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Obotunde Ijimere, The Phantom of Nigerian Theater

  • Oyekan Owomoyela

Wọle Ṣoyinka in his recent Myth, Literature and the African World (1976) attempts to divest himself of the reputation that some of his earlier pronouncements have earned him as a denier of the existence of a distinctive Africanity, and to shake off the foreign sympathizers who have unfairly, he claims, exploited those early positions to bolster their racist denial of an “African world.” His intention in this book is to demonstrate his belief in the “African world,” to show how it is “self-apprehended” by the true African, and to “call attention to it in living works of the imagination, placing them in the context of primal systems of apprehension of the race” (ibid.: xi-xii). The first illustration he uses for this “apprehension of the race” is “The Imprisonment of Obatala,” a play by Obotunde Ijimere (1966). This choice is startling and baffling because Obotunde Ijimere is actually Ulli Beier, a German who was actively involved with Nigerian and especially Yoruba culture from 1950 until 1967.

First Ṣoyinka's use of the play to illustrate the Yoruba world-view will be summarized. The myth of Obàtálá (the creator arch-divinity) is that while he was engaged in the creative task entrusted to him by the Supreme Deity, Olódùmarè, he became thirsty and drank some palm wine to slake his thirst. Unfortunately the effect of the wine put him to sleep. The Supreme Deity, observing the cessation in the creative process, sent Odùduwà (the ancestor of the Yoruba) to complete the task. Odùduwà did and, before Obàtálá woke up, he installed himself on the throne as the ruler of the people. Obàtálá did not forgive Odùduwà for supplanting him. Therefore, both he and his progency engaged Odùduwà and his progeny in a long contest aimed at regaining the ascendency (see Idowu, 1963: 71 ff; Adedeji, 1972). The annual observance of Obàtálá's festival at Ẹdẹ includes a mock battle recreating an aspect of Obàtálá's contest with Odùduwà, and in which the former is captured, incarcerated, and later released after the payment of a ransom (Beier, 1956; Rotimi, 1968).

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Adedeji, Joel. (1972) “Folklore and Yoruba Drama: Obatala as a Case Study,” pp. 321331 in Dorson, Richard M. (ed.) African Folklore. Garden City: Anchor Books.
Adedeji, Joel. (1973) “The Literature of the Yoruba Opera,” pp. 5577 in Ballard, W. L. (ed.) Essays on African Literature. Spectrum: Monograph Series in the Arts and Sciences III (June).
Beier, Ulli. (1956) “Obatala Festival.” Nigeria Magazine 52: 1028.
Beier, Ulli. (ed.) (1967) Three Nigerian Plays. London: Longmans.
Herdeck, Donald E. (1973) African Authors, A Companion to Black African Writing, Volume I: 1300–1973. Washington, D.C.: Black Orpheus Press.
Idowu, E. Bolaji. (1963) Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief. New York: Frederick A. Praeger.
Ijimere, Obotunde. (1966) The Imprisonment of Obatala and Other Plays. London: Heinemann.
Ijimere, Obotunde. (n.d.) “Introduction” in Theatre Express Playbill.
Jahn, Janheinz, and Dressler, Claus Peter. (1971) Bibliography of Creative African Writing. Nendeln: Kraus-Thomson Organization.
Jahn, Janheinz, and Dressler, Claus Peter. 'Schild, Ulla, and Nordmann, Almut. (1972) Who's Who in African Literature. Tubingen: Horst Erdmann Verlag.
Ladipo, Duro. (1964) Three Yoruba Plays. Ibadan: Mbari Publications.
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Maclean, Una. (1964) “Soyinka's International Drama.” Black Orpheus 15: 4651.
Owomoyela, Oyekan. (1970) “Folklore and the Rise of Theater Among the Yoruba.” Ph.D. Dissertation. Los Angeles: University of California.
Owomoyela, Oyekan. Review of Ballard, W. L. (ed.) (1973) Essays on African Literature. Research in African Literatures 5, 2: 284289.
Soyinka, Wole. (1966) “And After the Narcissist?African Forum I, 4 (Spring): 5364.
Soyinka, Wole. (1976) Myth, Literature and the African World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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African Studies Review
  • ISSN: 0002-0206
  • EISSN: 1555-2462
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