Ojo Ladipo (Baba Mero), Adeyemi Afolayan (Ade Love), Akin Ogungbe, Isola Ogunsola (I Show Pepper) and lately, Ola Omonitan (Ajimajasan). So, for the people to who these giants gave their all to make happy, they too should give them due recognition when they are gone. And the best should come from their state governments.