Olawale Gladstone Emmanuel Rotimi, popularly known as Ola Rotimi, was one of Nigeria’s Outstanding Playwrights and Theatre Directors. He was such a profound actor who is well known today for his popular piece of literature titled ‘The gods are not to blame”. As a brilliant playwright, he published short stories and critical articles on the African Theatre.
Ola Rotimi was born on the 13th of April 1938 and died on the 18th of August 2000 at the age of 62.
His father, Samuel Enitan Rotimi, was a Steam-Launch Engineer from the Yoruba ethnic group of Western Nigeria, and his mother, Dorcas Oruene, was an Ijo from Nembe in Eastern Nigeria. The young boy grew up learning four of the three hundred full-blooded languages spoken in Nigeria, as well as English, the administrative language of the country.
The Rotimis were interested in the arts: Ola‘s mother excelled in traditional dance and managed her own dance group from 1945 to 1949. His father often wrote and recited, and he organized the community theater in Port Harcourt where Ola grew up.
Ola‘s uncle, Chief Robert Dede, was the lead performer in a traditional dance troupe called a masquerade. Dede and his dancers, dressed in elaborate costumes, danced, sang, and acted in what was one of the most spectacular of such troupes in Rivers State. The young boy first appeared on stage at the age of four in a play directed and produced by his father.
The late playwright attended the Methodist Boys High School in the capital city of Lagos from 1952 to 1956, during which time he earned the nicknames “Shakespeare incarnate” and “the Poet” for his writing. On a scholarship from the Nigerian government, Rotimi studied theater at Boston University, and from 1963 to 1966 he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in playwriting and dramatic literature at Yale University on a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship.
His socio-political comedy “Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again” was chosen Yale‘s student play of the year in 1966.
Upon returning to Nigeria in the 1960s, Rotimi taught at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), where he founded the Ori Olokun Acting Company, and Port Harcourt; owing, in part, to the political conditions in Nigeria. Some of his works were broadcast on Nigerian radio and published in institutional magazines.
Ola Rotimi often examined Nigeria’s history and local traditions in his works. His first plays, “To Stir the God of Iron” and “Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again” (produced 1966; published 1977), were staged at the drama schools of Boston University and Yale, respectively. He served as the Head of Department of Creative Arts at the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria; He also served as a Visiting Professor, a Playwright, and a Director in Germany and Italy, as well as at DePauw University and Wabash University.
The late actor strived to achieve what he called “Total Theatre”. Rotimi extended the boundaries of Traditional Western Theatre by embracing dance, mime, music, and song, as well as the ritual aspect of traditional African life because he believes that theater should be a medium of the people. Rotimi elicited audience participation by targeting his audience and the literate minority who speak English (i.e. those who determine the social course of the nation).
Ola Rotimi won several awards and wrote several award-winning books and essays. Some of his literature include; To Stir the God of Iron, The Gods Are Not to Blame, Ovoranwen Nogbaisi: A Historical Tragedy, Ethiope Publishing Corporation 1974, Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, Oxford University Press Nigeria 1977, A Tragedy of the Ruled 1983, Everyone His/Her Own Problems, 1986, Hopes of the Living Dead, Spectrum Books, 1988, Kurunmi, University Press Limited, 1989, To Be or to Become 1991 and many others.
His dream of directing a play of 5000 cast members materialised at the Amphi Africa Theater when he was being put to rest as the crowd was drawn to a manuscript of the day’s programme outline. People made dramatic entry and exit to the stage around his casket with the man turning his casket.
Before he passed on he spent quality time reworking on two of his plays – “Man Talk, Woman Talk” and “Tororo, Tororo, Roro” – and the result, unpublished at the time of his death, has now been published under the title The Epilogue. The two plays were probably meant as an epilogue to both Rotimi’s theatrical and comic careers, which spans the entire spectrum of his career.
Ola Rotimi spent much of the 1990s living in the Caribbean and the United States, where he taught at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 2000, he returned to Ile-Ife, joining the faculty of Obafemi Awolowo University where he lectured till his demise.
Olawale Gladstone Emmanuel Rotimi, 15 years on, your works still live after you.
On behalf of the Yoruba people, both at home and abroad, we say Continue to Rest in Peace.