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Legendary Ogunde: Theatre as a Vehicle for Popular Struggle

Exactly 29 years ago today, the Nigerian actor, playwright, theatre manager, and musician who founded the first contemporary professional theatrical company in Nigeria, “The African Music Research Party” in 1945, Chief Hubert Adedeji Ogunde,
(10 July 1916 -4 April 1990 )passed away in a London hospital after a brief illness.

He has been aptly described as “the father of Nigerian theatre, or the father of contemporary Yoruba theatre”

In his career on stage, he wrote more than 50 plays,most of which incorporate dramatic action, dance and music, with a story reflecting the political and social realities of the period. His first production was a church-financed play called The Garden of Eden. It premiered at Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos, in 1944. Its success encouraged Ogunde to produce more plays, and he soon left his job with the police force for a career in the theatre.

In the 1940s, he released some plays with political commentaries: The Tiger’s Empire, Strike and Hunger and Bread and Bullet. During the 1950s, he toured various Nigerian cities with his travelling troupe. In 1964, he released Yoruba Ronu, a play that generated controversy and earned him the wrath of Chief Akintola, premier of the Western Region.

Chief Hubert Ogunde

The Ogunde Theater was banned in the Western Region of Nigeria for two years as a result. This ban was only revoked by the new military government of Lt. Col. F. A. Fajuyi on the 4th of February, 1966.

In the late 1970s, Ogunde was spurred by the success of Ija Ominira and Ajani Ogun, two pioneering Yoruba feature-length films, to co-produce his first celluloid film, Aiye, in 1979. He released Jaiyesimi, Aropin N’tenia and Ayanmo, feature-length films influenced by Yoruba mysticism, thereafter.

He starred in Mister Johnson,the 1990 motion picture that also featured Pierce Brosnan (who was later to star as James Bond in some editions of Ian Fleming 007 series) . The movie was shot on location in Toro, near Bauchi, Nigeria.

Ogunde released many music albums during his career. His distinctive voice marked the songs in these albums which, like his plays and films, demonstrated knowledge of the Yoruba ethos. The albums included Ekun Oniwogbe (about the human conscience), Onimoto (about motor drivers) and Adeshewa (about the loss of his wife and co-star, who died in a tragic accident). The most popular of his albums is Yoruba Ronu, a soundtrack to the play of the same name.He produced over 90 songs in a creative life that stretched from the late 1950s to 1988. From the 1960s onwards, he produced a soundtrack album for each play.

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