Life of ENIGMATIC HUBERT OGUNDE dropping a Legacy
Ogunde was born in Ososa, near Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State, Nigeria to the family of Jeremiah and Eunice Ogunde. He had his elementary education between 1925 and 1932, attending St John School, Ososa, (1925-1928), St Peter’s School, Faaji, Lagos, (1928-1930) and Wasinmi African School, (1931-1932). As a youth, he was part of the performers of Egun Alarinjo and Daramola Atele’s traveling theatre group. After his elementary education, he worked as a teacher and part time Church choirmaster and organist before joining the Nigerian police force. Like many of his theatre contemporaries, such as A. B. David, P. A. Dawodu, Layeni and G. T. Onimole, his theatre career began under the patronage of the Church. In 1944, he produced his first folk opera, The Garden of Eden and The Throne of God commissioned by the Lagos-based Church of the Lord founded by Josiah Ositelu. The performance was in aid of the Church building fund. The huge success of the production spurred Ogunde on to writing more operas until he decided to leave his amateur status as an artist and turn professional. He founded Ogunde Theatre – the first contemporary professional company in Nigeria. By this act Ogunde began the rise of modern professional theatre in Nigeria, a movement in which he remains the supreme artist and father figure.
He is regarded as the doyen of traditional Nigerian drama.
The first play featured at Ogunde Theatre was entitled Tiger’s Empire. Premiered on 4 March 1946, Tiger’s Empire was produced by The African Music Research Party and featured Ogunde, Beatrice Oyede and Abike Taiwo. The advertisement for the play was the result of Ogunde’s call for “paid actresses”. It marked the first time in Yoruba theatre that women were billed to appear in a play as professional artists in Light in their own right. Tiger’s Empire was an attack on colonial rule. It was followed by Darkness and Light, although Ogunde does not remember writing it. This is the only play that has escaped his memory. A public outcry had been going on for a year over the growth of a “social evil” that was entering into Lagos society and corroding it. This evil was popularly known as the “Aso Ebi Craze”, which required both men and women to buy the most expensive materials for social gatherings.
The rule was that: “When someone wants to celebrate a marriage or a funeral obsequies (sic) she chooses a piece of cloth to wear on the occasion and approaches relatives and friends to buy the same stuff to wear with her as uniform on the day. The number of people to wear the uniform with her will depend on her popularity and social connections.
“The custom has lent itself to much abuse in that the occasions for celebrating marriages of funerals occur so often that one may be asked by friends to buy ‘Aso Ebi’ more than ten times a year.” This craze of course bred intense competition with celebrants trying to outshine one another. It was a competition that delighted textile traders but which often ruined marriages, as women were known to leave husbands who could not afford to robe them, for lovers who could. Ogunde decided to make his first social satirical comment by writing a play designed to expose the vulgarity and ostentatiousness of the craze. He called the play Human Parasites, a tragedy in two acts, commenting that Aso Ebi is a social evil.
Aduke who kissed and keyed a thousand lovers for the sake of Aso Ebi… what happened when boys refused to be keyed is better seen than described”
He also produced two important plays: Yoruba Ronu and Otitokoro which refer to the political events in the western Nigeria and which led to the declaration of the state of emergency in 1963. He was the most prominent of the dramatist of the folk opera. He composed over 40 operas in Yoruba. His play Yoruba Ronu (Yoruba Think) was a satirical account of the strife that plagued Yorubas in the 1960s. It was banned in western Nigeria for sometime but was produced with great success in other parts of the country.
His other plays include Darkness and Light and Mr. Devil’s Money. He used the commercial repertoire of Yoruba theatre, frequently featuring both European instrument and drums in his plays, and he married all the actresses to keep the group together. Because of his various tours, his theatre became Alarinjo, a travelling theatre.
Ogunde was a representative of Nigeria to Expo 67 in Montreal, on his way back to Nigeria, he stopped at New York and performed at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Before his death, he was appointed as the first artistic director of the National Cultural Troupe.
Personal life and legacy
Ogunde married twelve wives. The eldest of his wives; Clementina Oguntimirin later became known as Adesewa Ogunde or Mama Eko (Lagos Mama), as she was popularly known by her fans in the 1960s, after taking the leading part in the popular play of that name. She had five children for him. The two senior girls, Tokunbo and Tope, are now leading members of the company. Ogunde became the leading producer of Yoruba celluloid movies, with J’ayesinmi (Let the world rest) and Aiye (Life!) blazing the trail.
Oguntimirin died in a road accident in September 1970 en route to a scheduled performance in Ilesha. The following year, Ogunde wrote a play in her memory entitled Ayanmo. Her death was mourned throughout the country and press and mass-media coverage of her death and funeral was extensive. Ogunde died on 4 April 1990 at London’s Cromwell Hospital following a brief illness. A portrait of Ogunde hangs in the National Gallery of Modern Art, Lagos. Another of his wives, Idowu Philips is also an actress.