Betty Okotie and the Birth of Solo Play Production in Post-Colonial Nigeria.

Author:Mbajiorgu, Greg
Position:Critical essay
 
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Introduction

From numerically-based evaluatory study, the ratio of the involvement of women in the evolving art of one-actor drama in Nigeria is four women to sixteen men. A roll call of Nigerian actors and actresses, playwrights, directors and designers who have contributed significantly to the growth of this sub-genre of theatre include the following: Betty Okotie (director)1966; Wale Ogunyemi (actor) 1966; Tunji Sotimirin (actor) 1987; Funsho Alabi (actor) 1988; Greg Mbajiorgu (actor-playwright) 1991; Tunde Awosanmi (director) 1995; Hafiz Oyetoro (actor) 1995; Bayo Alawiyi (actor) 2001, Dele Ogunsola (director) 2001; Femi Fatoba (actor) 2001; Inua Ellams (actor-poet) 2008; Benedict Binebai (playwright) 2012; Rudoph Kansese (director) 2012; Akpos Adesi (playwright) 2015; Eni Kenneth (technical director and designer) 2015; Kaka Benson (actor) 2015; Rachael Tuodonye (actress) 2015; Ndubuisi Nwokedi (actor) 2016; Watari Sarah Jonah (actress) (2016) and Blessing Diepreye (actress) 2016.

Out of the twenty names listed above, only four are female--Betty Okotie, the veteran director--who in 1966 at the University College, Ibadan, sowed the seed that germinated and blossomed into a theatrical flower that we are all proud to celebrate its Golden Jubilee today; Miss Rachael Tuodonye--a 2015 graduate of Theatre Arts from the Niger Delta University, Wilberforce, Island, who happens to be the first Nigerian actress to star in a one-woman show (Karina's Cross) that is currently touring selected cities in Bayelsa State Nigeria; Blessing Diepreye, who has also acted Karina's Cross, and Watari Sarah Jonah, who premiered Akpos Adesi's one-woman play, Whose Daughter Am I?

The rarity or exiguity of a female soloist in a theatrical style that was launched on the nation's Arts Theatre by a woman is ironical and inexplicable. Again, the fact that it took forty nine years for another woman to emerge as a solo actress is frankly inappreciable and unimpressive. It is on this background that this study seeks to examine the factors that have undermined the pioneer effort of this woman who undisputedly laid the foundation for the growth of solo drama performance on the Nigerian Theatre scene.

Before x-raying these factors, we will start by discussing the difficulty posed by solo mimes. After that, we will attempt to trace the origin of solo drama in post-colonial Nigeria. In addition, we will briefly re-examine critical reviews centering on the French solo mime that made its debut on the Nigerian stage in 1966.

Solo Mime as an Uncommon Art Form

Mime plays are difficult to write and hard to come by, and many play directors run away from directing such plays because of the difficulties and challenges that go with realizing such productions. Since the 1957 world premiere of Acts Without Words which was directed by Samuel Beckett himself, the only other production of this play that I have read of is Betty Okotie's 1966 production at the University College, Ibadan. One is of the view that play directors run away from this play because of its complexity and its non-verbal features. It is one of Beckett's works renowned for its very scanty production records. Even after the play was adapted into a film script and directed and produced by Karel Reisz for the 2001 Beckett on Film project, this mime play is yet to become popular among contemporary play directors.

It is pertinent to mention here that Betty Okotie is not the only Nigerian theatre artistes who has gained high acclaim for her successful production of solo mime on the Nigerian stage. Femi Fatoba, a veteran Nigerian actor and theatre scholar has also, on the present researcher's request, performed his thirty minutes improvisatory solo mime, Chasing the Butterfly, the British Council's Great Talents Forum, Enugu, in 2001. This hilarious mime which centered around an old man's frantic and rigorous effort to catch and imprison an imaginary beautiful butterfly kept the British Council audience at Enugu bursting out with endless laughter. After a tedious and tactful struggle, the old man traps the butterfly in his hands, but just as he tries to throw it into an imaginary encasement, the butterfly escapes and the endless struggle is started all over again.

However, one wonders why it took 35 years after Okotie's staging of Beckett's solo mime for Femi Fatoba to embark on another fascinating mime project. The fact that Femi Fatoba's improvisatory mime was performed in 2001, thirty-five years after the first and only major mime play was formerly staged on the Nigerian stage, is a re-affirmation of the fact that it is hard to produce mime as a full-blown solo production.

Factors that Undermined Okotie's Legacy

Among artistes, it is commonly believed that it is the business of the craftsman to create, and the business of the critics and scholars to criticize, analyze, document or chronicle the impact of works of the creative artistes. In line with this school of thought, Konstantin Stanislavski once stated that "there is nothing more tedious than an actor's biography and that actors should be banned from talking about themselves." (Wikipedia: 2017)

On this very issue, the researcher begs to differ from Stanislavski's point of view. It is because the practical works of actors and directors are not carefully preserved and documented that the written works of their colleagues such as playwrights or composers have remained our only handle for studying past activities of liberal artistes. Because Directors, Actors and Dancers find it so hard to give a detailed account of their stewardship, we tend to take for granted the serious roles they play as professional artistes. Contrary to his ealier view that actors should be banned from talking about themselves, much of what we know about Stanislavski today are the things he wrote about himself and about his art. In this sub-section of our study, we will use Betty Okotie to illustrate how Nigerian Directors fail to keep record of the great works of art they produce.

Okotie as Poor Diarist or Chronicler of Her Artistic Projects

As part of the data collection for this study, we explored not only library resources but all available options on the internet such as Google search engine, Google Scholar, Wikipedia, etc., but we were unable to find relevant data on the arts of Betty Okotie or Betty Edewor. The miscellaneous information obtainable from the internet about her were reports on her role as the National Vice President/State Coordinator of the Niger Delta Women's Forum and a few social media gossips about...

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