Isaac Ogezi is a dramatist and winner of the Society of Nigeria Theatre Artists (SONTA), that is, Olu Obafemi Playwriting Prize in the unpublished category in 2016. In this interview, Ogezi speaks on the solitary confinement which his parents subjected him to as a child which eventually spurred him into writing.
What inspired you into writing, especially writing plays?
The therapeutic nature of literature inspired my taking to writing. As a young boy in my early teens, works by other writers had a medicinal effect on me by helping me survive this cruel world. I grew up into a home where poverty was pervasive.
The world of the creative imagination as encapsulated in books was a safer haven than the real world. I saw myself as another Njoroge in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s ‘Weep Not, Child’, who saw education as the only hope in becoming great in life. In my own case, I saw literature as a form of escape from a world daily at war with itself.
Becoming a writer was a matter of fait accompli for me. I told myself that from this writing that I derived the stamina to survive a cruel world, I will love to give back to it in appreciation. My writing traverses all genres of literature.
If playwriting is more predominant in my writing, it’s because of the power I saw in it. Admittedly, literature cannot shoot a gun, but the genre that comes close to shooting a gun is drama as a result of its immediacy and the ability to hit it where it matters most. Eugene O’Neil’s controversial play, ‘All God’s Chillun Got Wings’, was greeted with a national uproar and a demonstration in the US, and coming closer home, Ngugi wa Thiong’o was imprisoned without trial for the public performances of his plays, ‘The Trial of Dedan Kimathi’ (co-authored by Micere Githae Mugo) and ‘I Will Marry When I Want’ (co-authored by Ngugi wa Mirii).
How did you feel when you were announced as winner of the award?
SONTA/Olu Obafemi Prize for playwriting is a yearly prize for outstanding unpublished plays. It was endowed by Prof. Olu Obafemi, a theatre arts scholar, one-time President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and a fellow of SONTA. It is aimed at showcasing new promising playwrights to the wider society.
The maiden edition was won in 2015 by Nwagbo Patrick Obi with his play, ‘When women Go Naked’. Of course, I felt encouraged when my unpublished play, ‘The Sandcastle’, was adjudged the best during the 2016 annual conference of SONTA in Akwa Ibom, Anambra states. I have also won a couple of other awards such as the ANA/Esiaba Irobi Prize for Playwriting of the ANA three times, AWF/Zulu Sofola Award for Drama, to mention but a few.
What do you have to say about SONTA and these awards they started?
SONTA is the umbrella body of theatre scholars across tertiary institutions in Nigeria. It was established to promote theatre scholarship and practice in Nigeria. SONTA’s worthy impacts to the society are robust. As part of its aims and objectives in taking performance arts to greater heights, it instituted in 2015 some annual awards aimed at encouraging Nigerian artists home and abroad.
These awards include SONTA/Olu Obafemi Prize for Playwriting (for unpublished plays), SON TA/Chris Iyimoga Master Playwright Prize (for published plays), SONTA/ Chris Iyimoga Dance Libretto Prize, and SONTA/Chris Iyimoga Art Music Prize, among others. This is a laudable achievement in the right direction that needs to be heavily supported. The awards of this nature need funds for sustainability. This is where donor agencies, private philanthropists and the government need to rally round to support this initiative.
What genre of play do you prefer to write?
As a writer, I feel some literary kinship with the Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen. He wrote straight from his heart without bothering himself about propounding any theory or founding any school. I am wary of pigeon-holing of any kind because of its attendant limitations or constrictions it places on a writer.
The creative imagination is a dangerous thing that cannot be predicted. So, the more unfettered it is allowed, the better. However, it is better for a practitioner of any field in life to be well acquainted with the different schools, trends Ogezi and genres in that field if he wants to go far. It is when you know the rules and theories, then master them, that you can break them with success.
I have written plays that borrowed from schools of realism, naturalism, expressionism, absurdism and historicism. My first published play, ‘Waiting for Savon’ (2009) is a hybrid of the Theatre of the Absurd and history. Subsequent plays like ‘Casket of Her Dreams’, ‘Under a Darkling Sky’ and ‘Embrace of a Leper’ dwell on naturalism and realism which I feel my audience relates more with than the abstractions in expressionism and the theatre of the absurd.
In effect, I write plays that are realistic or naturalistic in nature not because I prefer plays of realist mould, but because I am conscious of my audience. Ola Rotimi once said in an interview that most of his plays were action-packed because that was what the Nigerian audience wanted rather than complex experimentations in forms or styles like metatheatre or absurdism.
Who is your role model in your writing career?
Eclecticism in arts will never allow a writer to be obsessed with only one role model. In consequence, I cannot point at a single writer or individual as my role model because there are so many, both among the dead and the living. I admire William Shakespeare for his engaging plots and sublime poetry in his plays, but when I need modern treatment of ideas and the retrospective look at a character’s psyche, I turn to Henrik Ibsen.
Credit must also be given to the American playwright, Eugene O’Neil, for introducing raw animal emotions into the theatre without degenerating into melodrama in plays such as ‘Desire under the Elms’ and ‘Mourning Becomes Electra’. Other masters which I find influential include Williams Thomas Tennessee, Arthur Miller, Bertolt Brecht, Anton Chekhov, Wole Soyinka, and Athol Fugard, among others.
What is your future plan in your writing career?
I do not like talking about my future plans in public. As a dramatist, I like keeping people in suspense about myself in order not to blunt the keen-knife edge of suspense. What are the challenges you are having in your writing career? Challenges are like the word ‘impossibility’, and are meant to be surmounted.
That notwithstanding, the greatest challenge I face daily in my writing career is the noisy environment I operate in. Nigerians are generally noisy people who do not care a hoot about the other person’s right to a noise-free society. Perhaps that is a glaring index of underdevelopment such that many of our people will feel out of place in developed nations. Secondly, the near absence of professional theatre companies is a crippling challenge to the playwright’s career.
The market for scripts is largely limited to book publishing with only a handful of theatre companies in existence. It is so sad that the only place our theatre now thrives is at the universities. This is an anomaly which must be corrected for us to have a thriving theatre that could come close to theatres on the Broadway in the United States.
You made some comments in passing about your parents. What kind of parental care did you pass through while growing up?
I was born in Kafachan, Kaduna State. One interesting thing is that my parents appeared to have conspired with destiny to make a writer out of me. My father was a very strict disciplinarian. My siblings and I lived like inmates in solitary confinement. As a little child, I found this life of forced loneliness oppressive.
However it ended up being what prepared me for a writer’s life. It was really a life of solitude. It is the life I live now as an adult. My mother, a great African woman, she never turned down any request for money I made to buy whatever book I wanted.
In fact, at the age of fifteen, I had a library which I believe no child of my age had in Keffi at the time. This gave me the advantage to pursue my purpose in life on time. In 1991 I wrote my first poem titled ‘Her Dimpled Smile’. Currently, I combine law practice and writing in Keffi.
- Obi is of the National Institute for Cultural Orientation, Abuja