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Review of African Theatre Soyinka: Blackout, Blowout and Beyond


By Christine Matzke

African Theatre Soyinka: Blackout, Blowout & Beyond: Wole Soyinka’s Satirical Revue Sketches. eds. Martin Banham with Chuck Mike & Judith Greenwood. James Currey, Oxford; Africa World Press, Trenton, NJ; David Philip, Cape Town, 2005. viii + 216pp. ISBN 0-85255-595-4 (pb). £ 12.95.

Let me begin this review with a personal anecdote. More than a decade ago, whilst working as a student research assistant at Frankfurt, my professor asked me to tidy up his collection of African literature. Among the many volumes and documents which passed through my hands (and which I later recognised as treasures), was an unusually shaped square booklet with a striking geometric design, Before the Blackout, by the then already legendary Wole Soyinka with Orisun Theatre. I duly filed it, both on the shelf and in some deeper recesses of my mind, and then forgot about it. Incidentally, while going about my work, I was listening to a record found in some pile, Unlimited Liability Company (1983), which featured ear-catching tunes by Tunji Oyelana & His Benders, music and lyrics by Wole Soyinka. Years later, when watching the production of Soyinka’s The Beatification of Area Boy (1995) in Leeds, I vaguely recognised one song, yet failed to make the connection. It was the slightly altered version of Etike Revo Wetin? from that record, but it would take me another decade – and the book under review (1-2) – to find that out.

If this seems a rather roundabout introduction, I hope its relevance is about to become clear. What Martin Banham and his co-editors have done in the latest issue of African Theatre, is make again available Soyinka’s early satirical pieces – sketches, commentaries, playlets and songs – which for many years have been virtually out of circulation, except for the odd Nigerian reprint (Childe Internationale (Ibadan: Fountain Publications, 1987) from Blackout) or the occasional one-off original in some well-stocked library. Though these pieces would prove immensely formative for Soyinka's dramatic oeuvre, with the material coming full circle in his most recent plays, it needed his contemporaries and long-time collaborators to bring this link – and the material – to our attention. In the preface to the current volume Banham describes how at a 2001 Soyinka conference in Toronto he realised ‘that a whole generation of younger scholars – Nigerian and international – had no knowledge of this work in detail, only tantalisingly knowing of its presence’ (viii). (I, on the other hand, must have suffered from another form of blackout for failing to see its significance). Banham, of course, had been following the trails and interconnections from their very beginnings. In 1995, as part of the events accompanying the premiere of Beatification at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, he organised a reading of Soyinka’s dramatic works commencing with Blackout. In ‘Back to Before’, the introductory article to the current volume – an extract from his Toronto paper on stagecraft in Beatification and King Baabu (2002) – Banham illustrates how Soyinka successfully returns to the revue format and how earlier sketches and songs were incorporated into the plays. ‘Back to Before’ is the only critical piece in this collection, and sets the direction for what is to come: a wealth of semi-neglected, semi-forgotten Soyinka material from his early guerrilla theatre days; an emphasis on putting these writings into a practical, rather than theoretical, context; and new impulses for future critical readings by linking these pieces to Soyinka’s later theatre work.

This African Theatre includes the complete scripts of the previously published Before the Blackout (c. 1971), a selection of sketches from an eponymous revue by Orisun Theatre going back to the 1960s, and of The Invention, an unpublished satire produced by the Royal Court Theatre London in 1959 pillorying apartheid and the absurdities of science. Forgotten for over 45 years, the play finally saw two separate publications last year (Wole Soyinka, The Invention & The Detainee, ed. Zodwa Motsa, Unisa Press, 2005). Also included are sketches from two other periods of Soyinka’s guerrilla theatre activities, Before the Blowout in the late 1970s to early ‘80s, and Before the Deluge, a revue produced in 1991 as the outcome of the ‘Sisi Clara’ Master Workshop under the auspices of the International Theatre Institute (Nigeria Centre) which brought together some of Soyinka’s ‘old hands’ from Orisun Theatre (among them his long-standing musical collaborator, Tunji Oyelana) and newcomers to the field. Last but not least, a number of song texts have been reprinted, including my favourites by Oyelana and His Benders, together with the song that led to Etike Revo Wetin?, Green Revolution, in its Yoruba original with English translations.

There is no space here to discuss the sketches in detail, but those familiar with Soyinka’s latest plays will recognise the often side-splitting, acidly funny tone of these pieces, and their occasional bitter aftertaste. Topics range from corruption to road safety and election malpractice, from the theatrics of politics to academic interview panels (university people watch out!). More importantly, however, we are given a sense of the production process from which these sketches emerged. For one thing, several facsimiles of front covers, programmes and posters are included. Short, careful editorial comments accompany the texts, as do repeated cross-references to the few existing critical sources (too few to be collected in a separate section of ‘Further Reading’). And finally, there are three personal recollections of Soyinka at work: Joachim Fiebach with a highly amusing personal memoir of his experience as ‘a guerrilla theatre-supported person’ (70), and on Priority Project: Phase I to..., a piece from Blowout here dubbed as ‘Bottomless Pit’; Chuck Mike on Soyinka’s sketch material and the creation of an extraordinarily flexible company; and Ahmed Yerima on Soyinka’s guerrilla theatre at the University of Ife. What emerges is a picture of highly resourceful teamwork – Soyinka providing creative input and encouraging critical thinking and creative talent, the company members developing their individual skills, improvising scenes and ad-libbing dialogues, often running with an idea rather than a full-fledged script. This is perhaps best demonstrated in the production note given to the ‘Unife Theatre: Guerilla Unit ’78-79’ (81), and in the case of Riceee, a sketch from Blowout on food mismanagement, of which there only exist ‘word flash descriptions’ (136; see 137), and an account of the action (79, 136).

In his introduction to Before the Blackout Soyinka already noted that ‘mime sometimes proves the most effective way to make a pungent and immediate statement’ and that transcribing a sketch ‘is a difficulty and some have ceased to be topical’ (8). Banham et al have not calcified these texts in this reprint. Instead, they have provided us with a sense of their adaptability, fluidity and essential playfulness; and of ‘Soyinka’s fundamentally flexible, open-ended approach to art works’ (74). They have also provided another blow to those who still see Soyinka as an elitist-intellectual dramatist not in touch with ‘the people’. Where necessary, socio-political background is provided, but not in the sense of seeing these sketches as a thing of the past, but as material which still has a lot to offer for our present and future. As Chuck Mike notes with regard to a recent staging of the twenty-odd-year old Riceee: ‘the issues remain the same – the responses from the people remain the same. And Soyinka’s voice, clarion creative and consistent call for social justice – remains the same’ (79), even if the performative versions are different.

This issue of African Theatre has indeed something to offer to everyone: to the collector of textual treasures and the scholar critically engaged with Soyinka’s dramatic oeuvre; to the social and theatrical activist in search for inspiration; and to those who like me count themselves as neither of the two but are great lovers of Soyinka’s books, especially his theatrical works which – as is in the nature of things – are best in performance. I can already see myself trying out some of these sketches in class – adapted to what is currently going on in our world (including our department). It probably helps to have a nightclub in the same building, which should provide us with the right setting, audience and atmosphere. And for those who like some photographs to get a fuller picture: go to Joachim Fiebach’s Die Toten als die Macht der Lebenden (Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1986) for pictures of Soyinka’s guerrilla theatre in the early 1980s, including Green Revolution and Bottomless Pit.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 68 (2006), pp. 100-103]

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